Inside Children’s Homes forum discussion with Dr Joanna Penglase
Dr Joanna Penglase, Care Leavers Australia Network (CLAN), 14 February 2012
JAY ARTHUR: Good morning and welcome to the National Museum of Australia and this very special event associated with the Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions Project. My name is Jay Arthur and I’m one of the curatorial team that worked on this exhibition. The exhibition was promised in the National Apology to the Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants in 2009 and was funded from the government to produce this exhibition.
Today, it will be our privilege to hear stories from those who have experienced a particular history - that of a childhood spent all or in part in children’s homes and institutions. They have lived the history that has been left out of the stories that we tell about ourselves as Australians. The Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions exhibition and blog is part of the process of bringing these histories of life in homes into the national narrative where they belong. This forum is also part of that process.
Our forum today will begin with an address by our special guest speaker Dr Joanna Penglase. That will be followed by a conversation and questions with Joanna. Morning tea will then be provided back in the Main Hall and following morning tea there will be a panel of distinguished child migrants, care leavers and Forgotten Australians to lead our discussion.
I would now like to introduce Dr Joanna Penglase, a central figure in the recognition of this hidden history. Joanna is the co-founder of CLAN, Care Leavers of Australia Network, and the author of Orphans of the Living: Growing Up in Care in 20th Century Australia. As one of the curators on this exhibition, this book was never far from our side. In fact, we just referred to in the end as ‘the bible’. She was also a contributor to the recently published Surviving Care: Achieving Justice and Healing for the Forgotten Australians. Joanna, who grew up in a children’s home in Sydney, previously had a long career in documentary television. She currently works as an editor, writer and researcher, as well as conducting interviews for the National Library’s Forgotten Australians Oral History Project. Please welcome Dr Joanna Penglase. [applause]
Dr JOANNA PENGLASE: I feel quite overwhelmed and really thrilled - I can’t tell you how exciting this is. It is coming on for 22 years since I first started researching this history, and I had no idea that today we would be in our National Museum with so many people talking about it, hearing about it and knowing about it - that’s the amazing point about this. I would like to begin by thanking so much the National Museum of Australia for mounting the exhibition and for holding this forum. Everybody who was involved in all the hard work both for the exhibition and for getting the forum up, thank you very much.
I particularly welcome the opportunity to talk about the origins of the uncovering of our history, which is quite recent really, even though we who lived it always knew it. At least we knew it for ourselves. We knew what had happened to us. But we never found it in any history book or any account anywhere.
Just very quickly, I’ll give you a tiny bit of personal stuff and then I want to move on to the broader story. As Jay said, I was in a home in Sydney from the age of eight months in 1945. It was all my mother could do. She had been left by my father with three little children under three and, like thousands of parents across Australia, she had so few options. What do you do? You put the children in a home. My home, as I later discovered through my own research, was much better than many homes. That’s not the story I’m here to tell today except I was very lucky. Unlike many children in homes, I got a good education. The way I survived in the home was to put my head down and be very good, and I loved reading. I had the opportunity to read, I had excellent teachers at school and I won scholarships to university. So I was able to have that wonderful privilege of a good education, which I suppose is what eventually has brought me here today, along with many other factors.
Jumping ahead, in 1990 I found myself at Macquarie University in Sydney researching an MA, which became a PhD very quickly, only because I realised it was such a huge topic that it had to get bigger and bigger. What was the topic? I started off saying, ‘I want to understand what happened to me as a child growing up in a home.’ Like everybody who grew up in a home, who had this history, who was fostered, who was in care, it had been with me all my life. But it finally came home to me that I had to do something to understand - what exactly I didn’t really know, but I had to do something to understand.
When I had my own daughter and when she was eight months old I realised that, if she had lost me at that age, the sun would have gone out in her world. I was her mum. I had never realised that about myself. [crying] I’m sorry. I didn’t expect to break up. It was a very important moment for me to realise that babies of eight months old, contrary to popular belief when I was a child - babies know, babies remember, babies relate. The theory calls it attachment but, quite apart from the theory, babies relate to their mother and to other people. That really got me going.
It was eight years later that I found myself at Macquarie University. I wanted to do this thesis and I couldn’t find anywhere to research it. Try to put yourself back 20-odd years, nobody talked about it. It wasn’t written anywhere. The few books on histories of social welfare didn’t talk about kids in homes. If ever it was anywhere, it was at orphanages. Everyone knows about orphanages. Yes, fine, but nothing about the orphanages. And why orphanages, why were kids in homes? But it was never even discussed. It’s almost like it was so obvious that there was nothing to talk about. So I couldn’t find anything to talk about or to research. I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ I was really in the dark. A lot of feelings about it, of course, as well.
What am I trying to understand? And like a lot of people from my background, care leavers, care survivors, probably the question I really wanted to ask was: ‘why did my parents not want me?’, which children feel in that situation. It was almost always not true. Parents wanted their children. They couldn’t afford to keep them. They didn’t have the resources. But children can only think about things in their own way, which of course is limited to their own perspective of those years.
I knew that my home was licensed. How did I know that? It was licensed by the Child Welfare Department. It was a section 28 home. I knew it because I used to help my carers fill out the forms that had to be filled out for that highly bureaucratised Child Welfare Department of New South Wales.
I can still see the forms and the schedule. I can’t remember the schedule number but I do remember section 28 - these foolscap forms and then there was a smaller, probably an A5, form. Every child had their own details on the smaller form and on the larger form, and then there was a register of children in, children out. I helped fill out all of those things so I knew that the home had been licensed.
So I thought, ‘The answer must be in the archives of the Child Welfare Department.’ I got permission to go there and I tried to start. There was almost nothing in the list that I got saying what you could look at. It didn’t say ‘children’s homes’ and then a list of - I couldn’t understand it. Finally I located six little boxes, smaller than packing boxes that you get when you’re packing to move - that was interesting. In those boxes there were a few files about children’s homes which had failed compliance with the regulations. So I got some ideas, ‘Here’s a home here and here’s a home there,’ but it didn’t add up to anything.
So what did I do? Well, as Jay said, I worked in documentary television. That has been my other working life. I was a researcher and an interviewer for documentaries for the ABC and then later I was freelancing. When you’re researching a documentary, you don’t go to books, you go to people. You find experts or you find people who have lived the experience, so that’s when my own working history came to my rescue. I thought, ‘I have to talk to people. I have to find people.’ Now remember I didn’t know how many or if there were other people out there. I didn’t know other people who had grown up in homes. Obviously, there were children in the homes contained in the files in the boxes but they weren’t named children, they weren’t people, they were ‘a child’ or whatever. But I had no idea of the extent - none at all.
Yesterday I was in the State Library of New South Wales. They have a wonderful exhibition which is commemorating 100 years of the Australian Antarctic Expedition, Mawson’s expedition. At the beginning there are some ancient maps, and on the ancient maps Antarctica is Terra Incognita, unknown territory, unknown land. That was our history. It was an unknown land. It seems amazing 20 years down the track when we know what we’re talking about - we didn’t know.
When we started CLAN in 2000, which I’ll come to in a minute, we used to talk to journalists. They didn’t know. People did not know about homes. Yet anybody of my age in their 60s, 50s and even 40s must have known there were homes in their neighbourhood. Nobody talked about it. It was an unknown land, an unknown history.
So I advertised. I put ads in 21 suburban newspapers and I wrote to every country newspaper in New South Wales. There were about 151 newspapers in country New South Wales. My thesis was about New South Wales. I thought, ‘I hope I get some answers.’ This is before the Internet, before call waiting, before email, before mobile phones – we just had telephones basically and the post. Well, I put my address and my phone number. The phone did not stop ringing from day to night. It rang, it rang and it rang, and people talked to me for two hours at a time. I took down people’s numbers and rang them back. It was an amazing experience. So many people said, ‘How come you want to know about this? Nobody ever talks about it.’ A lot of them would not speak to me until I said, ‘I was in a home too,’ and then it was ‘Oh, all right. You’ll understand.’
The most wonderful thing about talking to people was not only hearing the histories - that was wonderful and terrible, moving, upsetting – but I started to find out where the homes were. Remember, we didn’t have any of those guides to homes which every state now has. That was a later development. People would say, ‘I was in a Salvation Army Girls Home and my brother was in the boys Home.’ I would say, ‘You weren’t in the same home?’ ‘Oh, no. There was a girls home and a boys home. I didn’t see my brother again for four years.’
I was finding out the practices of the homes. It was amazing. It was like charting that unknown country, and I could put a home here, a home there, a home there, there was another one there - all over New South Wales there were these homes. Quite a few were in the country. I found out about those ones. That was part of drawing up and charting this history. I was going to keep advertising and then I realised I was hearing the same story. Of course, everyone’s history was unique, but the reasons for going into a home, what happened when you got there - how you were treated, the punishments, the food, the routines, the schooling, the everything - were so similar you would swear there was a handbook. Yet most of the homes didn’t talk to each other. It was more like a gulag. It wasn’t a system, which implies a central agency, and that was what I tried to explain in my book. It’s so hard to understand.
So I thought, ‘All right, I’ve got a lot of histories now.’ I ended up with 90 complete histories for my thesis, because quite a few people couldn’t continue talking to me. They said they’d ring me back and they never rang back. They wrote; I wrote back; they didn’t reply. So I got a lot more than 90, but in the end I had 90 complete histories. I completed my thesis.
One of the people I met through my thesis was a woman called Leonie Sheedy who had been in a home in Geelong. My thesis was in New South Wales. Geelong is in Victoria. She’d been in a Catholic home. I remembered Leonie however, even though we had had only a brief conversation, because she was the only one who said, ‘How come nobody is talking about this? How come we never hear about it? Why isn’t it known?’
I had enough to cope with - I hadn’t even got that far to thinking like that. But after I’d finished my thesis and submitted it, I remembered Leonie. Geraldine Doogue from the ABC’s Life Matters program wanted to interview me because here was a new topic. ‘Oh, we haven’t heard about this on Life Matters, this is a national program. Let’s hear about it.’ I looked through my files and I thought, ‘Who was that woman?’ I remembered her name because I could look her up in my files. If you’ve met Leonie, who could best be described as a force of nature, you would know why I remembered her name. I rang Leonie and I said, ‘Remember you said nobody ever talks about it. Tomorrow I’m talking on Radio National.’ So that was the first time probably it was talked about in this way as a history that has not been talked about before.
To cut a long story short, Leonie and I did a few things together. She had interviews lined up. Leonie has never stopped. And other people can tell you there were always people and movements, people trying to get recognition.
But somehow this was a very serendipitous series of events: I did my thesis; I met Leonie; and we started CLAN, Care Leavers Australia Network. I would never have dared to start a support group. But I remember the day, it was 1 July 2000, a bitterly cold day, when Leonie turned to me and said, ‘Let’s start a support group of our own.’ We’d been to some meeting and tried to negotiate with some other people, but Leonie said, ‘No, let’s do it ourselves.’ So we did.
We were lucky: we got a big article in the ‘Good Weekend’ of the Sydney Morning Herald called ‘The anguish of being left’. That journalist Nikki Barraclough interviewed us, and she really ‘got it.’ That became the phrase: ‘She gets it. He gets it.’ It took us a long time. All of us know that it’s quite hard still to get through to people, even though we’re light years ahead of where we were when I started. I would like to pay tribute to Nikki Barraclough, that journalist, because she really understood it was about being left and left in such places.
We then had our first public meeting. We had that article and the next week we had our first public meeting. And over 200 people, probably close to 300, came to the Exodus Foundation in Ashfield - the wonderful Reverend Bill Crews, who supported us from the beginning. And in that church, of all places, people came. I say that because many people have had awful experiences at the hands of religious bodies, despite their best intentions. People came to that church to that public meeting, and they cried and they talked. Many of them had never talked about it before. Their husband didn’t know; their wife didn’t know; they’d never told their children. A couple of women said, ‘I can’t read or write but I’ve never told anyone that. I’m so ashamed.’
So it went, and so CLAN grew. Very soon after that, Leonie said to me, ‘There’s a Senate inquiry into child migration. They’re having hearings in Sydney. We have to go and tell those senators about us. We were in the same homes as child migrants. We were in the same homes as Aboriginal children. Nobody seems to know about us though.’ I remember that Wayne Chamley from Broken Rites Australia in Melbourne was very supportive here drawing up a form letter. We circulated that form letter, sending it to the committee in Canberra saying, ‘Please can we have a hearing.’ I wrote a submission from CLAN: ‘Please can we have a hearing at the Senate inquiry hearings in Sydney.’ They said yes, even though they had to turn down a lot of people who wanted to come.
That was in February or March 2001 - 11 years ago. We went along; we were so nervous. Those five senators looked at us expectantly, and we told them. It was extraordinary. They were glued to us. They didn’t know the history. They kept asking these questions. I remember three in particular: Senator Rosemary Crowley, Senator Sue Knowles and Senator Andrew Murray from the Democrats. There were two others, but those three must have been the ones who asked all the questions. Senator Murray, a Democrat from Western Australia, kept asking, ‘But how many people - thousands’ - we looked at each other – ‘tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands’. That’s how little we knew then. We were so high by the end of the day. We were so excited, because that was an experience so unusual. We were heard. They listened. They believed us. That’s what we’re so used to not having - being believed.
That was in the February or March 11 years ago and now here we are today in our National Museum, and we all know what we’re talking about - and so do a lot of other Australians. What a short way to come in 11 years, yet what a very long journey and how many wonderful people have been involved in it.
Senator Murray’s policy advisor, Dr Marilyn Rock, rang Leonie in January 2002 in our CLAN office, which is her back room in her home, and said, ‘Senator Murray is determined to get up the third inquiry in the trilogy. We’ve had the stolen generation inquiry; we’ve had the child migrant inquiry; we will now have children in institutionalised care.’ And he said, “Will you help us? Will you help me get that inquiry up?”’ Would we help him? With bells on! We did work tirelessly, and other people joined in. But CLAN really just laboured away, going to see all the possible politicians who could put in a vote for yes, let this inquiry pass through the Parliament. It passed through the Parliament in March 2003.
And so we had our inquiry. It reported 30 August 2004, a wonderful day. All of us who were there have an absolutely indelible memory of it. The senators crying as they delivered the report; we were crying. What I remember also is that we were cheering the senators, and the parliamentary staff in the gallery just smiled and didn’t chuck us out, which they are meant to do if you say anything when you are in the gallery.
We got our inquiry and then we got 15 months waiting for the response from the Howard Liberal government. When the response came in November 2005, basically the government said, ‘We feel for you but we are not going to do anything. It’s nothing to do with us. We urge the states to do something.’
This is important to remember. This is part of our history. They did do one recommendation, I think it was No. 20, a summit meeting which set up AFA, the Alliance of Forgotten Australians. That was the one thing. All the other things came about when the Labor government got in in 2007, and following that. I do want to acknowledge that. We got our apology; we got the Find and Connect service; we got the National Library Oral History project; we got recognition; and we got this exhibition. All of those were recommendations. We now have a package to go into schools for history where students can learn about Forgotten Australians in history. All of that had happened since 2007. That is something to really celebrate. Again, what a short time all of that happened in.
One thing I want to note here, because it’s very important, is that this is a history retrieved through oral testament. It’s a true oral history. Our history is being recovered and has been recovered through people telling their stories, not because anybody thought, ‘This is something that should go into a chapter in a history book.’ We need to remember there are lots of historical events that are still history even though they’re not written down. The histories of trauma are the ones possibly least likely to end up in the history books unless people outside the survivors take an interest. And people have not taken an interest in us, in the past. That is why it’s very important to keep that point in mind.
Survivors of trauma tend to be powerless and voiceless because of what’s happened to them. It’s difficult for them to champion their own course. I’m particularly moved by the fact that it’s through our own stories that we have recovered our history. It started when I started talking to those people on the phone all those years ago, and then CLAN has collected histories ever since we began. CLAN has thousands of personal histories, and any organisation now who helps survivors of care, and they are now in every state, is collecting those histories. So nobody can now say, particularly since it’s on the public record in our inquiry, that they don’t know what we’re talking about, which was the commonest thing I heard when I first started my research. Maybe that’s a good place to stop. Thank you. [applause]
JAY ARTHUR: Thank you, Joanna, for that moving and very powerful account of a remarkable journey. We’re all in debt to you and all those who work with you. You’ll be pleased to know that Joanna’s book will be on sale in the bookshop at the morning tea break and, even more importantly, Joanna will be signing those copies.
JOANNA PENGLASE: Excuse me just for a second, Jay: can I just say that it’s not an academic book. I wrote it with a purpose. It came after the Senate inquiry so it’s about Australia wide. I thought, who is this book for? It’s for anybody who might pick up a newspaper following the inquiry and think, ‘How could that have happened? That’s terrible, but that really doesn’t make sense. In Australia we don’t treat children like that.’ So it’s written in a very accessible way. Don’t feel it’s going to be in an academic tome full of jargon, because it’s not.
JAY ARTHUR: I’d now like to introduce Adele Chynoweth. Adele was one of the curatorial team working with us on the exhibition and she is also responsible for our remarkably successful Inside blog, which is another way in which stories are brought into history, and without history there could be no justice. [applause]
ADELE CHYNOWETH: Thank you so much, Joanna. I’m not going to wish everyone a happy Valentine’s Day. It’s not because I’m a Valentine’s Day scrooge but if there’s one thing that this chapter of history teaches us it is the consequences of us limiting our love, compassion and attention within solely the romantic economy, and how important it is for us to be aware of what happens beyond our domestic arena. I’m really glad we’re holding the forum on this day because it’s a reminder of perhaps how we need to broaden as a community, as a culture, our love and attention.
Welcome again, Joanna, and thank you so much. You talk about the importance of oral history and your book is fantastic with that. But with your book - which I read over one Christmas when I was back interstate visiting my family and my mother said, ‘It’s beautiful weather. It’s the Christmas holidays. Why aren’t you outside?’ I said, ‘I can’t put this book down’ - you do so much more than report on people’s personal narratives. What Orphans of the Living does is give a sociological framework - you explain the how and the why it happened. Do you want to talk about what you learned about policies and governments, that fantastic and really important informative cultural backdrop that’s in your book?
JOANNA PENGLASE: I feel you can never understand people’s experiences unless you look at the context. It was so puzzling. And remember that was the question I started out with: How did this happen to me? How did that home come to be licensed? Meaning, how did homes exist that didn’t really seem to be tailored to children’s needs? Then you’ve got to go out, out, out. I looked at my own mother’s experience with my father leaving her with three little kids - all right, what was available? That was the time when the family was a very private entity. If families broke down or broke up - it’s interesting how you can say both broke down and broke up - there was so little to help people, whether they were men or women left with children.
If you didn’t have two parents, a breadwinner and a homemaker, it was very difficult unless you had disposable money. So children in a similar situation to mine where there was a bit of extra money would have been sent to boarding school - pretty draconian but at least you knew your family and you weren’t separated from your family or your siblings. At least you knew you could go home for holidays and you knew you had a family. Or you could have a housekeeper or live-in whatever.
But if not the only solution really - there was no supporting parent’s pension obviously. All of that changed in the 1970s. I think it’s part of our history. There’s an institutional tradition both in religious practice and also in Britain, which is our own original white settlement history in Australia - I think you have to look at that. You put the marginalised into an institution, into a box, away from the community where they can’t bother other people.
What is very puzzling is how very vulnerable children could be regarded in this light, children who, you would think, would be most in need of extra care. Yet it seemed to go the other way. Children were stigmatised by their parents’ failure. For big complex of homes I read the admission files and arrears of maintenance files, because parents paid for their kids to be in a home. There were these extremely pejorative, judgmental statements about ‘The father’s a no-hoper. The mother likes a drink,’ or that sort of thing. If your family broke down or broke up, it was your fault. So there was little allowance for structural misfortune such as unemployment, poverty, illness, mental illness or tragedy in lives. It’s a harrowing history. We will probably never hear the parents’ histories.
My poor mother who I did know because she used to visit us – I didn’t know my father - died far too young, ostensibly of lung cancer and I think of a broken heart because she lost her little girls. She didn’t grow up with us; she didn’t grow us up. There was nothing out there for parents in this situation, and I think we have to always keep that in mind. It is anachronistic to look back and say, ‘People should have’ - people also thought differently about children. It was a very different time. Corporal punishment was a part of school discipline, and so on and so forth.
But what you have in homes is a dimension of cruelty and neglect that is very difficult to explain. When we first started CLAN and people would try to win people over, they’d say, ‘Oh, people thought differently about children then.’ Yes, they did but nobody ever thought it was OK to rape children, or to flog them until they bled, or to lock them up in dark cupboards under the stairs, or to deprive them of food, or to tell them that nobody loves them and that’s why they were in a home, or even to tell them that their parent was dead - that was never standard practice. I would say to people, ‘Well, I think the people who worked in the homes would never have thought that was good enough care for their children.’ That’s something I never ever was really able to explain. I don’t call it child abuse; I call it cruelty.
The sexual abuse as it’s called, which is a very clinical term, I call it sexual usage. Children in homes could be a commodity to be used in any way that people wanted to use them. That goes again to the lack of transparency in the way homes were run, the lack of resourcing because it was not a priority and another strange thing, which is something about trusting in the good will - very dangerous. Charity does tend to go in that direction. It’s very dangerous to trust in people’s good will to deliver good. Any child whose wellbeing depends on somebody else’s good will is in a very dark place, because then it’s completely arbitrary whether they’re well treated or badly treated. But there was no perception, it seems to me, that adults could do wrong by children or, if there was, people turned a blind eye to it. And that’s about attitude, something else I tried to explain.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: Thanks, Joanna. I think that’s a really important distinction, the distinction between corporal punishment and crimes against children. If you were asked to write the foreword for Orphans of the Living for, say, a 2012 edition, what would you want to say? What are the issues or concerns or your point of view now given the journey that you talked about earlier?
JOANNA PENGLASE: I’d firstly want to celebrate how far we’ve come, because it is something to celebrate. I’d acknowledge all the people who have contributed to that, even if one couldn’t do it by name. I would also like to say how much there still is to do. Personally, I think we need much greater recognition in mainstream history. What we do to children, how we behave towards children and the policies we have, I think are a reflection of the type of society. The Senate inquiry used a quote from Nelson Mandela at the beginning of the Forgotten Australians report: ‘Any nation that does not care for all its children does not deserve the name of a nation.’
Without making judgments about it, I think just from the sociological perspective when you look at how we think about children, what do we want for children? So if you look at this era of my childhood, that tells us something about our Australian society, and I would like to see history taught in that way. I’d like to see our history in the history books as these are the attitudes in social welfare at this time in Australia’s history. What was happening? Why were people thinking like this? What could have been the feeders to this way of thinking?
But there is still very lamentably a tendency to ghettoise children’s history - what happened to children. I’ll tell you a story. When my book came out in 2005, the publishers, Curtin University Books and Freemantle Press, were very keen to have me interviewed to talk about it. They circularised everybody. Did anyone want to review it? Did anyone want to talk to me? No. Eventually I thought, ‘Look, I listen to Margaret Throsby on ABC Radio National every day. I’m going to ring up Margaret. I’m sure she would interested.’ I couldn’t get past her producer who said to me, ‘Nobody would be interested in that, only social workers. Sorry.’ [laughs] I tried to get through to him. I said, ‘This throws light on the Stolen Generation history as well. All kids in this marginalized situation for whatever reason - child migrants, Aboriginal, white children - what’s so amazing is they all ended up being treated very similarly, wrenched from parents, stuck in substandard care, neglected. To go back to what I said before, couldn’t get it, didn’t want to get it, was quite rude to me. I’m going to put that on the record. I was really upset about that.
One person wanted to interview me - Bert Newton on Good Morning Australia. [laughter] They flew me to Melbourne. ‘When I was a little boy I used to walk past a children’s home in Melbourne with my mum and I’d say, “Mum, what happens in there?” And she’d say, “I don’t know, dear.’’ And he said, “I thought if I read your book I’d find out.” So he did and he interviewed me. Now that was terrific. That really made up for a lot, because that reached a lot of people.
I hoped that it reached a lot of care leavers watching that program who at least could feel, as so many people did. Once we started talking - this has been the great and wonderful thing - the number of people who have said, ‘I don’t feel alone anymore. Oh, you’ve explained that it wasn’t my fault. Now I understand that it wasn’t my fault.’ People have written to me via CLAN and said, ‘Thank you for your book. It changed my life because it made me realise it wasn’t my fault.’ Now that’s what we need.
At that apology both Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull gave wonderful speeches, but I think all of us who were there who were care leavers remember particularly Malcolm Turnbull saying, ‘We believe you.’ And that is what we’re up against still. I think there is tremendous resistance. So in my foreword - sorry to get so far from the point - I think I would say, ‘We’ve come a long way and let’s celebrate. But we’ve got a long way to go still.’
ADELE CHYNOWETH: Thank you, Joanna. I’d now like to throw it over to you who have all kindly come today. Has anyone got a question they’d like to ask Joanna?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: How good do you think the sociological context is for children who are in care now?
JOANNA PENGLASE: How do you mean the sociological context - in what respect? Do you mean looking at the whys and the wherefores?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Well, you’ve talked about the history and about how children were looked after, and the system is now different. What I mean is: how good is the context in terms of doing what children need to have done?
JOANNA PENGLASE: That’s a huge question, and I don’t work in out-of-home care. My expertise is in the earlier era. I think in some reaction to my history we now, rightly, only take children away as a last resort. We also have the insights of psychology now, which were not so readily available when I was a child, and we understand about attachment theory and so on and so forth.
I think everybody who works with children in out-of-home care tries to do their best. I wonder sometimes - and I’m not an expert, I don’t work in this area now, as I said - how much still we really understand how devastating it is for a child to lose their parents, no matter how ‘bad’ their parents might be. The worst catastrophe for a child is to lose their parents. I personally think all children who go into care need some form of therapy, an ally, not just decent foster carers although they are wonderful people, they need help to repair the terrible wound that’s been done to them. But that’s not really a sociological answer and I don’t know that I can answer any better than that. I’m sorry.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: But it’s still a most important question and a dialogue to continue, I’m sure.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hello. I was wondering in your research if you’ve come across the systematic government sponsored abuse of children in programs like MKULTRA in Australia?
JOANNA PENGLASE: Sorry, in programs like…?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: MKULTRA. It was run by the CIA from 1953 to 1973. It then transferred to Operation Phoenix in Vietnam.
JOANNA PENGLASE: This sounds like a thesis on its own to me.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: It is, definitely. The reason I ask you is that in 1997 in National Missing Persons Week, I was publicly gangbanged by the likes of Ray Martin. I was trying to get AVOs against people in Canberra who were hunting me and giving me a really hard time - and they still do. I just recently had three windows in my house smashed -
JOANNA PENGLASE: I wonder if this is something –
AUDIENCE MEMBER: It is related to all this.
JOANNA PENGLASE: I didn’t find anything about that. In fact, it’s a really interesting sidelight and I hope somebody will do some research into it. Certainly, it’s something that needs to be taken up with somebody who might be able to do something about it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’ve been trying for 20 years. I was publicly gangbanged for being Jane Beaumont of the Beaumont children. Twenty-four hours later the police said, ‘No, I’m not her,’ but I’ve had hell. I left my home that night. My home has been totally trashed. I live without services.
JOANNA PENGLASE: I’m really sorry. That sounds like a terrible experience.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: But I can’t get anyone, and even people like you won’t talk to me. I’m in the position that you were in 20 years ago, and you’ve been through all that, but I can’t even get people like you. You are the Margaret Throsbys now. You’re not the Bert Newtons; you’re the Margaret Throsbys.
JOANNA PENGLASE: If I know of anybody who could help you, I’ll certainly refer you to them.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: Thank you very much. You’ve invited us to make further inquiry and you’ve mentioned two programs, could you just give us those names again?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: In America it was called MKULTRA.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: And there was another one you mentioned?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: That went on to be Operation Phoenix in Vietnam.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: OK, MKULTRA and Operation Phoenix – they are two possible areas of research.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: It continues on as Abu Ghraib, Bagram, black prisons, the Manchurian Candidate – all those sorts of things.
JOANNA PENGLASE: As a result of your talking today somebody might well want to take up that research. I’ll certainly encourage them to do so.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: In Australia it was Anne Hamilton-Byrne cult in Melbourne. She was being funded by the Australian government and the CIA and Tavistock Institute. That’s all I’ve been able to find out.
JOANNA PENGLASE: I hope that can go further from having raised it today. Thank you very much.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I think it’s perhaps the fourth one of organised paedophiles.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: Thank you. This all sounds shocking and difficult. We need to be aware that what we are talking about today is a secret history, and layers are being revealed. Thank you very much for your contribution and for coming. That’s very important.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you.
HUGH: The gentleman up there that asked the question: what is the sociology side of it? I think he might have been asking, what’s it like for a child in a children’s home today - is that correct?
JOANNA PENGLASE: We don’t have institutions like in the past, today.
HUGH: No, we don’t. We still have them, but I think the difference between what happens today and what happened in our day - I’m a former child migrant and I was looked after by the Presbyterian Church. It seemed to me that the only criterion that they had to select the staff who were going to look after us was that they had to be members of the church. Today, those who are in children’s homes are looked after by professional people who are properly educated, properly trained and several other things. One is that they are not allowed to physically punish the child, and the other one is that they are allowed to be affectionate. In our days, and I think Joanna would agree, there was no affection whatsoever - and that’s the difference between our time and today.
JOANNA PENGLASE: There is another provision these days which is that anybody working with children has to have a police check to make sure that they have no background in paedophilia, for example, or any untoward circumstance. So that’s a very big change. In that sense - I am sorry, if that’s what you meant - yes, certainly people have to be trained. You’re quite right. They can be member of the church. The other thing is that managers sometime were nurses. So they had a nursing background or religious background, but anybody else could come off the street and say, ‘Have you got a job?’ No one checked anything. Just that you could turn up to work. You certainly can’t do that today.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Joanna, I just like to add a point to that what you are talking about with the children today because I do have some experience with caring for children today as a foster mother. One of the things that I had a major battle with, and I really don’t know whether it’s changed, was I knew the children that I was taking, my niece and nephews, had had a very traumatic life and they had also gone through the death of their mother. And as much as I asked DOCS for assistance for grief counseling it was never given, and to this day I find it really unforgivable that the support agencies are not attending to grief counseling for children going in to placements.
JOANNA PENGLASE: Yes, I couldn’t agree more about that. There is still that attitude of ‘We’ll get them in to a better place,’ and that’s how people talked about homes. They’re better off in a home. And foster care was done in that way in the past: ‘We’ll substitute a good family for their own bad family.’ All the terminology has changed but, as Bonnie said, there’s still not this acknowledgement that children are feeling beings.
You have set-up supervised visits and so on - there is an acknowledgement that parents are important. But that grief is so deep that it will go on affecting the lives of the children just as our lives were affected by our feelings all our life.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: So there’s still a sense of the sector being under-resourced, do you think?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: It’s something about priorities too.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you for your presentation, Joanna, and I am very keen to read your book. As I am listening to you, I am thinking about your description of the homes situated in cities and towns and so on. I cannot help but be baffled by the idea that all of this was going on, as I absolutely don’t doubt, yet it seems the communities in which those homes were had no idea or didn’t want to know. I take your point about the family certainly before the 1970s and 1980s being a very private entity and I suppose in the post-war period there was a lot of upheaval socially as women returned to the home and as Australians focused increasingly on materialism and success, building a home and so on. But I am just intrigued and baffled by what might be the other factors that meant that these places could be situated in towns and yet no one understood or cared or wanted to know what was happening in them. Can you shed any light on that?
JOANNA PENGLASE: I can try. I think there are several factors. One I have talked about which is that privacy that you mentioned. I think there was a perception that children who were in homes somehow deserved it. There was quite a judgmental mindset somehow that children wouldn’t be in homes if there wasn’t something wrong with them. That’s the stigma that we all took on ourselves, and also we were treated as if there was something wrong with us.
Don’t forget if we are talking the 1950s and then in to 1960s, the caregivers, the staff, had grown up when eugenics was around in the ether and people can only think with the thoughts that are available to them at that time. It is no good judging them on our standards today. So a lot of us heard ‘guttersnipe, back in the gutter where you belong’, and ‘you come from bad blood or poor stock’, so on. I think there was a sort of feeling that ‘those kids there were all bad’, a woman said to me who lived near some homes.
There was a lot of crossover between that fear of juvenile delinquency in the 1950s - bodgies and widgies and so on. That’s one factor, the sort of sort of degraded status of children in care. Children who did not have their own parents to care for them somehow had committed the crime of losing their parents, although that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. I think people didn’t deliberately think that, it just was how people thought.
Also, as I said in my talk, it was so ordinary for kids to be in an orphanage people didn’t think there was anything to think about – ‘Oh, all those kids, their parents can’t look after them, they’re in an orphanage’, end of story, you don’t have to think about it. The jargon term is ‘interrogate the situation’ and ask: but why homes? And then you have to say, why were they run like that? Then you have a whole crop of questions, but no one was even raising the questions. It was just how things were.
As I said, there is a tradition that you put mentally ill people in institutions, old people in institutions, and you just stuck kids in them as well. So there’s that going on.
There’s also that not querying of authority: ‘Oh well, the way things are run, that must be the way they should be run.’ I used to wonder what the neighbours thought when I heard the kids screaming as they were hit in my home, but no one ever said anything. And the same with many homes. Although in the country homes were often isolated, really out in the sticks. As one woman said, who was in Nearcolling in Queensland, ‘Kids ran away and no one asked why, but there was nowhere to run to. It was 15 miles out of Rockhampton in the scrub.’ Often homes were out in the sticks so there was no one to know. But also that perception, just like at school, that you have to hit kids to keep them in line. So if these kids are being hit in homes, it’s probably because they play up more than other kids - end of story.
It’s a whole lot of factors that come together there, and probably others as well.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: With the blog, we also had a lot of Australians who shared with us their role in families which hosted children from homes for weekend visits and holiday respite. So Australia did know about children in homes. What we didn’t know - and I say ‘we’ because I grew up as a child with a family that would host the children from homes, hence my interest in this topic - what I didn’t know as a child when I played with Barbara or Mary on weekends and holidays was the conditions that were in there. When you’re playing with dolls you don’t talk about that.
JOANNA PENGLASE: And how and why would you imagine that the conditions would be what they are? You’ve got to have a context to imagine them in. If you’re a child like you, Adele, from a normal home, how would you be able to think about how she might have been living in a dormitory, regimented and punished for the least little misdemeanour. I think that’s the sort of intangible thing that’s hard to get your head around - in a way people can only think what’s available in a sense, and it’s the brave souls who go outside.
So the families who took children from homes for holidays, they knew there were homes and they would think, ‘The poor little kiddies, we will give them a break, because they don’t have parents,’ and I think there was an acceptance – ‘What are you going to do? You’ve got all these kids that need looking after.’ Of course they get the minimum law - and you know that expression ‘poor care for poor kids’. Well, that’s really all they’re entitled to. I think we have that 'poor law' mentality from Britain. We’ve had that always in our social welfare provisions that rather vague ‘don’t give people too much, they should be working for it’. It’s a very different from the Scandinavian approach. There’s also that kicking in as well, I think.
When you have read as many histories as I have, one thing does need to be said, and there were a couple of queries about the sociology of it, you have people who are not trained. Anybody can walk off the street and work in a home. I do think that childcare of this type with powerless children having no parents to protect them or speak up for them, I think people could go and work in homes who had their own frustrations to work out. Children became the receptacle for the hang-ups, if you like, of the adults looking after them.
That seems to be the only way you can explain the depth of cruelty and the extremes of violence. I’m talking also about religious organisations, orders and institutions with their personnel. Some of the worst homes were those homes. But across the board adults who needed to get something off their chest and children were there - just as they could be sexually used, so they could be used in other ways.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: Thank you, Joanna, and quite incongruously I think it’s time for cake, Jay.
JOANNA PENGLASE: There seems to be one question there.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: Can we hold that for when we get back? People might like a break. We’ll continue this dialogue after morning tea.
JAY ARTHUR: Thank you so much for an illuminating discussion. It was wonderful. We’d now like you to join us in the Main Hall for morning tea for about 20 minutes, and then we’ll reconvene here for our panel discussion. Thank you. [applause]
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Date published: 20 April 2012