Chapter 4 - Institutional care and treatment
I lost my childhood. I lost my confidence, my right to live without
This chapter moves on to the
story of the child migrants after they arrived in Australia.
It deals with term of reference (a) that posed the questions whether any
unsafe, improper, or unlawful care or treatment of children occurred in
government and non-government institutions responsible for the care of child
migrants: and whether any serious breach of any relevant statutory obligation
occurred during the course of the care of former child migrants.
The major inquiries that have
examined child migration to Australia
all commented in the strongest possible terms on the care and treatment of the
children in institutions. The UK House of Commons Health Committee reported
These children were placed in large,
often isolated, institutions and were often subjected to harsh, sometimes
intentionally brutal, regimes of work and discipline, unmodified by any real
nurturing or encouragement. The institutions were inadequately supervised,
monitored and inspected.
[The Committee concluded]
What we have heard from former child migrants, and the accounts
they have given us in writing, leave us in no doubt that hardship and emotional
deprivation were the common lot of child migrants, and that cases of criminal
abuse were not infrequent.
The Interim Report of the
Western Australian Select Committee into Child Migration and the Closed Report
of the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions
both report significant levels of child abuse. The strong inference is that in Australia,
to a greater or lesser extent, the institutional treatment of children in care
was profoundly unsatisfactory.
The abuse suffered in
institutions in Australia was in direct contrast to the memories for many, though certainly
not all, of life in British orphanages. Numerous submissions referred to happy
childhoods and the affection shown by staff; and of being warm, well-fed,
properly clothed and medically checked. As one witness emphasised ‘we were
NEVER, NEVER physically or mentally abused, which is contrary to what was part
of the reasoning behind the Child Migration Scheme’. However, for many others, their
memory of the time in British institutions was one of hardship, deprivation and
regular beatings, and of being lied to.
The Committee understands that
for many child migrants their experiences in the Australian institutions were
positive and that they have proceeded to lead happy and prosperous lives. The
Committee recognises that an inquiry such as this was unlikely to attract these
people because the whole subject is not such an issue for them.
Abuse in institutions
As noted above a number of
reports have referred to the abuse or assault of children in many institutions.
The large number of submissions and evidence received by the Committee
graphically illustrated the disturbing extent and level of abuse and assault
inflicted upon many child migrants. The evidence indicated that abuse occurred
over many years, though with differences appearing between institutions and
even from one period to another in particular institutions. A strong connection
has been seen between escalating forms of abuse in an institution. ‘Severity,
violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse; these were on a continuum. The more
severe the regimen the more likely the prevalence of sexual abuse.’
Broadly speaking, the abuse and
assault referred to in evidence fell into three categories - sexual, physical
and psychological, and occurred in many forms including:
Sexual assault - children experienced the
humiliation and degradation of criminal sexual assault including extreme pain
associated with sexual penetration and rape. Sexual assault was perpetrated by
a range of persons including priests at the institution, members of families to
whom children were sent on holidays or to work, workers at the institution,
regular visitors to the institution, and also in some institutions by other
older children. Children who were sexually abused and assaulted referred to
their shame, about carrying this guilt around for a lifetime and never being
able to confide in a family member, any detail of their childhood or adolescent
Physical assault - children experienced physical
pain, fear and terror resulting from beatings, including beatings which then
and now would justify criminal charges. Beatings were often with specially made
leather straps, belts, canes, pieces of wood or other weapons. Some beatings
were viewed as lawful punishment by the institutional authorities, though
clearly very often such discipline was excessive. Complaints were made of
indiscriminate bashings that often led to physical impairments later in life.
Brutality was endemic at some institutions and at times descended into what can
only be described as torture.
Depersonalisation - many migrant children made
reference to their becoming totally depersonalised in their childhood. Their
names were changed, they were lied to about the existence of their parents,
possessions were removed, gifts and letters were not passed on, and they were
referred to by number and not by name. Children learned to keep their heads
down and so reduce the likelihood of a random beating by a brother, nun or lay
carer. A lifetime lack of self esteem resulted from such actions leaving a
yearning for identity and connection.
Psychological abuse - was manifested through
deliberate, sustained cruelty and emotional deprivation. Constant reference was
made to the lack of individualised care and attention, with disparaging and
insulting comments about identity being common. Psychological trauma evidenced
itself most frequently in high incidences of bed-wetting. Children from
several, geographically separated institutions referred to the consequences of
bed-wetting in terms of embarrassment, physical beatings and public humiliation
in front of their child peers. Bed-wetting flashbacks have plagued mature
adults. Many child migrants spoke about the feeling of exile and isolation and
the yearning for close contact with a protective, human figure.
Work practices - daily chores, especially in
rural institutions, were so exhausting or time-consuming that children were too
tired or had insufficient time for education. Some children were forced to
undertake arduous and unsafe manual labour as part of construction work at the
institution. Many submitted that wages earned when they were placed in work
never materialised and they are still deeply aggrieved.
Education - educational standards were so
limited or virtually non-existent that some child migrants have progressed
through life with minimal literacy skills. This educational deprivation has led
to lifetime effects, especially for employment prospects and adopting itinerant
Food and clothing - children were
inappropriately clothed for the extreme Australian conditions, often cold,
often lacking footwear. Children were not provided with adequate protective
clothing to undertake the physical labour they were expected to perform. In
many institutions there was a common experience of being constantly hungry and
of being aware the nuns and brothers in charge of them always had better
quality food. Scavenging and stealing food was reported as a common practice at
After-care - the provision of after-care
services was often very poor. Constant reference was made to leaving an
institution and being dumped into the alien environment of an unknown community
without any experience of that community; about having poor social skills,
limited life skills apart from a survival instinct, and little in the way of
material and financial resources.
These forms of abuse or assault
are detailed below by using the words of the child migrants as much as
possible. While different forms of abuse were widespread between institutions,
the Committee acknowledges that not every form of abuse occurred in every
This process began upon arrival
with evidence that migrant children were fingerprinted as they left the ships
in Fremantle and Geraldton. Many
former migrant children referred to the small number of personal possessions
they had brought from Britain being removed from them on entry into the
orphanage, including money, toys and clothing - ‘We had nothing of our former
lives’. At some institutions gifts or other personal items children may have
received while on holiday or from people who had befriended them were often
removed and generally not returned, even on their departure from the
institution. One submission recounts that when a new matron arrived an old
cupboard was discovered to contain watches, rings, bracelets, necklaces,
pendants, unopened letters and other addressed papers. ‘Now I knew what
happened to our belongings that were taken from us.’
Contact with their former life
in Britain was deliberately prevented, ostensibly to allow ‘a new start’.
Letters from family, relatives and friends in Britain were destroyed or
withheld from children, in some cases being found in personal files many years
There was no effort at all to reunite children and parents; in
fact, the reverse was the case. When I was 14 and started to work, which meant
moving from the Home to the Hostel, I was given a bundle of letters from my
mother. These had been written over the eight (8) years I had been there, in
the meantime I had thought that my mother did not love me and did not want me
The process of
depersonalisation through the crushing of individual identity was further
entrenched by names being changed and by referring to children by numbers. Even
clothing was tagged with the child’s number and not their name.
We were made to feel we were not human. We were not called by
our names. We were numbered... Everything we wore was numbered.
Our clothes were numbered and we were not a name just a number.
Any names we were given were terrible racist taunts.
Individual birthdays were not recognised, and evidence was
given that children were often unaware, in some cases until adulthood, of their
correct date of birth, and even of their correct name. Some child migrants
referred to these tactics as reminiscent of stratagems employed in
concentration camps and in the Gulag.
The rigid separation of sexes
that occurred in many institutions resulted in the separation of brothers and
sisters, causing considerable distress at being unable to maintain any ongoing
sibling relationship that sometimes continued into adult life. Siblings were
sent to different institutions, often in different States, thereby losing
contact for the rest of their childhood. In some cases as a result the
separated siblings’ relationships were permanently damaged and never recovered
even when reunited. Evidence was also given of instances where children
were not aware that they had siblings at the same institution, or if they did,
were never encouraged to be a family unit.
A sense of abandonment and not
belonging was reinforced in the children through constant derision and abuse,
by being repeatedly told that family or country did not want them, or that
their parents were dead or had been killed in the war, and that Australia was
their last chance. Deception over the existence of parents and family was
common in both catholic and non-catholic institutions.
Based on the evidence it has
received, the Committee cannot but agree with the UK Health Committee’s comment
The level of deception, the deliberate giving of wrong
information or withholding of information, the policies of separating siblings,
all make it very hard to accept that everything was done simply for the benefit
of the children. It indicates an abuse of power and a disregard for the
feelings of the mothers and children, and it was certainly felt as such by many
former child migrants.
The accounts of sexual assault
while in the care of institutions are undoubtedly the most serious form of
criminal abuse perpetrated against the child migrants. Boys and girls were
subjected to sexual assault in a variety of forms while in the care of a number
of institutions. The Committee heard stories of boys being subjected to
explicit sexual acts such as fondling and genital touching, of being forced to
perform oral sex, of being repeatedly sodomised, and of girls being assaulted
Sexual assault as a child has
the most damaging impact throughout life. Abused children often develop
personal problems of lack of trust and confidence, anxiety, depression and
suicidal tendencies, and an inability to establish and maintain personal
relationships. Sadly, many of the personal testimonies of sexually abused child
migrants refer to such impacts upon their lives. A particularly unfortunate
impact is that a proportion of children who are sexually abused may themselves
become child molesters and pederasts as adults. The Committee heard evidence
that a number of sexually abused child migrants had as adults suicided and that
a small number had been jailed for sexual offences against minors.
The stories of sexual abuse
provided in the evidence to the Committee were not new. They have been
recounted in earlier books and reports. The UK Health Committee was so moved by
these accounts that it reported:
It is hard to convey the sheer weight of the testimony we have
received. It is impossible to resist the conclusion that some of what was done
there was of a quite exceptional depravity, so that terms like ‘sexual abuse’
are too weak to convey it.
The Committee notes from the
evidence it received the allegations of regular sexual assault involved
children in the care of only a small number of institutions. It is very
important to recognise this point. Of the 207 public and confidential
submissions received from individual child migrants, 38 recounted episodes of
sexual assault. All but 14 of these, almost two-thirds, were from the Christian
Brothers institutions in Western Australia - Bindoon, Castledare, Clontarf, and
Tardun. Of the other 14, only 10
institutions were named though some of the assaults involved incidents
occurring outside the institution. Of the 38 submissions reporting assault, all
but 4 occurred between 1947 and 1963 with the vast majority in the late
1940’s to mid 1950’s.
A particularly disturbing
aspect of institutional culture reported in a few submissions was bullying and
sexual assault by older boys against some younger boys or new arrivals, sometimes encouraged by their
teacher supervisors. Again, the spectre of concentration camps was raised with
evidence given of the use of ‘trusties’ in these institutions.
The Christian Brothers: Bindoon,
Castledare, Clontarf and Tardun
The accounts of sexual abuse
and assault at these four institutions are horrendous, supporting and
amplifying the UK Committee’s description of ‘quite exceptional depravity’. The
stories from the ex-residents of Bindoon, Castledare, Clontarf, and Tardun
provide an account of systemic criminal sexual assault and predatory behaviour
by a large number of the Brothers over a considerable period of time. Evidence
was given of boys being abused in many ways for the sexual gratification of the
Brothers, of boys being terrified in bed at night as Brothers stalked the
dormitories to come and take children to their rooms, of boys as ‘pets’ of the
Brothers being repeatedly sodomised, and of boys being pressured into bestial
The Committee received evidence
that boys who reported abuse or assault were beaten by the Brothers or abused
by the very Brother to whom they had complained. Some boys ran away to escape
the abuse, but when caught, police or lay people did not believe them - usually
due to the aura of the cloth. While not being believed was a terrible experience,
even worse for the children was when they were believed and still sent back to
the institution and the matter was covered-up. In Western Australia it was most
likely that the strong connections between the Christian Brothers run
institutions and the police with links to the Knights of the Southern Cross (as
discussed in chapter 2) meant that there was ‘a closed system’ with little
likelihood of such complaints being either believed or examined. For many abused children there was
an overwhelming sense of powerlessness with nobody they could turn to.
Sexual abuse and assault of
children within these institutions was referred to by Dr Coldrey in The Scheme, his history of the Christian
Brothers in Western Australia. In the book he wrote that ‘there is very strong
evidence that five Brothers were multiple offenders’, though they were not
named and four were dead. He also referred to six Brothers who admitted an
offence with a teenage boy. When
the book was published in 1993 it was strongly criticised by many former child
migrants as a ‘whitewash’.
However, Dr Coldrey understood
that the level and extent of sexual abuse by Brothers was on a much larger
scale. He subsequently expanded his account in a monograph Reaping the Whirlwind: A Secret Report for the Executive of the
Christian Brothers - Sexual Abuse from 1930 to 1994. Extracts from this
document were read in the New South Wales Supreme Court in December 1994 during
the case that had been brought against the Christian Brothers. The reports of
these extracts appear to be all that exists in public of this document, as even
Dr Coldrey has indicated that he does not have a copy now and that it ‘seems to
have disappeared off the face of the earth’.
The most serious revelations
from the document concerned the existence of ‘sex rings’ at Bindoon and
Castledare. It is reported that in A
Secret Report Dr Coldrey wrote:
What I mean by the term ‘sex
underworld’ or ‘sex ring’ in the province is that monks doing the wrong thing
with boys...are collaborating with one another in their activities. They know one
another are acting against the rule and assist and cover for each other. In the
orphanages they may have shared the same boys...
Paedophile brothers would tell other brothers which boys were
vulnerable - they would share information - if one boy complained to one
brother about the sexual abuse of another brother, he would be silenced or
intimidated - and it went on more or less as a conspiracy and this conspiracy
has been detailed - it is very clear that these complaints went as far as the
The research and publication of
material by Dr Coldrey exposing the predatory sexual activities of members of
the Catholic Church apparently made the Church hierarchy so uncomfortable that
he was pressured from the highest levels - Rome - to remove material from the
Internet and cease the publication of reports on the subject.
Brothers who sexually abused
migrant children have been named in previously published books and material.
The names recurred in the submissions and evidence before the Committee. To
date only Brothers Philip Carmody (1920), Gerard Dick (1994) and Fabian Jordan
have been before the courts and successfully prosecuted. Most of the other
named Brothers have since died either during or before prosecution could be
launched. Brothers ‘Pop’ Angus, Col Beeden, Doug Boulter, Con Campbell, Serenus
Cooke, Matt Dawe, C Fricker, Hubert Hansen, Sal Marques, LH Murphy, C O’Neill, BS Smith, and Matt Thyer
have also been accused with a ‘good deal of precision and accuracy’ as perpetrators of sexual abuse and
assault. Others named by a number of witnesses were Brothers Bruno Doyle, FP
Keaney, PC Mohen and GP Moore.
The Christian Brothers were
‘very insistent that the abuses were not known to those who controlled the
institutions’ when they appeared before the UK Health Committee. This claim was
moderated in the Catholic Church Joint Liaison Group’s submission to the
Committee by stating that ‘we are now also aware that in some cases...sexual
abuse occurred...It seems that these abuses did not come to the notice of the
supervising authorities, be they congregational, diocesan, federal or state’. Yet reference is made in The Scheme, using the Church’s own records, of knowledge by the Brothers’
Executive in Melbourne, Provincials and Superiors.
The Committee considers that,
based on the personal testimonies given in evidence and like the UK Health
Committee, it cannot accept this argument. Evidence is available to warrant
further criminal investigation and action. The Committee discusses previous
court actions and the impact that the Statute of Limitations has in undertaking
legal action in each Australian jurisdiction later in the report.
The incidents of sexual abuse
or assault of children in care at other institutions described in submissions
covered a range of other Catholic and non-Catholic institutions. The major
difference in the nature of the abuse, compared to the four Western Australian
Christian Brothers’ institutions, was the lack of systemic abuse perpetrated by
a number of carers at the same institution. In nearly all the descriptions
provided to the Committee, the abuse or assault was mostly by a single
perpetrator or was a single incident.
In most instances the abuse
occurred outside of the institution, or if at the institution not by those
directly responsible for the care of the children at that institution. The
evidence indicated that the sexual assault was more individualistic and
opportunistic. Submissions referred to abuse by Brothers at a high school
attended by the child, by a gardener and by a handyman working at the home, by
a carer who regularly visited the home, by a known church visitor, and of the
rape of girls who had started working.
It is highly likely that in a
couple of cases involving girls in their mid to late teens assaulted or raped
when they were working outside the institution, their innocence and worldly
naivety as a result of their upbringing in an orphanage made them more at risk
While sexual abuse in some of
these cases may not have been by a staff member as was the case with the
Christian Brothers, the children were still at the time the responsibility of
that institution. The institutions named in submissions were Murray Dwyer,
Newcastle; Goodwood, SA; Salesians, Tas; Dhurringle, Vic; Fairbridge, Molong
and Pinjarra; Barnardos, Normanhurst; Magill, SA; St Vincents, Westmead; and
Melrose, Parramatta. The Committee accepts that this list is anecdotal but
equally it is unlikely to be exhaustive.
The Forde Commission recorded
that ‘a number of former [Neerkol] residents reported sexual abuse from a range
of persons: members of foster families to whom they were sent on holidays, male
workers at the orphanage, regular male visitors, and priests stationed at the
The Committee also received
evidence of sexual activity at other institutions. In May 1958 the
Superintendent at Barnardos, Mowbray Park, Picton discovered that there was
‘serious sexual perversion and malpractice’ occurring between boys and staff,
chiefly at the Farm School, but also between some employers when the boys were
placed with them. A report was prepared for the New South Wales Director of
Child Welfare, police were called and within a month the then Minister for
Immigration, Mr AR Downer, personally banned the arrival of further parties of
Barnardos boys into Australia until the affair had been resolved. Barnardos
sent its senior staff from London. Subsequently, eight adults implicated in the
systemic abuse were tried and convicted. The ban was lifted in August 1958. It
appears from the records, that in this case, the Australian authorities and
Barnardos took quick and decisive remedial action.
The incidence of criminal
physical assault on children appears to have been much more widespread than
sexual assault. Beatings were commonplace. While it is argued that beatings as
punishment was much more acceptable then as a disciplinary measure than it is
now, it is clear that many beatings were far more excessive and brutal than
simply a disciplinary measure even by the standards of the time. The Committee
also heard evidence of indiscriminate assaults that were not related to
discipline. It appears that some institutions or religious orders allowed, even
encouraged, sadistic and excessive punishment. Systemic beatings designed to
break down the will and subjugate the child migrants again draw parallels to
stratagems used in concentration camps.
Punishment was often excessive:
‘So he borrowed another strap. I was feeling
pretty tough at this time, and I vowed and declared that if he hit me I would
not cry. Six, six - no tears, and I am taking real hits. Six, six - no tears.
Six, six, six, six - the tears were almost there - and then whack, whack across
the head because I would not cry. Gentle people, aren’t they?’
‘The nun in charge pounded into the dormitory
brandishing a very thick strap. She stripped me naked and proceeded to savagely
flog me, showing no mercy. She was like a woman gone mad, cruelly beating me
until she had crushed and shamed me. The pain was unbearable and I had been
humiliated beyond imagination. To be stripped for all to see, at 15 years of
age, was horrendous.’
‘We were forced to witness in the dining room
the sight of a boy being held over a chair with his shorts around his ankles
and his bare backside totally exposed while the Colonel gave him 10 of the best
with a heavy leather strap, as an example to the rest of us to behave ourselves
according to his rigid code’;
‘The usual method of discipline was belting the
boys around the legs with a string of keys and many times the boys who were hit
were left with bleeding legs’;
‘For any misdemeanour, no matter how slight, I
wasn’t just belted but flogged, with a genuine leather strap’;
numerous accounts were given of being locked up
in very dark environments such as small cupboards or underneath dormitories,
making some children claustrophobic - ‘to this day I can not tolerate being in
a room with a closed door’.
Punishment for running away was
also brutal in many instances:
‘After being caught I was made to bend over and
cop six of the best with the side of a broken hockey stick, specially prepared
for this purpose. This went on for 2 weeks non-stop every morning. I was
only 10 years old.’
‘I can recall every girl being rounded up from
their beds to go into the hall to watch two girls get a caning within an inch
of their lives, because they had the guts to run away.’
Archival documentary evidence
has shown that the Christian Brothers in Western Australia did not keep any
records of punishment, a requirement under State law. It is likely that other
institutions in other States breached similar State laws.
Physical criminal assault
through excessive beatings, often indiscriminately, with a variety of weapons
was reported as occurring across a broad number of institutions. On-going
health problems have in some instances been attributed to these assaults.
Examples of such assaults described to the Committee included:
‘...caused me injury on one occasion by hitting me
over the head with a steel potato masher, she split my head open, I still have
the scar. I suffer from epilepsy and my doctor has put forward the possibility
that it was caused by this particular trauma.’
‘I was vomiting up bile which stained my
bedclothes. Even though I could barely move, I was flogged while still in bed,
then made to get up and wash the sheets. They dried, leaving a stain, for which
I was flogged again. I was so sick, I defied the nun and went back to bed.
Eventually the nun realised how ill I really was...’ After being taken to hospital it was
discovered the child had a perforated appendix requiring an emergency
‘He went into one of his rages. He got stuck
into me with his fists and during the beating I fell or was pushed onto the
pumping machine. The belts that were driving the machine caught me under the
armpit. I had lacerations and burns and was unable to put my arm down properly
for 3 or 4 weeks.’
‘...another time one of them smashed me so hard
around the left ear and jaw the blow knocked me off the chair I was sitting on,
and to this very day I have trouble with the left jaw and ear.’
‘I was up-ended with no clothes on in the river
up to my arm pits and the Brothers would hit the soles of my feet which would make
me cry out, and I would end up near drowned from the river water.’
The Committee received
descriptions of a variety of the weapons and implements with which children
were physically and criminally assaulted. They included:
straps made to the individual specifications of
brothers at Clontarf consisting of 2 or 3 layers of best leather about 4cms
wide and 45cms long with bandsaw blades and lead pellets sown into them;
fists and feet, a variety of straps, heavy
walking sticks, horse whips, broom handles, bamboo and other canes, pieces of
wood and sticks, cricket bats and stumps, a string of keys, and electric and
Related to the issue of
depersonalisation was psychological abuse practised in a variety of forms. Many
witnesses stated that they felt denigrated and ashamed by disparaging
references to their background, status and families. The destruction of
individual self-esteem appears to have been a deliberate policy with comments
such as the following being repeated constantly:
‘as a little girl I was told daily how bad I
was, how stupid, how worthless’;
‘we were from the gutter and that is where we
belonged and where we would end up’;
‘the main abuse was psychological. “You’re no
good.” You will never be any good.” “You will amount to nothing”, that sort of
‘thoughts they instilled in me then I still
carry with me today ie - feelings of being worthless, useless, unlovable and
unequal to other people’;
derogatory expressions such as: ‘Sons of
whores’, ‘scum of the English Empire’, ‘pommy bastards’, and references to
their parents as ‘sluts’ and whores’.
Forde Commission noted, such statements heightened feelings of worthlessness
and were particularly harmful to children whose self-image tended already to
have been damaged by other life events. Such scars still persist for many child
The ‘pommy bastards’ comment,
though with an emphasis on ‘bastard’, was indicative of a strong sectarian
element in the treatment of some children in Catholic institutions. The
brothers and nuns with Irish backgrounds were especially brutal in their
exercise of Irish feelings towards the English. One former migrant noted the irony
that although he had come from an orphanage in England, he was actually Irish.
However, other nationalities including the Maltese were also subjected to
derogatory and racially based remarks.
Deliberate embarrassment of
children, sometimes as part of a punishment and in front of their peers, had a
profound and long lasting impact on many. Strapping of bare backsides in front
of other children, bed-wetters being made to stand with soiled sheets over
their heads, shaving or cutting off hair, making children sit on chairs on top
of desks in classrooms were some examples cited to the Committee of how
children could be humiliated. Girls reported being humiliated going through
It was the same with our periods...We had no sexual education. But
when we were about 11 we were all in a room and told that if you do not bleed
once a month there is something wrong with you-that was the end of subject... you
were issued with a half a dozen pieces of calico cloth, and that had to do you,
year in, year out. You washed them every month. The boys could tell who had
their monthlies, because the clothes line was right next to the recreation
rooms...How could you have any dignity when it was just all thrust aside.
Many of the former migrant
children reported that they learned to keep their heads down to reduce the
likelihood of a random beating. ‘I learned to survive most of the time by
staying out of the way and not being noticed’ - such virtual denial of
existence being the ultimate result of psychological abuse and
What is the truth? The fact is that we were nobodies, only
corporate identities in an era of cultural conditioning, robots to the agendas
of others. From birth, survival was best preserved if one hid in the mass and
not draw attention to oneself. This happened unconsciously without realisation.
Fear born of various brutalities produced a lifestyle of habit that made future
living very frightening.
The psychological impact that
their childhood experiences have had upon their lives was dramatically yet
simply illustrated by the language used in many submissions. Terms such as
transported, deportation, exported, chosen like cattle, human cargo, abandoned,
interned, incarceration, slave labour, penal servitude, inmates, concentration
camp, and finally released recurred constantly in the submissions of the child
The Forde Commission reported
that a practice particularly harmful to children’s self-esteem was that of
humiliating them for bed-wetting. The Committee received evidence that this
practice was widespread and not restricted to Neerkol. There was a consistent pattern of
children who wet the bed being made to stand, in front of other children, with
the soiled bed sheet over their head. Other punishments for bed-wetting
included making children sleep on wet mattresses, sleep with a potato sack
under them and a potato sack over them on the floor of the verandah, being put
into freezing showers, and having been made as adolescents to wear nappies.
These practices, together with daily beatings as a further response to
bed-wetting, increased the child’s anxiety at bedtime and resulted in the
creation of a long term cycle of anxiety and bed-wetting in some of the
The Committee received evidence
that the Christian Brothers had their own ‘grotesque methods of treatment’
involving crude electric shock machines being attached to the boys’ genitals
during the evening.
The Child Migrants Trust
reported that many former child migrants who returned as adults to the agencies
in whose care they had been placed seeking records and information about
themselves and their family background were denied access to their personal
records or told that they did not exist. The Trust suggested that these
experiences, which severely disadvantaged child migrants and prevented them
from searching for their families, could be termed ‘secondary abuse’. According
to the Trust, the act of returning to these agencies for help was described by
many as ‘humiliating and the trigger for anxiety and fear’, while child
migrants suffering from post traumatic stress disorder reported ‘a resurgence
of symptoms at the point of their renewed contact with the organisation linked
to their trauma’.
The Committee has noted in the
chapter on the search for identity that most of these agencies have been much
more open in recent years in providing information and access to records to
former child migrants, though there is still a long way to go. The Trust has
indicated that this is a complex issue that they intend to explore at the
proposed International Congress on Child Migration to be held later in 2001.
Food and clothing
The Committee received
considerable evidence about the inadequacy of the quality and quantity of food
provided to the children. The most noticeable aspect was the complete lack of
nutrition in their diet, such as fresh fruit and vegetables.
Going without food as punishment was of no great worry, as
hunger was part of our lives, quite often the food was not very palatable, or
there was not enough to eat, or it was just plain stale.
The food was appalling, flavourless, overcooked, inedible.
Numerous accounts were given of
children always feeling hungry, of rummaging through food scraps for the pigs,
and of stealing fruit and vegetables from the gardens. Comparisons were made
between the quality of the children’s food with that of the staff - ‘a
favourite job was clearing the Brothers’ dining area as you often were able to
eat their scraps’.
The Committee also received
considerable evidence of inappropriate and poor standards of clothing to meet
the harsh Australian environment, especially in winter. In some institutions
children wore uniforms and ‘yard’ clothes at play (khaki shorts, a rough shirt,
no underwear, no shoes), while in others they were provided with ‘old hand me
downs’ or there was no designated clothing with the children having to draw
from a pool each day. The Committee heard stories of footwear being provided on
the days welfare inspectors came to visit.
A particularly disturbing
aspect was the accounts of inadequate or lack of protective clothing and
footwear for children doing hard labour on work farms or building sites.
We were not provided with any protected clothing, such as boots,
and this resulted in the boys suffering from many foot injuries and other
ailments, which also included cement and lime burns, to our fingers, but also
to our feet, particularly between the toes. We also did suffer from severe
sunburns to our faces, and to other parts of our body.
The arduous nature of the work
forced to be undertaken as children while in institutions and in outside
employment was constantly raised by witnesses.
Much of the evidence provided
harrowing descriptions of small children undertaking adult tasks - clearing
land, building, looking after livestock - while at the same time trying to
participate in the little education that was offered. While such hard physical
labour was not undertaken at all institutions, most institutions required
inmates to at least perform daily housekeeping and general operational chores.
From the evidence, the
Committee has identified the main areas of work performed by former child
daily chores of either a basic or excessive
full-time work at the institution before
work undertaken in the construction of buildings
which formed part of the institution by children of all ages;
commercial work undertaken either at the
institution or in commercial operations run outside the institution;
work at an institution following completion of
work outside of an institution after the
completion of schooling.
The various forms and degrees
of this work undertaken by the very young through to the age of 21 led to
numerous complaints ranging from utilising small children as slave labour,
sapping physical and mental energy to the detriment of education, being forced
to work in dangerous and unsafe environments leading to the very real prospect
of accidents, the lack of payment of wages, and the disappearance of trust
monies held for former child migrants by child welfare departments.
Types of work performed by child
The arduous routine of the
daily chores required of the children living in institutions, including the
very young, was constantly raised. Comments such as these were common:
‘We were worked to the bone, long hours, wood
cutting in bare feet...We were always exhausted, hungry and cold, with no love or
physical affection shown... Basically we were a juvenile workforce at the beck
and call of any adult that needed anything to be done’.
‘I may have been 11 or 12 years but I was still young when I began this
routine. Up at 6.00am to work in the laundry Mondays and Thursdays. In the
kitchen and the nun’s refectory on other days. We had to go to mass at 8 am
then to school and after school I had to do the ironing. 100 uniforms, 100
pinnies and 100 day dresses, sometimes I ironed up until 9.00 pm’.
‘From seven to about ten years of age I cleaned
basins and toilets. I helped dress smaller girls, I did their hair and tidied
their dorm. I was always late for school. From the age of ten or eleven I was
on nursery duties, and if I wasn’t working in the nursery I was either washing
or ironing...The whole place was run on child labour. Unpaid terrorised child
‘I, for one, worked up the nursery with two
other girls...We girls did all the work like dressing, bathing, feeding, and
putting babies on pots. The children that were from 2-5 could feed themselves.
Yes, we had babies in cots and we bottle-fed them too and cleaned up. The
Sister that was there didn’t do much at all, just supervised. We girls worked
very hard, even got up throughout the night to the babies. Not only did I work
up at the nursery, I also worked in the convent laundry. This was before and
after going to school’.
Dr Penglase, in her study of
the NSW Catholic Homes, argued that ‘work in these Homes goes beyond “doing
chores”: it has an ideological underpinning to do with a belief in the
corrective, constraining and time-consuming function of work...Meaningless and
demeaning chores...were also used as punishment’. The Committee received an example of
work as punishment from one former child migrant who recalled scrubbing the
floor of the toilet block with a toothbrush.
At some of the farm homes
children were removed from schooling before school-leaving age to work full
time on the farm.
Somewhere between my age of 12 and a
half and 13 years of age I became a full time worker on the farm. I received no
further schooling from that time on as I was working full time on the farm...
My workday would commence at 4.00am and I would finish many
hours after dark. My duties were to work in the vegetable garden, the piggery
as well as general farm work which included long days of ploughing the fields.
I also had to look after the dairy herd, cleaning fields, collecting firewood...These
were long and hard hours, which caused me great distress...I was truly a young child slave.
At Bindoon and other
institutions land was cleared and heavy construction work was undertaken,
usually with little concern for safety, where young boys were used to build the
facilities required at the institution. The working conditions were hard and
dangerous and as noted earlier boys often lacked protective clothing, such as
boots, resulting in foot and hand injuries as well as cement and lime burns.
It was mid summer in the West Australian bush when we were
forced to work on building sites...Building works were a priority, education a
poor second. We had to climb scaffolding, carry up loads of bricks. There were
many accidents, children falling off the scaffolding, bricks and rocks falling
on children from above, children falling down from heat exhaustion. There were
many accidents - safety was not a consideration.
Another submission recalled the
work on the Clontarf swimming pool carried out by children who moved earth by
hand and shovelled soil into bags which were carried up rickety and dangerous
planks. At Tardun, boys cleared
land, planted wheat and provided labour for construction of facilities. Many
believe that those working unpaid on such projects ‘worked as slaves’.
One former child migrant at St
John’s Anglican Boys Home in Melbourne stated that on weekends they renovated
cabins and made improvements to properties owned by the institution: ‘we were
told that these two properties were going to be holiday places for the children
of the home but that never happened in my time and I eventually heard that they
had been sold after we renovated them’.
Hard labour was not confined to
My sister and I went to the black hole of Subiaco, St Josephs Girls
Orphanage. At the age of 9 I was a brickies labour, carry cement, and carrying
bricks, 8 at a time. If I spilt the cement or couldn’t carry eight bricks
because my arms were sore, I was flogged.
Broken Rites argued that this
work ‘had the effect of creating assets of capital value for the religious
orders that housed them’. The assets built up were of substantial value, with
Broken Rites pointing to Clontarf and Bindoon which ‘started off as bare
ground...and boys worked as slaves to create and turn that [Bindoon] into a
capital asset which must be worth millions in terms of the upgrading of the
land, its farmability, the buildings that were put there...We have seen it time
and time again, not just with Christian Brothers but with non-child migrants who
developed farms. One was at Lilydale which was sold, to become a golf course,
for $3 or $4 million.’
There was also evidence that
work of a clearly commercial nature was undertaken at institutions.
The strings and tags were for the Metro Meat Company. The
strings were cut so long. There were 80 strings to a bundle, and it took 13
minutes to do a string. Sister Clare set the quota. I used to get 20 bundles a
day and a box of tags. That is 1,600 tags. I would be up till 1 o’clock in the
morning getting my punishment finished, because if you did not, you got belted.
The punishments would go on-strings and tags went on for nearly 4 years. The
strings used to go in our fingers and make blisters. We would sit up on the
bathroom floor to keep ourselves awake because the tiles were cold. When I
asked the nuns, ‘Hey, that was child labour. I want to be paid for that,’ one
of the nuns, Anne Gregory, said, ‘We were told that sister bought records for
you to dance to with that money.’ I said ‘We could have bought the whole record
company.’ That money, I was told, was used to buy a big industrial laundry.
Young migrant girls also worked in the commercial laundries
run by religious orders. One witness has wryly noted that by the age of 12
years she could work the big pressers and the huge industrial washing machines
in the laundry.
Some child migrants remained at
the institution to work after leaving school. Again the problem of non-payment
of wages arose.
I left school in 1960 [aged15] and worked in the kitchen for three
years...I never saw money when I was there. I was treated like one of the other
orphans, and I slept in the dormitories with the other kids. I never got paid
for those three years that I worked there...I did not know the reason for that.
When I turned 21, I got a letter from...the mother superior at Neerkol at the
time...that said, ‘We have no money in trust for you for those years that you
worked at Neerkol because you were a British migrant.’ I thought that was a bit
strange. I got a bit upset about it. I am actually sorry I never kept that
letter because that would have been good evidence. I am sure it is on the
records there that, because I was a British migrant, I was not entitled to any
money at all. I left when I was 18 with 25 and a port full of old clothes.
Another submission cited
comments by the Western Australian Child Welfare Department in 1946 that the
interests of boys who had come to Western Australia in 1938 and 1939 were not
safeguarded; instead of being found outside employment they ‘had been retained
in connection with building operations for which in the main no wages have been
paid them’. Dr Marion Fox also
noted that several girls worked at Thurgoona without wages which ‘the nuns
described as training’.
Many examples were provided to
the Committee of the type of employment undertaken by young child migrants
after leaving institutions. For many young male child migrants, it was a case
of leaving one poor and, at times, brutal existence for another. Many worked
long hours, in inappropriate settings with little contact with welfare
authorities. For female child migrants, there are many examples of girls, after
completing their education, being placed in domestic situations and in
commercial laundries run by religious orders.
Many witnesses complained of
the poor or unpaid wages and the loss of trust monies when placed in outside
employment. One former child migrant was employed in the late 1950s at a farm
where he had to get up at 4.30 am and was responsible for milking between 50
and 120 cows. He was then required to clean equipment, feed the pigs before
breakfast at 9.30 am. Other tasks filled in his 15 hour day, six and a half
days a week. He was paid 4 per week, but stated that he rarely saw the money
and had to ask for pocket money for clothes and other needs. Others had similar stories:
From Padbury Boys Farm School I was sent to a farm...I was 16 yrs
of age. The conditions were very poor and I worked from daylight till dark.
Holidays I never got. I was never paid wages and if I was the money was sent to
the Child Welfare Dept. Later I found out that 10 shillings was paid to the
Child Welfare Dept to keep for you until we turned 21 yrs. And then it was
1-0-0 taken out...Where is the money now? And why was it never paid to us? when
we turned 21 yrs.
My job was to look after [the children] and do the housework as
well. This continued for a period of about eighteen months before I was sent
back to the orphanage because they got into financial difficulties. I asked
where my pay was and was told that they looked after me, I was originally told
that I would be paid for that work but got nothing.
Government financing of capital
work - Bindoon
Evidence from archive documents
indicates that Governments knew that boys in institutions were working without
pay on building projects. Postwar, the Commonwealth and States provided
financial assistance for buildings for the use of migrant children. The Western
Australian Department acknowledged in a letter to the Commonwealth that senior
boys were labouring on the facilities at Bindoon without pay. The letter is
also enlightening as to the value placed on that labour:
As you are aware from previous reports the Senior boys at the
Institution are employed on building construction receiving no wages therefore
the cost to the Authorities for paid labour would be much less than the
estimate of the Architects.
Taking all the facts into consideration, the State Government
has agreed to contribute one third of the cost of Material (30945) and one
third of 50% of the estimated labour costs. This States contribution would
therefore be one third of 46,417 or 15,472.
In a report of the inspection
of Bindoon on 12 August 1952, the inspecting officer stated in relation to the
building at Bindoon, ‘as you know, Brother Keaney’s methods are to say the
least unorthodox, and I feel that great difficulty will be experienced by him
to produce receipts for much of the material used’. The Commonwealth made its final
payment in 1957.
Wages while training at
The payment of wages for
trainees in institutions, generally those 14 to 16 years of age, was an area of
concern for child welfare authorities from the early 1920s until the early
1950s. Dr Coldrey stated in The Scheme that the particular issue of
payment of wages was a sticking point during negotiations between Child Welfare
officials and the Church over the development of Tardun in 1929. Tardun
eventually agreed that the boys would be paid pocket money while they
‘trained’. When Clontarf boys were sent to Bindoon for work experience, they
were to be paid pocket money. Dr Coldrey stated that during Brother Keaney’s
first stay at Bindoon (1942-44) none of the boys were paid but Brother F Doyle
apparently paid the older boys a regular wage during his time in charge at
Dr Coldrey noted that during
the postwar migration period the indenture agreements did not mention wages to
be paid to the child migrants while in training. He commented that ‘in view of
the parlous financial condition of the Catholic Homes during the war years, it
is fair to say that no agreement would have been signed had wages been demanded
for the young arrivals while they were training’.
One former child migrant
disputed this view of the indentures submitting that the indentures were
‘nothing like contemporary apprenticeship indentures...but were merely an
agreement between the custodian of the child and the Minister’s delegate...To
equate the indentures...with apprenticeship indentures invites the absurd
proposition that child migrants became indentured labour from the moment of
their arrival on Australian shores.’
In 1948 an inspection of
Bindoon by Child Welfare officers found that large numbers of boys were
employed on the buildings and it was suggested that the boys over school age
should be paid a wage. Brother McGee, then in charge, did not agree. The matter
was taken up by Child Welfare which stated that ‘the time has arrived when we
must put the question of their [the trainees] wages on a proper basis as is
done at the Swan Homes’.
After Brother Keaney returned
to Bindoon he ignored the suggestion by Child Welfare. Dr Coldrey commented
that Brother Keaney could have paid the older boys ‘something. He chose not to
do so. In this decision, the weight of evidence is clear that he did the wrong
thing, and exploited the labour of the post sixteen year-olds between 1949 and
1951.’ At this time there was also an investigation of the apprenticeship
scheme run at Bindoon. Brother Keaney stated to officials that the scheme would
be recognised by the Arbitration Court as part of an apprenticeship. However,
the Building Trades Apprenticeships Advisory Committee noted a number of
The Department of Immigration
and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA) also commented on the payment of wages. The Department
noted that ‘there was recognition by the Commonwealth and State governments
that the youth who were trainees or apprentices in the Homes should receive
appropriate award wages from the Institution’.
Other evidence provided
indicated the level of concern by Western Australian Child Welfare officials.
In 1949, the WA Child Welfare Department stated ‘that no boy over the age of 14
years is attending school [at Bindoon], and yet subsidy has been paid for all
lads under the age of 16 years on the presumption that they were attending
school’. In further correspondence in 1949, the Acting Secretary of the
Although I realise that if these recommendations are carried out
the Institution will be deprived of a considerable amount of labour, I am
afraid that if something is not done to rectify the present position both this
Department and the Bindoon authorities will leave themselves open to a charge
of exploiting child labour.
The issue of wages was
canvassed in two reports from 1950 and 1952. A 1950 inspection report on
Bindoon recommended the level of wages that trainees should receive and that
all boys 16 years of age and over, employed as agricultural workers, be paid
wages on the scale of the General Farm Workers’ Award. The report also
recommended that Commonwealth Savings Bank Trust Accounts with the Secretary,
Child Welfare Department as trustee, be set up for each boy employed as was
done for wards of the Department. Many witnesses believed that this was done,
but many have since complained they were never paid. The 1952 report provided
the policy on child migrants and wards in institutions in respect of employment
and education, including wages to be paid to children who were trainees, as
well as the policy on how long children were to remain in school and the length
In its submission, the DIMA
concluded that in general, from ‘the archival records examined, it appeared
that the issue of wages was a particularly contentious one, at least as far as
some Catholic authorities were concerned’.
Work to financially support
The Forde Commission reported
that ‘one of the consequences of low levels of funding and staffing was that
many institutions relied on the labour of children to maintain their
functioning’. This situation was
certainly not confined to Queensland, although the level of funding varied from
State to State and over the decades.
From 1941, Commonwealth child
endowment was paid at a rate of 5/- per week, for all children resident in
Australia aged less than 16 years. Prior to this time, the Commonwealth had
agreed to pay maintenance for child migrants in care (mainly Barnardos,
Fairbridge and the small number brought to Western Australia under the pre-war
Catholic arrangement). The State Governments (Western Australia and New South
Wales) also provided maintenance payments.
In relation to children other
than child migrants in institutional care, most States provided some funding to
voluntary organisations for their care. In New South Wales, voluntary care
organisations did not receive State Government funding until 1961, resulting in
many of the institutions being ‘run on a shoestring’. Dr Joanna Penglase in her
study of home children in New South Wales found that many homes in that State
operated, before 1961, on financial arrangements similar to those of nineteenth
century institutions: on charity and endowments. Dr Penglase noted the extent
to which children were used as domestic labour and commented that there was a
view that children’s labour was a justifiably available resource and that this
view prevailed in many institutions.
Dr Coldrey has written that if
extra monies were needed in the Christian Brother’s institutions, it was sought
through donations, fund raising drives and ‘naturally, what the property could
produce partly from the labour of the children. There was little money for
wages. It was presumed that the children would labour towards their own
upkeep’. On the farm schools boys
and girls were required to contribute through milking, planting, harvesting and
other farm work. The Forde Commission commented in relation to Riverview
Training Farm (though it could also apply to many others), ‘clearly the
question arises as to whether the boys were needed more for the operation of the
institution than the Home was needed to care for them’.
Outside employment, wages and trust
The primary concerns raised
about employment placements outside the institution were the payment of lower
than award wages or no wages and the access to trust monies accumulated through
Dr Marion Fox noted that in
rural labour and domestic work, exploitation was rife. The case examples quoted
earlier show that exploitation of those in rural labour and domestic situations
was not limited to New South Wales. Wages were often low or non-existent. For
example, a former Clontarf resident considered that in Western Australia ‘the
Catholic Welfare’s main concern was to provide a cheap, powerless labour force
for catholic farmers and supporters of the Christian Brothers’.
Dr Fox’s study does illustrate
that concerns were held by welfare officers about rural placements and the
exploitation of migrant children:
in 1953, a 13 year old boy was placed on a farm
earning pocket money but no wages. The Department complained that the boy was
being exploited as cheap labour. The Catholic Family Welfare Bureau arranged
for the boy to be introduced to a ‘prospective employer’ who sexually molested
the boy and abandoned him;
in 1955, despite a recommendation by welfare
officers that a child should be placed in private home, the boy was transferred
to another institution and then placed on a dairy farm where he earned 1 per
week and his keep. The industrial award at the time exceeded 8 and the
Department maintained that even if the boy needed a Slow Workers’ Permit, the
boy should earn more than the wage agreed on his behalf.
In some States trust or other
savings accounts were established for child migrants, as was done for wards of
the State, when they left an institution to take up employment. From at least the 1920s, trust
accounts were part of the formal service agreements that were signed by
employers (usually farmers in Western Australia). The children were generally
paid a wage, half in cash and half banked by Child Welfare. In evidence, many
former child migrants claimed that they did not receive, or could not remember
receiving, monies held in trust.
We had to send so much of our money back to Fairbridge for a
trust. I honestly cannot tell you if I ever received that money. I cannot
remember getting it and I cannot remember seeing it. If I did get it, I might
have mistaken it for something else. I cannot remember getting it.
I was told that my employer would send back to Northcote 50% of
what I earned, this money would be paid into a bank account...This in fact is
what did happen but I cannot remember ever receiving any balance that should
have reverted to me.
The Western Australia
Department for Family and Children’s Services advised that it had received a
number of inquiries about trust monies. It had ‘searched diligently through the
records’ but ‘the problem we have is that we keep financial records for only
seven years, so all those records of paying out those children have
disappeared’. Money not collected was transferred to Treasury whose records had
also been checked but ‘we cannot prove that we have given them the money but we
cannot prove that we have not given them the money’. Trust monies should have
been provided when the child turned 21, went to work or married. The Department
[I] find it hard to believe that the
issue of money was not dealt with, because in the extant records that I have
seen, there is a lot of procedure and there are a lot of guidelines about what
you need to follow up and what you are supposed to do. The blue cards indicate
that those things were done. I would have to say-without proof, but just from
the information I have discovered in reading the extant records-that that also
was a procedure that was followed through.
...Unfortunately the trail is cold and we have no signatures.
The Joint Liaison Group also
noted difficulties with records:
The child welfare records are very patchy indeed. A whole lot of
records were destroyed back in the 1950s. Our own records are uneven-there are
some there-so exactly how the thing was administered, where money went, why
kids were not caught up with when they turned 21 to receive this money when
they came of age, I do not have any clear cut answers to that.
Exploitation of children in work
There is little doubt in the
Committee’s mind that many children were deliberately and callously exploited
within institutions. While at the time most children in families would have
undertaken daily chores, the work required in some institutions went far beyond
chores. Indeed, many small migrant children carried out the work of adults. In
some cases this work was done in very hazardous situations: quarries, building
sites, and commercial laundries. At the same time government and society
expected that they would be receiving an education.
In some instances, the amount
of work undertaken was the result of financial imperatives. Poorly funded
institutions required the hard labour of children to make ends meet. It was
also the result of an ideological view that children should work to contribute
to their upkeep. This view also saw hard work as a punishment and a control
The Committee also considers
that former child migrants were exploited in outside employment, especially
those placed in rural and domestic work. Ample evidence was provided supporting
the view that some child migrants placed in outside employment were not paid
the same level of wages as other employees or in some cases, paid no wages at
all. Accommodation was basic, sometimes being a barn or shed. There was a lack
of or minimal aftercare on the part of the receiving agencies and by many State
welfare officials. There appears to also have been a lack of attention paid to
the access to trust monies by former child migrants.
Many witnesses called for
compensation for work undertaken while in institutions and for lost wages from
outside employment. Former child migrants also wanted the return of trust
monies not received from State welfare departments. These issues are discussed
in the next chapter on reparations.
The arduous nature of the work
required of the children impacted adversely on their education. Many
submissions referred to the time taken in performing daily tasks curtailing the
time available for education or of being so exhausted that education suffered.
Often children would be late to school as a result of their daily chores and
would be punished - ‘You could never speak up about why you were late because
of the fear’.
Formal education was often
minimal and in some cases non-existent for children below minimum school
leaving age, as they were expected to work. As noted earlier, the 1949 McCall
report on the educational standards of migrant children in Western Australian
Catholic institutions found that many had arrived with low levels of education.
With limited resources, little or no effort was expended to improve these
educational levels. The Committee heard many accounts of children who struggled
educationally not being given any remedial assistance but just being put out to
work. This practice was contrary to the policy of both the Child Welfare and
Immigration Departments that all children were to remain at school on a full
time basis until the end of the year that they turned fourteen and one half.
In the rural institutions and
farm schools, particularly Fairbridge, the overriding objective was to train
the boys for a life as farm workers and the girls for domestic service. Formal
education did not have a high priority, as it was not related to learning the
farming and domestic skills that were perceived to be required for these
occupations in life. However, Fairbridge Molong was given as an example of
where children who showed potential were encouraged by being able to attend
Orange High School and if sufficient educational standard was reached to
progress to tertiary study including at Hurlstone Agricultural College.
Education was often informal
with large class numbers and a mixture of ages:
‘School was a non issue - about 100 children
aged from 6 to 12 with one teacher in one room’;
Children were taught in classes in a single
large classroom. The teaching regime seems to have been based on punishment and
humiliation of children who made errors. Children were hit with the cane or a
steel-edged ruler and made to wear a dunce’s cap.
The Forde Commission noted that
a common complaint by witnesses was of their inability to learn because their
minds felt paralysed with apprehension. Left-handed children were compelled to
write with their right hands and were punished for failing to do so. Again, the
Committee received evidence that the practice was not restricted to Neerkol.
As a left-handed child the nuns tried to force me to write
right-handed. I was forced to hold my left hand out, palm facing downwards and
was hit across the knuckles with the edge of the ruler. I just couldn’t write
with my right hand and eventually they gave up but in the meantime my life was
made a misery and my self-confidence was non-existent.
For many of the migrant
children the illiteracy resulting from inadequate or lack of education has
remained a severe handicap throughout life. A number of the submissions
received by the Committee graphically illustrated this disadvantage. For many
their poor educational standard has severely limited their employment potential
with consequent economic detriment.
The denial of our rights to a basic educational standard can
simply be seen as another example of the appalling neglect and deprivation
suffered by child migrants.
Most of the migrant children
were turned-out of institutions at 16 years of age as young, worldly naive,
vulnerable teenagers, though welfare departments remained responsible for them
until age 21.
Minimal attempt was made to
ensure that work or accommodation placements were suitable, with the result
that many drifted between jobs and some attracted the attention of the law. The
Committee repeatedly heard of the problems with after-care and of the lack of
support provided upon leaving an institution. In some instances where children
were placed in remote farms, they were subjected to physical and sexual abuse
no different to the institution they had just left. For many their wages were
paid into a trust account until they turned 21. As discussed earlier, there
were numerous reports that this money was never provided.
Constant reference was made in
evidence to feelings of complete abandonment, of being desperately lonely and
isolated, of being cut adrift in a world they were totally unprepared for and
had no understanding of.
...I still felt completely alone, a nobody without a future,
feeling completely worthless and unloved. I was actually homeless, in every
sense of the word and stateless to boot; and given no choice in life. No one
gave me any guidance or direction or basic support or love. All these are
fundamental to any child growing up.
Aftercare was a joke! Once you left the orphanage they washed
their hands of you, leaving you to entirely fend for yourself.
For numerous reasons many
former child migrants sought security by returning to an institutional life.
Many joined the defence forces, serving with distinction in Korea, Malaya and
Vietnam - ‘Joining the Australian army gave me a feeling that I was joining a
family’. Some have commented on the irony of having undertaken National Service
or served overseas on behalf of Australia when they were not even Australian
citizens. Service life proved to be a positive for many with adult education
and apprenticeships, and training for life eventuating from their army or service
Deaths at institutions
The Committee received evidence
that a number of child migrants had died while in the care of institutions.
While these included serious vehicular accidents, occasioning death and
life-long injury, and drowning in a farm dam, the cases of six boys who died at
Tardun, Bindoon or Clontarf between 1943 and 1958 were specifically raised with
Concern was expressed that
although the death certificate for each case contained a statement by the
coroner as to the cause of death it appears that none of the deaths was further
investigated by a coronial inquest.
Four of these boys died from fractured skulls. In one instance the fractured
skull was alleged to have been sustained from a fall from a balcony at night.
Correspondence from the Western
Australian Attorney-General’s Chief of Staff in November 2000, cited in
evidence, indicated that ‘the records relating to those deaths had been
destroyed. There had not been any record of any request for the Coroner at the
time to conduct an inquest...There is no evidence that the guardians of these
child migrants had at any time made any attempt to inquire into the violent
deaths of child migrants’.
The Committee considers that
the lack of coronial inquest and the history of cover-up of other assaults
leads to the conclusion that from the stated cause for these deaths in Western
Australia, there should as a minimum be some suspicion concerning the events
surrounding at least one of them.
The Committee is astounded at
the apparent lack of investigation undertaken at the time, but concedes that
with the passage of years and the destruction of records it is unlikely that
pursuit of the cases would now produce conclusive results.
The Forde Commission in its
Closed Report outlined the situation in respect to a number of former residents
of Neerkol who it was believed had died in mysterious circumstances.
Long-term effects of abuse
Lack of identity, lack of
family to turn to, lack of training in basic social and life skills, and lack
of confidence and self esteem as a result of years of physical and mental abuse
and criminal assault have led to a diversity of problems being experienced in
The most commonly referred to
problem has been in establishing and sustaining relationships, from an
inability to maintain a basic social life due to a lack of social skills to an
inability to trust others and themselves sufficiently to form close personal
relationships and share emotions.
I should have been given more information and experiences in
social life, I should have been told what to expect. The heavy dosage of
religion, poverty, purity and humility really did affect my mental attitude to
former child migrants have remained single, with some describing their life as
that of a loner.
The separation and divorce
rates among former child migrants appear to be very high. Those who have
married and had families have described difficulties with parenthood resulting
primarily from a lack of parental guidance and knowing no other form of
upbringing than that which they received:
As a result of not having a role model while rearing my own
children, I found it more difficult than most parents. If I had reared my
children like I was brought up, I would have ended up in jail and having my
children removed from my care.
Even those who have built
durable, strong, happy marriages have indicated that their marriage has been
affected as a legacy of their childhood experiences. Demonstrating affection
can be difficult, especially to their own children, as is learning to think how
decisions will impact upon others after a life of thinking how decisions affect
the self. As parents, anger and resentment grew due to their inability to
provide a family history or full identity to their own children, for example
drawing up a family tree is often given as a school project.
An aspect that became
noticeable for the Committee was how very important a caring and understanding
partner or spouse was for a child migrant. Sadly, the Committee heard of cases
where a spouse or partner could not empathise with the child migrant’s
experiences and profound unhappiness inevitably resulting.
In many cases former child
migrants have had great difficulty in holding jobs or maintaining long-term
Other long-term effects
resulting from their childhood experiences have been described for the
Committee. They include:
clinical depression and anxiety requiring
medication and counselling - some diagnosed as experiencing Post Traumatic
uncontrollable, often explosive anger leading to
outbursts of violence including domestic violence;
alcohol and other drug abuse;
reluctance to trust others, especially those in
resorting to petty crime.
A particularly depressing
impact relating to the long-term effect of their experiences as children has
been the high level of suicide among child migrants. A number of submissions
and witnesses spoke of the suicide of family and friends who had never been
able to cope with the traumas of their childhood. It is often difficult to
quantify the level of suicide, particularly when death certificates, for
example, record accident or overdose as the cause of death. However, the
Committee believes that the anecdotal evidence that it received would indicate
that the suicide rate of child migrants is well above the Australian average.
Factors contributing to neglect and abuse
The level of abuse and assault
described in this chapter is totally indefensible. Under any understanding of
what constitutes civilised behaviour, especially in relation to the care of
children, the treatment of child migrant children in Australian institutions
will remain a very dark aspect of this country’s history.
A number of factors have been
identified as giving rise to the risk of abuse in institutions, and have been
particularised in relation to some. However, the consequences of these risks to
child welfare should have been apparent at the time and acted upon by the
responsible agencies and organisations. The fact that they were not, ultimately
led to the levels of abuse suffered by a great many of the migrant children.
Some institutions used for
child migrants were also correctional, with child inmates who had committed
crimes or were on remand. Bindoon, for example, ‘was gazetted to receive and
train juvenile delinquents. It also acted as a place to which boys could be
sent who had committed offences, but not been through the courts...Bindoon was
the-end-of-the-line institution for catholic boys at risk.’ Hardly a welcoming environment, yet
one to which child migrants were sent!
The Forde Commission took
evidence from a number of the nuns who had worked at Neerkol. Their comments
could equally relate to many of the institutions about which the Committee
received evidence as being responsible for the worst excesses of abuse. The
Forde report identified the following factors as contributing to the risk of
abuse at Neerkol:
physical isolation of the institution depriving
its occupants of any real opportunity to integrate into the local community.
Isolation inevitably gives rise to a closed community with a culture of its
the lack of funding needed to provide a level of
resources that would enable children to be cared for in physical conditions of
reasonable comfort by carers who were not over burdened;
the workload of individual nuns, particularly
those in charge of the nursery and the children’s dormitories, was unremitting
staff-child ratios were grossly inadequate for
the provision of care and attention to individual children;
there were nuns who were not by nature suited to
working with children. Their vow of obedience gave them no choice but to go
where directed. The lack of aptitude or enthusiasm for dealing with children
was compounded by overwork, lack of resources and the rigour of life in an
isolated, harsh environment; and
management practices were such as to suppress
individuality. Some of the nuns who gave evidence to the Forde Commission spoke
of feelings of intimidation and powerlessness as junior members of the Order.
This last point possibly
provides a more general understanding (though certainly not excusable) as to
the reasons why when children raised the problems of abuse with staff they
trusted, there appeared to be a reticence by the staff member to take issue
with their superiors.
Dr Coldrey has also written
about the unsuitability of staff and inappropriate mix in Catholic
It is now clear, that in general,
the Religious Congregations tended to place their least qualified personnel on
the staffs of the children’s homes. Moreover, on occasion, they used the Homes
to hide ageing, difficult, odd or mentally unstable members, at a time when the
congregations could not afford specialist care for old, retired or mentally ill
brothers or sisters.
In the Catholic institutions, congregate care was the norm and
staff gender balance was not usual. In Boy’s Homes, men held all, or almost
all, the key roles; the reverse in the institutions for girls...In Catholic care,
religious brothers found themselves caring for small boys, a role for which
they had neither training nor aptitude. The risks of physical and sexual abuse
The verbal abuse referred to
earlier based on the child migrant’s background is also reflective of a
prevailing culture that regarded the children with these backgrounds as sinful
and deserving of unremitting cruelty and harshness precisely because of their
illegitimacy and origins.
The Committee received many
comments from child migrants who felt betrayed by non-offending staff who were
aware of abuse happening in an institution but took no action. The child
migrants perceived such people as equally guilty as those perpetrating abuse.
One of the residents of Neerkol submitted:
If those nuns were so unhappy that they took all their anger and
frustration out on us kids, why didn’t they ask to be moved. We had no choices.
We had nobody. We didn’t ask for their anger to be put onto us. Why didn’t they
have the backbone if they weren’t happy to make some changes to their lives?
It was not just the Catholic
institutions that had staff unsuited to caring for children. The Committee
received evidence in relation to a number of non-Catholic institutions
concerning the calibre of staff. Lack of trained staff was raised, with one
commenting that because only ‘board and keep’ plus a small allowance was paid
‘most of the people attracted to the job were failures or odd-balls in
Some of the cottage parents at
Fairbridge homes appear to be a good case in point. Recollections of life at
Fairbridge farm schools varied dramatically with the central role of the
cottage parent being crucial. A former Fairbridge Molong resident described
this to the UK Health Committee:
The seeming contradictions between
those who look back with affection to Fairbridge and those who are still
suffering seems to me to be caused by this simple fact: “IT ALL DEPENDED WHO YOUR
COTTAGE MOTHER WAS”.
As there were many different cottage mothers over the decades
obviously this must be taken into account when one former child gives a glowing
positive report and another responds with a curled lip.
Much justification for the
treatment of the migrant children has been based on an argument that the care
of the child migrants needs to understood within the context of prevailing
norms about childhood and children. Social mores and social standards have
changed since the time of these events. This argument contends that corporal
punishment was commonly used as a form of discipline throughout Australian schools
until the 1970s, the lack of training in or understanding of child care and
development applied as much to those caring for child migrants as to many
Australian parents, and that making children work at an early age could be
understood in terms of the aims of the original child migration schemes to
provide young migrants with rural or domestic skills and training.
Similarly, it can be argued
that in the 1940s many parents agreed to the migration of their
under-privileged children to ensure they received greater opportunity in life
than by staying in Britain. These parents would have considered that they had
the best interests of their child at heart. However, the Committee has received
evidence of parents who were denied visiting rights to their children and of
parents who fought to have their child remain in Britain or who were
deliberately misled into believing that the child had been adopted into a good
family in Britain. This denial of rights and of sending children secretly to
Australia without their parents knowledge is essentially stealing them away
from their home and family.
The Committee considers that
the many accounts it received of excessive and unwarranted criminal physical
and sexual assault go way beyond anything that could conceivably be argued as
normal for the time. Alan Gill commented similarly:
I think the “context of the time” argument is often misused.
There is an assumption, for instance, that the children in these orphanages and
institutions received “six of the best” and the occasional belt around the ear,
which “is what we all got at that time”. Such statements are misleading. The
punishments meted out at many of these establishments amounted to physical
abuse, which would have been as wrong in 1949 as in 1999. Likewise, sexual assault
is totally indefensible.
The ‘it is illegal now and it
was illegal then’ argument has been put forcefully by Broken Rites:
It should be recognised that at the time that child migrants
were being "cared" for in so many institutions, the sexual assault of
children was not sanctioned in any educational system in Australia, child
labour was not permitted in law, slavery had been abolished, public beatings
and floggings were no longer carried out in either the criminal justice system
or in the military and minimum standards of working conditions, hours of work
and wages had already been established for working adults.
Evidence to the Committee
indicated the disturbing extent of physical, sexual and psychological abuse
that was inflicted upon child migrants over a number of years, although with
differences between institutions and even from one period to another in a
particular institution. Many of the stories of abuse recounted to the Committee
were graphic and horrendous in detail. Abuse took many forms including
excessive beatings as punishment and other indiscriminate physical assaults
using specially made weapons, sexual abuse including sodomy and rape,
psychological and other forms of emotional abuse including depersonalisation,
arduous and exploitative work regimes, limited educational opportunity,
inadequate food and clothing, and poor after care.
It has been argued that the
care and treatment of migrant children needs to be understood within the
context of prevailing norms about childhood and children. The Committee
discounts this argument and considers that the many accounts it received of
excessive and unwarranted assault and sexual abuse go way beyond anything that
could conceivably be argued as normal for the time. Such actions were illegal
then and they are illegal now.
While many child migrants were
fortunate not to have suffered from the level of the abuse outlined to the
Committee, those who did often carried the scars through adult life. The lack
of identity, and lack of confidence and self-esteem resulting from years of
physical and mental abuse, have led to a diversity of problems including an
inability to establish and maintain personal relationships, marital
difficulties, depression and anxiety, and alcohol and other drug abuse. The
Committee believes that, based on the anecdotal evidence it received, an
especially tragic outcome of these problems has been a suicide rate of child
migrants well above the Australian average.