sacrifice of the innocents: when will we learn?

This week, Australia’s Royal Commission into Child Abuse is hearing testimony regarding appalling abuses against children in Salvation Army children’s homes. It reminded me of a piece I wrote on one of those homes which happened to be near where I grew up for a history writing unit at uni . In the course of writing the piece I read a good deal of the Forde Report, the result of the Commission of Inquiry into Child Abuse in Queensland Institutions. The extent and severity of the abuses in these places was truly horrific and the long-term effect on those incarcerated inside them devastating. Telling the victim’s stories is an important part of their healing, and of a cultural healing, a way of making sure systemic atrocities such as these never happen again.

So, here’s the piece I wrote last year. Looking at it again now, I feel a profound sorrow that so many children suffered so greatly and with so little adult protection or support. I hope the royal commission’s shining light on this dreadful history helps some of them in some way.

 

***

Alkira

I spent most of my childhood living in Kenmore, then a new and affluent suburb on Brisbane’s leafy western edge. About five minutes from our home was an establishment that always seemed fascinating and mysterious to me. A long driveway wound up a steep hill to a cluster of imposing, two-storey wooden structures. The sign by the gate read ‘The Salvation Army Alkira Village Home for Boys’. I remember asking my mother what that meant. I had no brothers but imagined that all boys lived in homes, didn’t they? My mother explained that it was an orphanage and that most of the boys who lived there had no parents, or had parents who could not look after them. Others, she said, had been very naughty and so were sent away as a punishment.

My mother’s answer piqued my childish curiosity. Each time we passed, I would scan the site hoping for a glimpse of an orphaned, unwanted or Very Naughty boy. I was always disappointed. Despite the obvious attention given the manicured grounds, in the decades I lived in the area I never saw a single human being in evidence. Alkira seemed an island quarantined from the rest of the world. Whatever went on inside those walls was invisible from without.

As it turns out, in fact, the term ‘orphanage’ was a misnomer. The majority of the 1500 boys housed at Alkira from its opening in 1941 until it closed in 1983 did, in fact, have parents. Some had been transported to Australia under the British child migrant scheme and most of these, like their Australian counterparts, had been placed in State homes ‘for reasons such as marital breakdown, illegitimacy and temporary economic hardship’ (Forde 32). In plain terms, parents considered undeserving of their children lost them to a system that promised to do a better job at raising them than they could.

The institutions failed utterly in this aim. While I was enjoying the comfortable existence afforded me in the embrace of a typical Australian middle-class, nuclear family, inside Alkira boys were subject to third-world conditions, suffering the effects cold, vermin infestation, disease and hunger.

In 1998, the Beatty government established the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions (Forde). At that time former Governor of Queensland Leneen Forde examined conditions inside 159 orphanages and child detention centres during the period from 1911 to 1999. Over 300 people – mostly former inmates – provided information to the Inquiry. Their testimonies revealed a culture where appalling conditions and systemic abuse were the rule rather than the exception. Children were often poorly clothed ­(menstruating girls were not offered any sanitary pads and were supplied with only one pair of cotton bloomers) and severely underfed (some former inmates say they were forced to steal food from the pigs or cows in order to stave off hunger). Sexual abuse was rife in almost all the institutions examined. This abuse was often perpetrated by staff or visitors but frequently young children were molested or raped by older inmates who had been kept on at the home as virtual slave labourers. Frequently, when victims reported the abuse, they were beaten for telling lies (Forde iv).

Corporal punishment was permitted in Queensland orphanages under Regulation 23 of the State Children Act 1911 ‘as a last resort’ in cases of ‘grave misconduct’. However, reports of cruel violence perpetrated or tolerated by staff go well beyond the bounds of normal institutional discipline. Not far from Alkira was the Salvation Army’s Riverview Training Farm for Boys which, along with Alkira, was singled out in the Report as a site where particularly brutal physical punishments were meted out. Former Riverview inmate Ray Carlile remembers being tied around the ankles with a rope and lowered into a well by staff who mistakenly believed he had stolen a handful of electrical fuses. As the ten-year-old’s fingers touched the water at the bottom of the well, he blacked out. When he woke he was lying on the grass surrounded by officers beating him with canes and screaming, ‘You filthy little pig!’ because he had wet his pants in terror. The year was 1956 (Dalton).

At Alkira, former residents report that staff would beat or humiliate children for ‘misdemeanours’ such as talking during meals, failing to close their eyes during prayer, speaking to girls in the school playground, or not sitting up straight while watching television. One former resident remembered children being lined up, stripped from the waist down, bent over a vaulting horse and beaten with a garden hose for stealing mangoes from a neighbouring property. Another described receiving a flogging with a razor strop at the hands of the Superintendent that left him so bruised he was unable to sit (Forde 72). Bed-wetters and left-handed children were singled out for special torture (Forde 76).

Although Section 37 of the Act required that children in State institutions between the ages of five and 14 years of age attend school, the Forde report found that often children were instead put to work cooking, cleaning, laundering clothes, and managing gardens and livestock. Consequently many left the institutions at 16 entirely illiterate (Forde 82–3). Similarly, sick ‘home children’ were generally treated with cheap remedies and rarely received medical attention unless dangerously ill (Forde 68).

The scant funding provided for the care of State wards may be key in understanding how such widespread abuse could have continued for so many decades without intervention from the Department.

A recognition of the relationship between the Department and the denominations which ran the licensed institutions is essential to an understanding of how institutional care could fail children in so many respects without intervention from the Department. The levels of funding on which almost all of the denominational institutions operated were patently insufficient to allow the provision of proper individual care. Yet the Department continued to place children in those institutions because they provided a cheap means of lodging children for whose care it was responsible, and it was able to use as justification the fact that the children were, after all, in Christian care. The churches, for their part, acquiesced in this undiscriminating placement of children because of their perceived obligation to provide refuge to homeless children, however inadequate their resources might be. By doing so, they acquired an ascendancy over the Department; it was most unlikely that the Department would jeopardise its access to those placements by subjecting the institutions to scrutiny of the kind necessary to ensure that children were being cared for properly. The  denominations were thus able to carry out what they considered to be their Christian mission without risk of interference from the Department. On its side, the Department maintained an irreplaceable, cheap resource, and could complacently point to the fact that the children were being raised in a Christian environment (Forde v)

While low levels of funding may speak to the cultural value attributed to children at the time and offer some rationale for Departmental overlooking of abuse it does nothing to explicate the motivations of staff who inflicted such brutal treatment on the children in their care. But perhaps there are clues.

Almost all of the institutions were run by churches – both Catholic and Protestant – and staffed by Christians who in all likelihood believed in ‘original sin’, a view that prevailed in churches at the time. Christian ‘carers’ may have felt a moral obligation to prevent children from following their base natures down a road that lead to a life of degradation and, ultimately, hell. Perhaps this was at the root of institutional policies of strict discipline. Then, perhaps, unsupervised and with unrestrained power over their charges, adults with a tendency to religious authoritarianism crossed the line into cruelty at some point. Could it be that this is how, over time, a full-blown culture of brutality ensued? Could it be that otherwise decent church-attending Christian workers look back now and wonder how the hell they could ever have thought such brutality was normal? Do they still wonder today why they failed to report such obviously criminal violence against minors in their care? Certainly the treatment the children received was not normative in the broader community. The Forde Report notes that even placing institutions in their historical contexts and taking into account prevailing social attitudes and economic circumstances, the endemic abuses went far beyond acceptable limits for the time (Forde ii).

I find it deeply painful to know that while I was safely learning at my school desk or lying tucked up in my bed, barely a stone’s throw away children – thousands of them over the years – were suffering what can only be described as torture. But even more disturbing is that we do not seem to have learned from our mistakes. The Forde Report found that an abuse-enabling culture that isolates and disempowers children and prevents them from registering complaints still existed in institutional childcare at the time of the Enquiry. And I can’t help but think that we continue to see similar misinformed attitudes to ‘respectability’ in the National School Chaplaincy Program that values chaplains because they are cheaper than psychologists, and again in State-sanctioned Religious Instruction classes conducted by untrained church volunteers. Of course, the majority of Christians would find the idea of abusing children abhorrent but surely if submissions to the current Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse tell us anything its that there are an unacceptably large number of predatory adults in respected positions of authority who will gratify themselves at the expense of the young and powerless given the opportunity. It is naive to imagine they are not still with us.

***

In 2008 the Salvation Army redeveloped the Alkira site as a retirement village but I doubt any of those who spent time there as children would willingly return. On the long list of emotional, psychological and social consequences for the victims of institutional child abuse listed in the Forde Report, to my mind one of the saddest is that many report feeling terrified at the idea of growing old and being forced to live as an inmate in an institution like the one where they spent their childhood. It is heartbreaking to think that the pain of their early torment will taint even their last days with fear. Their enduring suffering is our shame.

 

Works cited

 

Dalton, Trent. “Sorry to Forgotten Australians Won’t Heal a Tortured Life.” The Courier-Mail. 15 November, 2009. Print.

Forde, Leneen (Chair). “Forde Report: Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions.” 1999. Print.

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. <www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au>

State Children’s Act 1911. < http://archive.aiatsis.gov.au/ removeprotect/54695.pdf>

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