Select Committee on Health Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160 - 179)

WEDNESDAY 4 JUNE 1998MRS M HUMPHREYS, OAM, MR I THWAITES, MR DSPICER, THE HON MRS J TAYLOR, MR M DALTON, MR J HENNESSEY, MR N JOHNSTON and MRS P IRELAND.

Chairman

160. I do not think Mr Gunnell said that. I think he was talking about what was established by the Brothers, the fund referred to which had supported people coming across.

(Mr Spicer) Exactly. Part of the settlement of the legal action was the establishment of a fund which was intended to fund returns home. Nothing to do with the funding for the Trust. There was a confusion here.

161. We understand that point.

(Mr Dalton) Could I say why Catholics get so much mention here? It was because the Catholics had most of the institutions. In Perth and surrounding areas alone, or Western Australia, there were four orphanages run by the Christian Brothers and two by the Sisters of Mercy. That is only in Western Australia. In the other states they also had institutions. This is why you find that the Catholic Church particularly is being given and we are all representatives from the Catholic Church. Just to clarify, we are not here just bashing Catholics. The Catholics had a huge input into the immigration system.

162. We understand that. Before we move on may I just thank Mr Johnston for that very helpful evidence. It has been most useful that you have been able to express to us your particular circumstances. If we have time we may well want to come back with further questions.

(Mr Johnston) May I also advise the Committee that I have brought with me a copy of the Voices magazine, which was our voice during the years of turmoil that the litigation was going on. The stories which are in here are going to give you a very broad basis of what the core of the problem is and may help the Committee in fact in formulating its recommendations.

Chairman: We will certainly look at those if you leave them with us. That is very helpful.

Dr Stoate

163. How able do you think you are as a Trust to represent the bulk of the child migrants in Australia?

(Mrs Humphreys) That is a good question. I am glad you have put that to me, certainly in the light of what has just been said. We are very representative. I was in a sense prepared for this question so perhaps I may answer it based in reality and tell you who we work with and who we are currently working with. We work with people who went to Fairbridge, Pinjarra, Western Australia, Fairbridge, Molong in New South Wales, Fairbridge, Tresca in Tasmania, Fairbridge, Zimbabwe, which was Rhodesia, Fairbridge, Vancouver, Barnados in Canada, Barnados Picton, New South Wales, Christian Brothers, Castledare, Christian Brothers, Clontarf, Christian Brothers, Tardun, Christian Brothers, Bindoon, Nazareth House, Camberwell, Victoria, Nazareth House, Geraldton, Western Australia, Mercy Sisters, Goodwood, South Australia, Mercy Sisters, Neerkol, Queensland, Mercy Sisters, Thurgoona, New South Wales, Mercy Sisters, North Ryde, New South Wales, Mercy Sisters, Subiaco, Western Australia, Northcote Farm School, Victoria, Swan Homes, Western Australia, Murray Dwyer, New South Wales, Christian Brothers, Sydney, United Protestants' Association, Melrose, Sydney, United Protestants' Association, Lismore, New South Wales, Saleasian Brothers, Glenorchy, Tasmania, Clarendon Children's Homes, Tasmania, Presentation Sisters, WA, Dhurringhile Victoria, Methodist Children's Homes, Victoria, St John's Homes, Victoria, Church of England Empire Settlement Scheme, Queensland Pre-war, Foster Child Migrants in New Zealand. I could go on. It would be fair to say that we work right across the board of all organisations which migrated children in all the countries they went to.

164. That is a very impressive list and I am very pleased to see you have made contact with so many different groups. That has certainly answered my question. May I ask approximately how many enquiries you receive each year from former child migrants themselves?

(Mrs Humphreys) May I hand over to Ian Thwaites, the Senior Social Worker who really deals with that aspect of our work? He has prepared some answers for you.

(Mr Thwaites) The trust is working in Australia with approximately 500 former child migrants at present and we receive approximately 120 new referrals each year from child migrants for whom we then go on to provide a service. We receive somewhere in the vicinity of 5,000 enquiries within Australia and of those about 120 become new clients for whom we provide services.

165. Do you think that number is increasing or decreasing with time?

(Mr Thwaites) It is remaining fairly static at the moment. There have been periods over the last 10 years where there has been an increase and that particularly coincides with periods of publicity around the time that there was initial publicity when Lost Children of the Empire was released, when Leaving of Liverpool went out, those times. Last year when this inquiry was announced, there was a great rush of activity and the other factors which have considerable bearing are the media interest in some of the litigation which is going on constantly in Australia against perpetrators of abuse.

166. We have heard this morning about the resource difficulties you have had. Do you think you are able to cope reasonably well with this level of enquiries or do you think a significant backlog is building up and is that a worry?

(Mr Thwaites) An enormous backlog is building up. Increasingly I and staff I work with are having to sit with former child migrants and say to them that very sadly we have learned that their mother has died within the period we have been looking for her.

167. Obviously that is a big issue which we shall have to return to on a number of occasions. Would you like to be able to expand your brief to other countries or do you feel that Australia is your natural base?

(Mr Thwaites) Yes, we believe so and in fact we are planning to open an office in Canada next year. We need a further office in Australia. We need to be able to provide further services in New Zealand which is currently serviced from the Melbourne office.

168. You would like a separate office in New Zealand.

(Mr Thwaites) Yes.

Dr Brand

169. It must be extraordinarily difficult for you to plan your activities where you cannot guarantee any funding. What representations have you made to government here and governments elsewhere? Do you encourage those governments to talk to each other, to accept some joint responsibility, to give you some security in the ability to carry out this work?

(Mrs Humphreys) When we first founded the Trust, I really did believe that the funding would be there. It seemed to me so straightforward. It is something we can do. There are many things which have happened in history which we cannot actually do anything about. We are very saddened by it but we cannot do anything about it. This is something we can clearly do something about and are we not fortunate that at the moment there is something we can still do something about which is tangible? Therefore I thought that funding would be available and I thought it would be available from the British Government and the Australian Government. I thought quite naively that these were the two governments who worked to send the children to Australia, why can they not work together to bring them back home? Why can the British and Australian Government not sit down together and fund this operation properly and viably from now? What is stopping them? I do not know what is stopping them but I should like to know. We have spent 10 years talking with government representatives, making applications to the Department of Health, to the Federal Government in Australia, to fund-giving charitable bodies in this country who are well known for funding projects, projects like this. What do they say to the Trust? They say this is a matter for government, we are not going to pick the tab up for this. This is government.

170. Would you be prepared to lose a degree of autonomy if you do get guaranteed funding?

(Mrs Humphreys) Do you think we could do our work if we lost that autonomy? That is the problem. That is the dilemma. In a sense we are able to do our work, work with child migrants and just as importantly their families because we are independent.

171. You have not had government responses saying they will not give you any money because you will not do what we tell you.

(Mrs Humphreys) No.

172. They have not offered the money in the first place.

(Mrs Humphreys) A limited amount: £20,000 a year at the moment from the Department of Health and left for two years without funding, may I add. There was a point at which the Department of Health left this Trust for two years without any funding. The problems of the child migrants did not stop for those two years. The problems of weeping mothers did not go away during those two years.

173. Would you be happy to sit down with government agencies and work out a modus vivendi if that guarantees the work you do being carried out?

(Mrs Humphreys) Yes.

174. How long do you think you are going to need to continue to be operational? I know it is an awfully difficult question.
(Mrs Humphreys) It is a very difficult question and we have tried to answer that in our submission as best we could. When the Trust was first founded, we thought it was a two if not five year project. I would have to say to you now that the Trust needs to be funded and continue its work for at least the next 10 years.

Mr Gunnell

175. One of the recommendations you made to us in your paper was that "...the Trust should be assisted to compile a computerised database of all former child migrants and their records". Is it a goal which could be realised? How much do you think a computerised database would cost?

(Mrs Humphreys) I think it could be achieved. I really do think it could be achieved and I really believe it is essential. In some ways we are part way there. For example, the Catholic Migrant Centre in Perth, Western Australia, has already given us their database of some 9,000 children's names. It could be achieved if the migrating agencies and the Government want that to occur. If we are to work in the best interests of child migrants and their families then we could do that.

Chairman

176. May I take up this point on the database? This was an issue we raised with the Department of Health and it is a very fundamental question in terms of the access to information that you all desire. One of the concerns in evidence that we have received from other agencies, it will not surprise you to learn, and you may be aware of this already, is that there is an antagonistic relationship between some of the placing agencies and yourselves. So there are people who criticise the Child Migrants' Trust quite strongly. We have evidence from the Australian Child Migrants' Foundation, which talks of the Trust having alienated itself from other groups. You may be aware of their allegations. I make no judgement on how they substantiate the allegations but the point I would put to you on the question of the database is if that database were within the Child Migrants' Trust, how would we ensure that those agencies, the placing agencies in particular, organisations such as the one I have mentioned, who have relevant information, actually provide that information for a database to an organisation they clearly do not get on with?

(Mrs Humphreys) May I just say in relation to the Australian foundation you have just referred to, that is not a professional organisation, it is not a migrating organisation either. As I understand it, it is an organisation which is there to provide air fares for child migrants returning home. The board is made up of former child migrants. In terms of the database it would not be relevant because they actually do not have records of child migrants.

177. The point I was making was about the agencies in particular. You have understandably, with the evidence we have heard today, an antagonistic relationship for the reasons which are perfectly understandable.

(Mrs Humphreys) Not with them all.

178. How would we ensure that the information which we know is available in those agencies and has been held back from people who have been struggling for decades to find out their own identity, how would we ensure that those agencies provided that information for a database within the Child Migrants' Trust if the relationships are bad for reasons which we fully understand.

(Mrs Humphreys) I understand the question. Perhaps I could ask Mr Spicer to answer.

(Mr Spicer) May I make one thing clear? The working relationships with professionals who work to professional standards within other agencies are very good. A lot of collaborative work is undertaken on the ground but of course you will appreciate from the material which you have already had that the message which the Trust was bringing out into the open and has done for 10 years—you rightly asked why it was not known about before—was of course known but in a very closed group. They are not popular messages. It is not surprising that the sorts of information which former child migrants now have the confidence and have grown in confidence over the last 10 years to bring out are not popular messages for the agencies which were concerned with sending those children. That is not surprising. I am quite confident however that if the arrangements which the trust wish to establish had the stamp of approval from a committee such as yours or from the governments, it would be very difficult for those agencies not to cooperate with the centralisation of that information and of course it is not only information relating to the former child migrants, there is an enormous amount of information held in different places about their families. Of course we do this very frequently, but if we had the funds we could do it more frequently. We would be able to match up the many enquiries we receive from people in this country, members of the families, enquiring about their children and other relatives who may have been involved in the schemes; we would link those people up much more quickly than we are able to do. We do it now but we do not do it with the speed that is so necessary because of the reasons which several people have emphasised to you.

Mr Gunnell

179. We were told that the sending agencies themselves recognise the need for a database of this sort. Is it possible to develop a shared facility in which everybody has access to the data which is on that facility?

(Mr Spicer) I do not want to sound churlish at that offer but the essence of the work which the Trust has done in the last 10 years and its reputation with former child migrants is its independence from those agencies which were responsible for the iniquities which were practised on these children as they were and their families. There have been occasions on which there may have been some small amounts of funding available, had we got into bed with one agency or another. We of course take those situations seriously and we consult particularly with the former child migrants. The overwhelming emphasis which we get back is that if you get into bed with those agencies, if you associate yourself with those agencies, then our trust and confidence in the work which you do will be lost. Of course people have touched on the independence, but it only takes a few minutes to know, does it not? It is not just an issue of sending people back to the abusers, it is how difficult it is for an agency to deal with those issues which we have heard something of. How can you deal with a former child migrant and explain why he or she was in the position they were in because their father was a priest, which is the reason. It is very, very difficult. How can you explain? Let us leave the Catholic agency alone for the moment. How can you explain if you work for an agency to a former child migrant that you have spent 30 years deceiving members of their family who have enquired about their whereabouts by telling them they had been adopted? How can you deal with those issues and give that person the confidence which they require?


 
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