Addressing abuse – recent and past



The broadcast of footage from the Don Dale juvenile detention centre in the NT on ABC’s Four Corners program shocked Australia, and prompted the Prime Minister to instigate an immediate Royal Commission.

For many Forgotten Australians the images were a disturbing reminder of their own abuse in state institutions and their continued long wait for redress.

Open Place Manager Simon Gardiner shares his reflections.

“You’ve got to do something mate. Did you see it last night? The bastards! It was brutal. That’s what happened to me. It’s got to stop.”

The images on the Four Corners program about institutional child abuse within a Darwin correctional centre have taken Jack back to some childhood experiences 50 years ago. Jack continued to say:

“They did this to me… they beat me and then they locked me up in the black hole. It’s never stopped.”

Jack is a survivor of the child welfare system. Over 500,000 children (including both Former Child Migrants and those from the Stolen Generations) were incarcerated in the institutional care system of the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. These children are known as Forgotten Australians; the term used in the 2004 Senate Report that highlighted the widespread brutality and neglect experienced by children in the institutional “care” system.

This policy of incarceration and separation from family and community continues to reap a bitter harvest. Many of Jack’s contemporaries have died young, suffer premature ageing, have significant health issues and have lengthy contact with a range of services including prison, mental health services and homeless services. Many have failed relationships and erratic contact with their own children.

As Forgotten Australians age the fear of returning to institutional care increases, particularly when the care is to be provided by the same agency that abused them as a child.

I hear Jack’s distress over the phone. These images from the Four Corners program are personal, powerful and painful reminders of the terror and loneliness he felt as a child. Jack has lived with these feelings of futility and helplessness all his life and the graphic reminders of his childhood experiences return him to the darkness of his childhood.

They also remind him of how little – if anything – has changed. When Jack was abused and maltreated whilst in the care of the State, the Korean War was raging, Robert Menzies was Prime Minister and Hawthorn was yet to win a premiership. Much has changed, but beneath Jack’s often prickly and aggressive exterior there still lives the scared little boy who nightly lives with the terrors of the past.

Jack’s final words to me say it all: “It’s wrong mate. It’s just wrong.” Jack knows not enough has changed.

As a community we ought to be outraged at the treatment meted out to the children in the Darwin correctional facility. Those who perpetrated these crimes need to be held to account for their actions and prosecuted.

As a community we are suffering a collective amnesia. It is as if we are afraid of remembering what happened to the 500,000 children who only a generation ago experienced the rigours and sometimes the brutality of our child welfare system. They are still with us, as adults, and like Jack they are still suffering. There have been Senate Inquiries, Parliamentary Inquiries, a Royal Commission (into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse), and countless government reports, all of which have outlined in forensic detail the experiences of the Forgotten Australians. Despite these reports, this appalling episode in our history which took place more than 50 years ago, still remains largely unknown to the wider public. It’s not spoken about or taught in schools or in training institutions.

The Forgotten Australians are still fighting for redress and compensation. They receive no priority access to health and medical services.

It is proper that there is to be a Royal Commission into the treatment of the children in the correctional facility in the Northern Territory. But as a community we also need to channel some of our outrage into ensuring that our ageing Forgotten Australians (who were once children) receive the recognition, redress and services they have been waiting so long for and deserve.