Rethinking Out of Home Care

22 / 11 / 2013

Wayne Chamley has played a critical role in helping establish a Royal Commission into Child Abuse. As an advocate with the organisation Broken Rites, Wayne provides this first article in a series for Sheilas – beginning with looking at the history of children in Out of Home Care (OOHC).

By Wayne Chamley

There are four “visible” aspects to the Royal Commission’s investigation.  Commissioners are moving around the country and holding private meetings with individual persons and/or small groups, at their request; a series of public hearings has begun; commission staff have commenced the preparation and release of a series of Issues Papers, and from time to time the Commission will request specific research projects to be conducted and reported to it. Each Issues Paper is posted with a request for persons and organisation to respond in writing. In this way the Commission is becoming informed. Issues Paper #4 is about “Preventing Sexual Abuse of children in Out of Home Care” (OOHC).

Over the past twenty years I have met with hundreds of men and women who experienced OOHC during childhood. Every one of has been deeply effected by a critical assault – being separated from parent(s) and/or family. Many of them endured other critical assaults – neglect, exploitation, physical and sexual abuse, being denied a basic education, the experience of extreme fear and even slavery.

I now believe that we need to have a serious, community-wide discussion and debate about the use of OOHC as a response mechanism to families that might come into crisis. What must be considered here is the question of relative risk to the child as well as consideration of other appropriate programs and response mechanisms.

I am not suggesting that there will never be circumstances where placement of a child in OOHC is the appropriate response, being carried out with the welfare and protection of the child foremost.

Separating children from family and Out of Home Care (OOHC)

Whilst comparative data about the practice of directed and/or state-sanctioned separation is not easy to find, there are some partially-researched instances, involving very significant numbers of children:

– The sending of a large number of English-born children to the new settlement of Virginia in response to a decision of the court of Queen Elizabeth 1.

– The experiences of hundreds of German-born, “Schwarbian” children around the middle of the last century.

– The several thousand “stolen children” placed with rural families (over a period of 200 years) within Switzerland.

– The thousands of children across Europe who, along with parents and other family members, experienced the Holocaust.

– In Ireland, the placement of about 150,000 boys into Industrial schools and 17,000 girls into the “Magdalene” laundries during the last century.

– The experiences of more than 100,000 “First Nation” children in Canada.

– The participation of Britain and Malta in Child Migrant Schemes with about 100,000 children to Canada; 80,000 to Rhodesia and about 7000 sent to Australia during the last century.

A majority of these children were not orphans. These were children living in families with their parent(s) who happened to be poor. For many the mother was a sole-parent without social or community support.

Australia’s story

In Australia, towards the end of last century, six reports documented how large numbers of children were separated from families and then raised in institutional “care” and in other arrangements that were more akin to what today is defined as OOHC (foster parenting, hostels etc). The reports that now document this history are:

Bringing them Home: A Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. (1997). Australian Human rights Commission.

The Forde Inquiry into the Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions (1999). A report to the government of Queensland.

– “Lost Innocents: Righting the Record” A report of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee of Inquiry into the Child Migrants (2001). A report to the Parliament of Australia.

– “Forgotten Australians”. A report of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee of Inquiry into Children in Institutions (2004). A report to the Parliament of Australia.

– “Listen to the Children: Review of claims of abuse from adults in state care as children” (2006). A report to the Parliament of Tasmania.

– “Children in State Care” Commission of Inquiry by the Hon E.P. Mullighan QC (2008). A report to the government of South Australia.

The children in these reports were either indigenous, Australian-born and non-indigenous or child migrants. While most of the child migrants were English-born, some were Irish-born and about 400 were Maltese-born. In the case of the “Forgotten Australians” report, the children included some orphans and many state wards or persons who were just placed into the care arrangement by a reluctant parent or some other (interfering) person. There is a theme that runs through all of this potted history and the separation of the child from the parent is at the centre of it.

Starting with the First Fleet

Robert Holden’s book “Orphans of History”1 records that thirty four children under fourteen years of age left England with first fleet. Another twenty six babies were born during passage with twenty surviving the journey. Amongst the convicts there were thirteen children with convict mothers and three children who were sentenced convicts themselves! These child convicts might be regarded as the first unaccompanied minors who became a responsibility of the Crown in the form of the colonial administration. In the new colony a (policy) matter arose about marines wishing to marry convict women. Governor Macquarie agreed to permit such marriages even though it was known that some likely applicants would already be married. There was a caveat. If the marine returned to England, the family would be required to return with him. Macquarie’s decision was direction that breaking up families was to be avoided and that the colony would not become a repository for abandoned mothers and children.

 Four episodes of separation

From this point it is possible to trace four episodes when very large proportions of indigenous and Australian-born children were assigned to either institutional or OOHC. Two appear to be driven by economic factors and two were a consequence of war. Each was the consequence of a response of government when faced with sudden social change and with mothers and children falling into extreme poverty. These episodes occurred during the course of the Australian gold rush, in the aftermath of the Great War, in the aftermath of the Great Depression and, following World War 2.

All episodes were driven by societal attitudes about the alleviation of poverty; that it should come about through the provision of charity in the form of gifts, charitable works and over time, some services. The first two episodes were also driven by the fact that progressive ideas about social safety nets, welfare programs and transfer payments etc had either not evolved or were just beginning to evolve.

During the gold rush, wealthy citizens and charities provided money for the constriction of large facilities to house children “so as to prevent them from joining the criminal classes”. By the time of Federation, these individuals had moved on. The charities continued with their work, new organisations formed (eg The Child Protection Society) and they were joined by various religious and church organisations.

In the report “Forgotten Australians” it is estimated that during the last century alone, more that 500,000 non-indigenous children were raised in OOHC.  I now believe that the real figure is close to 640,000. This is the greatest number of children being placed into care by any nation state in recorded history and it occurred at such an early time in out nationhood. The must have had a significant effect upon how Australian society has developed and evolved and the placement of children in OOHC continues today.

However the practise of effecting an early separation of the child from the parent/family seems to have become entrenched and there are questions to be asked about the persistence of this mindset in modern Australia and for how long it is going to continue? There is a need for a community wide discussion here against the background of how existing government support and services to families are configured and the level of this support in early childhood years. 

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