Royal Commission – Residential homes, missions, reformatories and hospitals prior to 1990

In our last blog we commented upon the conclusions of the Royal Commission (RC) in respect of out-of-home care after 1990. Volume 11 of the RC report considers out-of-home care in the period spanning the end of World War II to 1990 and covers what was learnt about survivors’ experiences of, and institutional responses to, child sexual abuse in residential homes, missions, reformatories and hospitals.

The report estimates that 500,000 children passed through institutional and other out-of-home care in Australia during the twentieth century. That figure does not include the unknown figure of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children that were forcibly separated from their families over the same period nor the estimated 7,000 child migrants that were sent pre and post-World War II under approved schemes.

The volume covers four areas – the children sent to institutions and the different types of institution used, the abuse perpetuated including the characteristics of the residential institutions that increased children’s vulnerability, the institutional responses to child sexual abuse both at the time and since and the lessons for the future. It has been prepared, using amongst other sources, the oral testimony of nearly 7,000 people.

The survivors were predominantly male and gave accounts of being sexually, physically and emotionally abused in youth detention, mental health facilities, reception centres and under the guise of medical examinations – often undertaken without consent. Many had to work at the institutions they were placed at and were deprived of their education as a consequence.

Characteristics of residential institutions that increased the risk of abuse to the children in them are identified. The concept of a ‘total institution’ was recognised as a particular risk.  These were institutions with staff and ‘inmates’ – the children being the ‘inmates’.  The staff exerted control over almost all aspects of the children’s lives, reinforced that control by imposing rigid rules and procedures and had, as a principal objective, the transformation of human beings.  Other aspects of the institutions’ culture that may have also contributed to the enablement of the abuse were secrecy and isolation from the outside world, a failure to listen or value children, large differentials in power between staff and children, treating children as inferior, isolating them and a belief that physical discipline and corporal punishment had a moral and educative role in children’s lives.

As regards reporting the abuse, many said that they had tried to at the time but had been accused of telling lies or being punished and the abuse continued. Some gave accounts that they were made to feel as if they were the instigator of the abuse rather than the victim and they were labelled as bad or morally deficient.

Of those that reported later, in adulthood, they too experienced difficulties with the criminal processes – reporting to the police and attempting prosecutions. Utilising the existing redress schemes had not proved a satisfying, respectful or supportive experience for many.

In relation to the future, many survivors had views on how children should be cared for and how they could be protected. They included:

  • Children needing someone to act in their best interests and advocate on their behalf, especially for children away from their families;
  • More support to be provided when transitioning from out-of-home care into living in the community;
  • Children and the wider community needed a better understanding of what constitutes child sexual abuse;
  • More focus to be placed on employing appropriate people to work with children in care.

In respect of their own position and the support they needed now and in the future survivors called for:

  • Better access to medical and dental care, mental health services and housing;
  • Support to access their records and information including information about their birth families;
  • Extra support in relation to the difficulties they had experienced with parenting and relationships because of the legacy of intergenerational trauma and the effect it had had on their relationships with others and their ability to parent;
  • Support to gain skills, including literacy and access to employment owing to their poor education whilst in residential care;
  • Appropriate redress for what had happened to them including acknowledgment of the trauma, the importance of recognising and remembering what had happened in a way that would help child sexual abuse survivors in the future;
  • Redress schemes to be straightforward, with the institutions and those responsible bearing the cost, and the process for determining the amount of compensation to be transparent and fair;
  • Memorials and official days to remember survivors and victims of sexual abuse;
  • Sensitivity to their childhood experiences when faced with the possibility of having to re-enter the institutional care system as they aged. Concerns about being abused again were voiced and some thought that should be addressed by supporting them to live in the community as they got older.

Whilst certain aspects of the survivors’ experiences and views are particular to Australia many are common to other jurisdictions. The expressions of concern that future generations should not experience the same should be one such universal aspiration.


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Sarah Firth, Associate, BLM

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