Select Committee on Health Minutes of Evidence


Visit to Australia in March 1995

undertaken by Canon Christopher Fisher and Mrs Mary Gandy on behalf of the

Catholic Child Welfare Council and the Bishops' Conference of England & Wales



Part 1—Western Australia (Reduced version of the report)

OVERVIEW AND PURPOSE OF THE VISITThis visit to Australia was the result of a growing realisation that first-hand knowledge of the former child migrant issue was an absolute necessity if CCWC was to be a position to respond appropriately to tracing enquiries and to have a proper perspective on current issues.The first part of the visit concentrated on Western Australia because the majority of former Catholic child migrants were placed in institutions there and most of the difficulties that have been expressed appear to be in Western Australia.

OUR PERCEIVED EXPECTATIONSFrom the background information we had read, from various accounts and publications and from the meetings held in the UK, we believed that discussions would be concentrated on:1. Migration: (a) How decisions had been made; how children were chosen; and who should take responsibility for the migration scheme. (b) Access to information including tracing, identity, and finding family.2. Conditions: prevailing physical conditions at the time and child care practice compared with present standards.3. Abuse: allegations of physical and sexual abuse in the institutions and of harsh and cruel treatment.4. Litigation: cases being brought in Australia by angry former child migrants and other former residents of the institutions who claim abuse in the homes; some of these litigants would also claim that their views had not been acknowledged, their experiences had been denied and help had not been offered when their needs were presented.

WHAT WE FOUNDWe attempted to approach all known avenues of information by arranging meetings with as many people as possible who had a connection or interest in the former child migrant issue.There was universal agreement that the primary responsibility for the migration lies with Governments, both Australian and British. We found mixed degrees of realism over the possibility of receiving formal recognition of the issues or of obtaining any financial assistance to help with the provision of services.It became quite clear early on in our visit that the question of litigation and child abuse were definitely not the main concerns of the greater majority of former child migrants we met. This is not to suggest that they do not exist. There are major court cases in the pipeline and there is an understandable anxiety at institution and government level which makes them respond to the issues with caution. It is felt that this area of concern will drag on for a long time. It is our opinion that the question of litigation is deflecting interest in the main issues which affect a significant number of former child migrants.The experience of former child migrants has been extremely varied. Of the men, quite a good number have been quite successful in life, particularly the ones who came out at an early age and went to Castledare. If they showed promise they would then have moved on the Clontarf where there was a higher record of academic achievement and there exists today a large and mainly contented Old Boys' Association. A number of Clontarf boys would have had the opportunity of attending Aquinas College with the possibility of university entrance. Older children would have gone to Tardun or to Bindoon for the "rural" experience. Again it appears that those who could benefit most from this kind of experience were moved on to Tardun. This left Bindoon with the least academically inclined and, we believe, a higher proportion of those with behavioural difficulties. It would have been possible for a boy to have experienced from only one to all four of the institutions. We consider, from the evidence that we have shared, that the boys at Bindoon would have had the least opportunities for academic development. On the other hand there was a wide variety of encouragement in other skills such as building, related trades and particularly farming.Many former child migrants, especially former residents of Bindoon complain about the lack of basic education which has hampered them throughout their lives and given them a feeling of inadequacy. This has been compounded by the isolation felt by young people when first exposed to living on their own after leaving the institution. We would suggest that the damage done at this stage by having no family to turn to has been greater than has been generally acknowledged even today. Many also complain of difficulties in personal relationships. Others have remained in a dependent position throughout their lives.As far as the former girl child migrants are concerned, these centre on two particular groups: the Geraldton girls, and the St Josephs girls. They see things from quite different perspectives but, by and large, those who wish to stay in touch with their past have formed into informal groupings for mutual support and they appear to have quite a good contact network. They all claim that life was quite hard in the institutions and the treatment was sometimes severe, but none has made any formal allegation of abuse against the staff. They expressed anger that other people from outside are still trying to run their lives, and they resent the interference that presumes they cannot manage their own lives.There were conflicting views regarding publicity from such sources as "The Leaving of Liverpool". Some men and women said they could identify, but others said their were grossly exaggerations or bore no relation at all to their own experience. There were strong feelings expressed that this sort of publicity was very damaging to former residents of Catholic institutions as it gave the public a very slanted impression and stigmatised them. It represented an emotional destruction of their childhood.We came to the conclusion that it was convenient for the State and Federal Government, and to some extent the Church, to keep the Christian Brothers as the focus of attention—despite their being the only body to show compassionate concern, to provide services, and to put up finance for counselling and travel.Apart from the significant minority, who are totally antagonistic towards the Brothers and the Church, there is a greater degree of positive appreciation from both the men and the women of the assistance provided by the Brothers than we would have anticipated. This comes even from former child migrants who are disaffected in other ways because of their life situation which they presume to have been caused by migration.

THE MAIN ISSUEWe cannot stress too strongly that the overwhelming message we received was not about litigation or abuse, but about service provision especially in respect of making contracts with family in the UK.There is wide spread frustration, sometimes anger, about the inability to locate records and about the length of time taken by researchers. There is also confusion about how to obtain records, what procedures will result in finding information what avenues to take to make family contact, where to find birth certificates, how to trace siblings and other relatives, etc. There is a deep suspicion that files are being withheld or that there is some ulterior reason why information is not readily available. There is no clear understanding about the nature and content of the files that do exist which, in the main, contain very little information. There is also a lack of knowledge about counselling services which could be used, and sometimes a reluctance to contact or use them.A further important issue is the number of men who are presumed to be "missing the system" because they have fared very badly and may be living in hostels and may have compounded problems such as alcohol abuse, etc.

PRACTICAL WAYS FORWARDThroughout our visit it became clear that a positive way of helping would be to assist with the provision of information leaflets. A general leaflet for public distribution is the first essential. This would provide information on practical procedures needed in finding personal records. It would summarise the procedure on tracing and family finding; a list of agencies and services in Australia, and the list of agencies in the UK which may hold records or can provide family counselling services. A second, more comprehensive leaflet for use by agencies in Western Australia which might be approached by former child migrants would contain fuller information, some background history and clear practice recommendations. A third leaflet would be a guide to practice issues and procedures as a resource for Centacare offices nationwide (and for any other counselling services). We were able to obtain tacit agreement from the State Government that some assistance could be forthcoming for the distribution of information leaflets to such places as libraries, doctors surgeries, clinics, hostels, information and counselling services, etc.One of the main areas of concern is about travel back to the UK to visit family and relatives. Whilst it is possible for some former child migrants to raise their own funds, and others qualify for support from the Christian Brothers ex-residents services, there is still the expense of living in England while contact and introductions are arranged. We feel that it could be possible to locate host families or accommodation in religious houses where visiting former child migrants could live at less expense and at the same time receive companionship and support from their hosts.Finally, it had been suggested that we might in some way act as a catalyst in the raising of further funds. The experience in Australia has been of difficulty in getting the various parties to act in unison. With the contacts we have made it would appear that some funds for travel could available from sources other than the Christian Brothers.Christopher FisherMary Gandy11 March 1995

The above is a reduced version of the report written at the time of the visit.Canon Fisher moved on from Western Australia to the Eastern States.The following footnotes appear at the end of Part 2 of the report.

FOOTNOTES1. The visit to Western Australia was undertaken jointly by Canon Christopher Fisher and Mrs Mary Gandy. The remainder of the visit to South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania, Canberra, New South Wales and Queensland, was undertaken alone by Canon Fisher.2. A vast area, geographically, historically and socially, has been covered in a relatively short visit. There was no working model of measurement or framework on which to base this investigation. It may be found that some of the statements or conclusions are fairly generalised. There has been a genuine effort to report faithfully the situation as recounted from many different angles. It has not been appropriate to take sides.3. Much of the benefit of this visit will not be visible in the report, but will have already taken place through the personal contacts made and by raising the profile and the needs of former child migrants in the minds of politicians, Church authorities, religious bodies, agencies and individuals.4. The visit met with universal enthusiasm. It is hoped this report will be similarly received.

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