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Abused girls' institution trauma

  • 05 August 2013

On Fridays, when I push my two preschoolers in their double stroller to the Preston market, I pass the Anglicare office in Murray Road. Outside is a billboard featuring a miserable, heavily-mascaraed teenage girl and the message, 'Foster care: Changing her life ... and yours.' 'I'm sorry,' I always think sadly, 'we just can't.'

With a chronic shortage of foster families — particularly ones prepared to accept 'damaged' adolescents — the prospect of a stable home for girls like the one on the billboard is slight. However, the present system in Victoria — whereby adolescent girls at risk of abuse and neglect are placed by the Department of Human Services (in partnership with agencies such as Anglicare) in either kinship, foster, or residential care — reflects an evolution in youth justice and child protection policies.

In the past, such girls were frequently sent to the Winlaton Youth Training Centre in Nunawading. This institution was established by the State Government in 1956 to contain female juvenile criminal offenders, wards of the state, and girls under protection orders (those deemed 'uncontrollable' or 'in moral danger'). Many already had long experiences in orphanages.

Unlike their male counterparts, 'delinquent' girls who repeatedly ran away from violent, dangerous environments were frequently incarcerated because it was perceived that they might be sexually active and fall pregnant. Rather than being offered safe and therapeutic alternative homes, they were placed in an under-resourced, overcrowded institution and treated like a difficult herd to be 'managed'. Regardless of the state's intention to protect and rehabilitate, Victoria's most vulnerable girls were punished for the transgressions perpetrated against them.

Before a series of significant reforms undertaken by Winlaton's management in the mid-1970s restricted such intrusive and humiliating practices, new 'trainees' were routinely de-loused, strip-searched, and scalded in boiling Phenol baths. They were also bussed to a clinic in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, to be checked for any signs of venereal disease or pregnancy.

For Joan*, who spent her entire adolescence in Winlaton after being made a ward of the state in 1964 at age 12, the psychological impact of being internally examined by an unsympathetic doctor has been long-lasting: 'What on earth were they looking for at 12? If you cry, you're told to shut up. To me that's sexual assault.' A habitual absconder, Joan was subjected to the same traumatic process each time the police returned her to Winlaton.

The callousness and brutality of the institution did very