Forgotten Australians – how would I feel if this were done to me?

Sunday Telegraph, 06/09/2009

Father’s day is an important day. It’s not just about getting the old man a new pair of socks or a new tie. It’s a reminder (if we need one) of how important our dads are, and to thank them.

But what’s today like if you grew up without a father or a mother? What’s it like if you grew up in an orphanage?

Frank Golding is a Melbourne writer and academic. He says: “For children who grew up in institutions Father’s Day can be an extremely difficult day. They think of the father they never knew, or the one they would like to have had. For some of us, Father’s Day is not a day to celebrate. It’s a day of sad memories and regrets.”

Frank is one of half a million Australian children placed in institutions in the 20th century. Some had good experiences, but many bear the scars of years of terrible neglect and abuse. The memories of their childhood still cast long shadows over the lives they live today.

Five years ago a Senate Committee conducted an inquiry into these ‘forgotten Australians’. It shines a light on a dark chapter of our history. A history of young children, many abandoned by their parents, abused and neglected by their state guardians and forgotten by history. Until now.

Later this year the Australian Government will formally apologise to the men and women abused or neglected as children in institutional care.

Why is the Government doing this?

Because thousands of Australians suffered from a system that didn’t adequately protect, or provide for, the children in its care.

The Senate Inquiry received more than 600 hundred submissions detailing graphic and disturbing accounts of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Harrowing stories of neglect and humiliation.

Mark who grew up in a boy’s home in Queensland in the 1950s told the Inquiry: “in a place so full of brutality, sexual abuse did not rank as highly as other forms of abuse – such as mental and emotional torture, lack of adequate clothing, shortage of food and the strings of punishment that never seemed to end… That sexual abuse was the least of our worries should tell you how bad things really were.”

Lynette grew up in an orphanage in Bathurst. She recalled spending “many a night exhausted from crying from the hurt of the hiding and the soreness of my body. My body never seemed to get a chance to recover; my body seemed to always have marks on it, which turned to bruises which I called rainbows when the colour came out.”

It took a lot of courage to bring stories like these into the light. The woman who helped them do it was Leonie Sheedy.

I first met Leonie just before I became a Member of Parliament. She told me the story of a little girl separated from her brothers and sisters and put in an orphanage at the age of three.

The little girl lived in constant fear of being punished for every minor indiscretion and with the empty feeling of a childhood deprived of love. She wouldn’t see her older brother again for forty years.

As she told me this story tears rolled down her face. The little girl was her, and for the past nine years she has been fighting for an apology for that little girl and others like her.

In 2000 she set up a support group with Joanna Penglase called Care Leavers Australia Network (CLAN), and from a tiny office in Bankstown Leonie has helped hundreds of ‘clannies’ all around Australia. In 2004 her courage and tenacity prompted a Senate Inquiry. In 2007 it earned her an Order of Australia, and now it has helped deliver an apology.

What does it mean to say sorry?

Listen to words of Rhonda who grew up in an orphanage in Sydney and is now 57. When she heard the news that her government was going to say sorry she wrote: “I don’t feel invisible anymore. I felt it was no longer my fault… I felt like I had my power again”.

Or Mary now 50: “I felt the heart of Australia was starting to open and I will finally belong to this country.”

One simple but important word can mean so much to so many. It can help to heal the deepest wounds. The apology to the stolen generations taught us that. Its impact was felt in every corner of Australia and beyond, and we are a better nation for it.

In his famous Redfern Address Paul Keating asked us to imagine, “how would I feel if this were done to me. It seems to me that if we can imagine the injustice we can imagine its opposite. And we can have justice.”

How would you feel if what happened to Leonie or Mark or Lynette was done to you? I think if you can imagine the injustice done to thousands of young Australians you would feel like me it is time we apologised.

Next week Vera Fooks turns 98. Vera is the oldest member of CLAN. She grew up in an orphanage in Queensland and has published her own book detailing the emotional and physical abuse she suffered.

Vera has cancer, and doctors have told her that she does not have long to live. She is determined to hang on to hear her government say sorry on behalf of the nation. I think it’s time Australia did. And I am so glad we are. It’s time Vera and others like her are no longer forgotten Australians.