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Abused girls' institution trauma


'The Little Mongrel', by Merlene Fawdry. Book cover features painted depiction of three young women with no faces in an urban settingOn 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 little to rehabilitate girls who had run away — or been officially removed — from abusive and dysfunctional families. After hitchhiking from Brisbane to Melbourne in the early 1960s to escape her alcoholic parents, 13-year-old Karen* was soon picked up by police off the city streets. From the Russell Street cells, she was taken to Winlaton. There she recalls being belted with 'wet sand shoes', locked in her room, and forcefully injected with tranquillisers. 

To perhaps scare her straight, she was once sent for a couple of nights to the Fairlea Women's Prison.

For Gillian, who was admitted to Winlaton in 1972 at age 15 following a suicide attempt, the few months she spent there were characterised by utter boredom, punishments such as being forced to scrub the recreation room floor with a toothbrush, and neglect. After falling ill, she was ignored for days until she was finally rushed by ambulance to hospital. A strep infection had evolved into rheumatic fever — an illness usually only diagnosed in the most poverty-stricken, overcrowded communities of Australia. She suffered permanent heart damage as a result.

With little education or meaningful recreation offered, some girls sought to alleviate their boredom through violence. Merlene Fawdry recalls in her memoir, The Little Mongrel, that in the remand section 'there were no books to read, newspapers and radios were not allowed, so inmates just sat around and talked. This often led to disagreements and fights, where frustration and futility gave power to fists and feet and teeth.'

Tattooing was another common way to pass the time and rebel against 'the screws', but the future employment prospects and self-esteem of Winlaton girls were compromised by these amateur inkings.

For many of the women who spent time as juveniles in Winlaton in the 1960s and early '70s, life has been far from easy. Gillian supported a heroin addiction by working St Kilda's streets as a prostitute, Joan endured decades of agonising separation from the daughter she was forced to relinquish as a 16-year-old, and Karen escaped both her family and institutions by marrying at 17. After years of feeling like 'a reject from the conveyor belt of life' Fawdry regained her self-esteem by mothering seven children and qualifying as a youth social worker.

A tiny sample of the hundreds of adolescent girls who passed through Winlaton and survived into adulthood, these women demonstrate the wide-ranging effects of ruptured family life and subsequent institutionalisation. They also express a common hope that their stories may prevent the future unnecessary incarceration of vulnerable youth.

Though subjected to sexual double standards, and confused messages in mainstream and social media regarding the value of young women's bodies, rebellious Victorian girls who are possibly sexually active are no longer routinely punished with institutionalisation. For this, at least, we can be grateful. The ongoing problem of providing meaningful care to abused and neglected girls is, however, an ongoing conundrum.


Madeleine Hamilton headshotMadeleine Hamilton is an historian, blogger, and the co-author of Sh*t On My Hands: A down and dirty companion to early parenthood. Madeleine thanks the Care Leavers of Australia Network (CLAN) for its assistance in locating interviewees. She is keen to talk to more Winlaton care leavers, especially those who spent time in the institution between 1974 and its closure in 1993. Email Madeleine 

*Names have been changed

Topic tags: Madeleine Hamilton, Winlaton, foster care



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Existing comments

"Blue Girls" by John Crowe Ransom (stanzas 3 & 4): Practise your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;/And I will cry with my loud lips and publish/Beauty which all our power shall never establish,/It is so frail./For I could tell you a story which is true;/I know a woman with a terrible tongue,/Blear eyes fallen from blue,/All her perfections tarnished - yet it is not long/Since she was lovelier than any of you.

Pam | 04 August 2013  

Unfortunately "sexually active" included girls who were raped by male relatives - often fathers. It was easier, and cheaper for the government no doubt, to remove them from home than to punish the offender and thus deprive an entire household of its breadwinner.

Janet | 05 August 2013  

Please include the history of the imprisonment of young girls in the Abbotsford Convent/ Magdalene Asylum in your research. These girls were deprived of freedom, identity, education and, their children. Many were subjected to shocking physical abuse by their sexually frustrated captors. This story has been white-washed but remains another dark stain in the catholic church abuse chronicle.

Kerry Bergin | 05 August 2013  

Thank you Madeline for telling the Winnie Girls stories Hopefully more will come forward to Royal Commission and what occurred There is support for them to assist them to tell their stories and submissions

Leonie Sheedy | 06 August 2013  

Kerry's comment re the work of the girls in the laundries of the churches and charities is spot on Their bodies are broken from doing the unpaid labor of adults The salvos , catholic church didnt pay water or land rates nor wages to these girls Also the boys who were made to build the orphanages and also worked as slaves on orphanage farms as well as being farmed out for cheap labor often to be exploited for little more than food and a bed in a shed or sleep out Justice and redress for all Australian care leavers Thank goodness our stories will be listened to and believed at the Royal Commission Time for state churches and charities to contribute to national redress scheme now before too many die!

CLAN | 06 August 2013  

Many years ago when I was a teacher in a school for girls under 15 who had been before the courts, I found that many had committed no offence but were there as 'exposed to moral danger'. As they were minors, their parents should have been prosecuted for allowing them to be in this situation.

Mary Samara-Wickrama | 13 August 2013  

Sadly, fear of female sexuality "unleashed" (whatever that actually meant/means); the cliched and outdated sexist approach of the authorities at the time and an institutional mindset inherited from Colonial Convict times to do with rigid exercise of authority and punishment helped ruin many of these women's lives. Thankfully, a few weren't ruined. That is indeed a triumph of the human spirit. Some commenters don't seem to understand that this excellent piece is on Winlaton. It is only from detailed studies of particular instances, like yours, Madeleine, that a detailed "whole of situation" picture can be built up. Hopefully, living in a new era, we are not creating "similar but different" problems. I am firmly convinced we in Australia will not solve problems such as this unless we are prepared to tackle it the way they do in the Scandinavian countries with major, intelligent resource inputs. The debate on how this is to be done has not yet begun here.

Edward F | 13 August 2013  

It would be great, if you could do a story on the Magdalene laundries in Victoria,many young wards of the state girls were in these slave institutions,the education department signed these girls off with exemptions from schooling to work in these slave laundries, this must be exposed, as it shows the government were involved.No organisation in Australia has raised a concern about our experience and then we look across the seas to Ireland/USA and the Magdalene living women have such support to expose the crimes within these slave Catholic work houses.It is time for the Magdalene Good Shepherd laundries Australia to set up trust fund, as many women now have health problems.I did read in an inquiry, that Madgalene women have to return to their perpetrators for a small payout.Health problems are on going not a quick fix with 30 pieces of silver.

mari | 18 August 2013  

Hello Madeleine, I was a Winlaton inmate in the early 60s, as told in my book, The Little Mongrel. I was also a youth worker (1978-2003) working closely with young women in Winlaton ,between 1978-1993 toward deinstitutionalisation, changes to the Children and Young Persons Act, and the closure of such places. It is great to see someone taking an interest in this, often untold except by bureaucrats, dark side of our welfare history.

Merlene Fawdry | 24 August 2013  

I was at abbotsford convent in late sixties and had to work in the laundry there ,also was in winlaton and spent time in solitary cell with just mattress on floor let out once day to scrub hallway with brush on hands and knees , children were made to feel that they were to blame for their home life it was never the adults fault and in saying that the parents probably needed support and counselling as well .......

Sue | 16 October 2013  

Hi, I was there in 1974. It was awful but better than being at "home". :-) I would like to discuss it further.

Evie | 23 January 2014  

Hello, l was at Winlaton in the early 70's for not being wanted by my stepfather it was very traumatic for me in many ways as I was the youngest child there. I was aloud to have my dog with me after a time,I often wonder who was paying for her as I now know this was very unusual if not highly against the government rules. I as a virgin was also sent to the clinic for testing,this is what ruined me mentally still to this day,I was also given drugs on a daily baises little blue pills after they realised i was traumatised by the whole ordeal I was also very scared of a woman we called BBB,we worked(making pegs at one stage) for cigarettes and lollies,I will never forget the smell of the place it is with to this day,I can not stand the sound of a floor polisher to this day,I never got an education while there but I did like the cooking teacher mrs M who secretly I wished would take me home . The place was loveless and I will forever carry that with me. I have been to the Royal Commission late last year and told a part of my story but feel very much worse for having done so,I think of all the people who still make money out of us(think of the thousands of jobs the commission has had to create and the cost) I feel very cheap and still tainted by the whole experience.

Helene | 12 February 2014  

Am interested in learning of a staff members qualification who worked there in the 1970's. Are you able to point me in right direction for this type of information?

Shiona | 28 March 2014  

Hello Evie, Helene and Shiona, are you able to contact me directly by email: madeleinehamilton1@gmail.com I would really like to discuss Winlaton further with you. Thank you everyone for your comments and valuable insights.

Madeleine Hamilton | 11 April 2014  

Hi I was a Winlaton girl in the early 70's my crime exposed to moral danger. Turned me from a young innocent girl into a hateful reclusive adult.Haven't been to royal commission yet .Only just started looking into it. would like some info about this.

Katie H | 25 July 2014  

I was in Winlaton from 1959/ 1963. When I was first in contact with CLAN they did not want anything to do with Winlaton girls.
There are many of us that have so many stories to tell,sadly nobody is interested unless there is something in it for them.We were injected with Largactil and also medicated with Largatil and Sparine in tablet form. I used to walk around like a sombe.Also locked in Goonyah for days on end without anything at all in the cell room.Could go on and on.Lynn M

Lynette Meyers | 06 January 2015  

think i need to read this book..... i was in winnie from 1984... til i was released from a ward of the state. i still have alot of bad memoies just from the 80's... and alot of that was what the other girls did to me..hence i changed my name.. but i wouldn't mind reading the book... i will look it up....

bobbie | 03 May 2015  

I was in Winlaton and it was horrible I found a support network called CLAN 12 years ago The person I spoke to treated me with respect and care I have been a member ever since that 1st call I have told RC my story about my horrid horrific time as a Winnie Girl Vic Govt has a lot to answer for Mary

Mary | 30 July 2015  

My mother passed away 2 months ago, was born in 1962 and went to winlaton when she was 12 and she was raped there when she was 14! It disgusts me how my mother and other girls were treated, and seem to have got away with it

Matt | 02 August 2015  

My mother was in Winlaton from 1952 (6yrs old) onward till discharged at 17. She told me horror stories of what happened to her and others at that place. The effects of which plagued her for the rest of her life. She was mentally and emotionally wrecked! and the effects are still flowing down through the generations.

jodie | 24 August 2015  

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