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Dickensian England lives on in Australia



1838 saw the publication of Charles Dickens' tale of institutionalised child abuse, Oliver Twist. Dickens' work is still used to aid understanding of the trauma arising from poverty, and the suffering of children at the hands of individuals and within institutional settings.

Mark Lester in Oliver Twist movieI suspect that in broader Australian society we assume that Dickensian attitudes to children have evolved. Certainly, each Australian state and territory has a system of government-based child protection. Further, in 1990 the Commonwealth government ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Australian Human Rights Commission is responsible for protecting and promoting children's rights under the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 (Cth).

Aligned with the sentiments behind child protection, society's image of children and childhood is idyllic. We seek to create a safe haven for our children, protecting them from both real and imagined dangers. We hover over them as infants, at school, and even once they are adults at university.

Yet beneath this veneer of conspicuous concern for child welfare — and I do think that it is a veneer only — lies a substratum of deeply ambivalent, even malevolent, attitudes towards children with a distinctly Dickensian flavour.

Recent decades have seen a series of royal commissions and inquiries into the abuse of children in various contexts, notably Bringing Them Home: The Stolen Children Report (1997), the Forde Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions (1999), Lost Innocents: Righting the Record Senate Inquiry into British Child Migrants (2001), Little Children are Sacred Inquiry into Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse (2007), and the inquiry into Institutional Responses to Sex Abuse.

Of note, many of these inquiries cover ground that has already been the subject of various other inquiries. Few, if any, of these institutionalised abuses come as a surprise.

In the recent weeks, on top of harrowing evidence from those abused by an organised child sex ring within the Anglican Church, media have reported apparent torture in the notorious Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory, abuse of youth in Queensland detention centres, violence and sexual assault of children forcibly detained on Nauru by the Australian government, and an 'autism cage' in a Canberra school.

As a society, we worry about kids walking home from school or climbing trees, how much screen time we should allow children to promote maximum educational development, or how much stress school children experience in the NAPLAN tests.


"Smacking normalises adults' intrusion into children's bodily integrity, representing a foundation for the disrespect of children in multiple contexts and ultimately the abuse that we continue see in this country. "


At the same time, the state employs people — whether directly or indirectly — who decide that it is a good idea to cage a child, or to throw rocks at a five-year-old. In the case of the Northern Territory, the state decided to legislate in favour of the use of restraint chairs and spit hoods in youth detention and the Commissioner declared he 'didn't care how much chemical [tear gas] [was] used' on youth following alleged 'pandemonium'. In Queensland, authorities ignore repeated allegations of abuse.

While the wrongdoing of individuals is always of concern, all of these examples of violence against children point to institutionalised disregard for child welfare. Further, they are sufficiently widespread to evidence how society more broadly thinks children should be treated. That is why inquiries may be necessary, but they are not sufficient to deal with the root causes of violence towards children — the embedded attitudes that give permission to those in authority to capitalise on the misery of the powerless through abuse and even torture, and then to make excuses for it.

In the aftermath of these events, we hear that spit hoods and restraint chairs are for the safety of detention centre staff; that asylum seekers detained on Nauru frequently make up allegations; and that there is not enough money in the school system to deal with disruptive students. Each of these responses abnegates responsibility for a decision to abuse a child. So long as the system permits — and even sanctions — such abuses, any one individual will never be responsible for harm. And so the system continues.

The change that is needed, in addition to adducing the facts and the context of each abuse, is to elevate human rights: in particular, elevating the human rights of children. If we truly believe that children are the future, it behoves us — all of us — to treat all children with respect. This starts in the home, and faced with the ongoing cycle of institutional child abuse and torture perpetrated in this country, it is probably time to consider banning smacking. Smacking normalises adults' intrusion into children's bodily integrity, representing a foundation for the disrespect of children in multiple contexts and ultimately the abuse that we continue see in this country. 

It is imperative that Australian governments stop the abuse occurring in its name — in our name — and somehow remedy the harms that we have caused countless numbers of children through policies of cruelty and denial of their human rights. In the meantime we must overcome the dissonance between the idyll of childhood and our embedded apathy towards children's rights. We must proclaim children's identity as self-contained humans deserving of dignity and respect.

'For the rest of his life, Oliver Twist remembers a single word of blessing spoken to him by another child because this word stood out so strikingly from the consistent discouragement around him. — Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist


Kate GallowayKate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice.

Topic tags: Kate Galloway, child abuse.stolen generations, clergy sexual abuse



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Existing comments

Good to know u have an interest in social justice So do many CareLeavers who were abused by the Churches Charities & StateGovts who ran the 900+ Orphanages Children's Homes & fostercare It saddens me that you have left out the Senate Inquiry Report into Children in Institutional Care - its report is called a terrible name Forgotten Australians ! We deserve to be acknowledged for what we endured in those warehouses for vulnerable children who had no one to turn to Perhaps you might like to read Orphans of the Living - growing up in 'care' in 20th century Australia by co founder of CLAN Joanne Penglase ALL children suffered the loss of their identities cultures families worked like slaves in laundries farms Homes Time 4 Churches Charities state&fed govt established National Redress which is Royal Commission's No I Recomm on Redress ! All had a duty of care to us Can u imagine having no parents through your life? How do the parentless nuture & parent the next generation ? Kate Galloway will u assist us to get Justice ?

Leonie Sheedy | 20 August 2016  

Kate, if you're going to do a review of Australian inquiries into child abuse, it might be useful to know about the one that dealt with the greatest number, 500000, the so-called Forgotten Australians 2004.

Frank Golding | 22 August 2016  

Whilst there is much to agree with this article,as a victim of a Dickensian Salvation Army home, because like Oliver I was an orphan I find it misses so much. The question to ask is why we had to have so many inquiries in the first place and why the churches, charities and state authorities were dragged kicking and screaming and were forced to tell the truth. As a person who was a witness at the Royal Commission I found it appalling that these so called moral leaders, and we can pick a church, found it so easy to falsify information, deceive, threaten, hide criminal activities and argue about redress for the crimes they committed. It was the churches who initially tendered to dismiss children's claims and many of societies problems stem from their disgraceful behaviour. Perhaps it would be good to talk with those who suffered needlessly because for us abuse is not an academic exercise, rather its ongoing psychological torture.

James Luthyy | 22 August 2016  

"Yet beneath this veneer of conspicuous concern for child welfare — and I do think that it is a veneer only — lies a substratum of deeply ambivalent, even malevolent, attitudes towards children with a distinctly Dickensian flavour." What do these words mean? The majority of families are functional and functional parents have more than a veneer of love for their children. 'Dickensian' means 'institutionalised' and applies to children outside the care of kin - not the same thing. A Dickensian substratum under a veneer of conspicuous concern would be like a Nazi camp commandant who sees his family and pets as having a legitimate claim on his love and his inmates as 'the other' who have no such claim at all. Is Galloway saying that the wider Australian public, the ones who love their own, are also simultaneously allergic to the small number of unfortunate children who have been excluded from a family home?

Roy Chen Yee | 22 August 2016  

The worst offenders in relation to physical and sexual abuse historically have been the Catholic priests and religious themselves. Well, perhaps not as bad as Cromwell during the Reformation, but up there. We may point the finger at other institutions, but the Catholic Church and its orders of so called "Christian men" have been the main culprit. Oliver astounded the authorities in the parish workhouse by asking for more. Those of us who suffered through the controlled violence and sadism of a Marist , De La Salle or Christian brother upbringing, should also ask for more. A lot more.

Francis Armstrong | 24 August 2016  

Mr Armstrong sir you inadvertently bypassed Charol Shakeshaft Report to congress re USA State SchoolS[no priests] "more than 4.5 million students are subject to sexual misconduct by an employee of a school sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade" offenders recycled with glowing recommendations in ed system!

Father John George | 24 August 2016  

Until every adult today learns to put the needs and welfare of children ahead of everything, then miserable and cruel childhoods will continue. No child asks to be born, it's the parents in the first instance, who have to take personal responsibility for the love and nurture of each child they bring into the world. Society as a whole needs to be reminded of the great word “responsibility” and the village needs to be encouraged to help parents and families. It should be the first priority. Spare a thought for the practical question of how would you personally deal with a teenager who may have HIV, or is violently kicking you, attacking you or spitting at your face?

Jane | 26 August 2016  

Kate - endorse your article but on the other hand find it containing a portion of emotional abuse by you failing and falling into political censorship by not mentioning the inquiry into former forced adoption policies and practices - there were three national apologies not two - one of the most brutal era of our nation;s history against children was 1958-1975 against non pregnant girls residing in institutional care and young pregnant girls as young as 14 it is all recorded so by you ignoring this child abuse these abused girls now adults see you as condoning this abuse because it was against young girls - your article gives me further evidence of how the media in Australia continues to play a role in political censorship - when I address the Irish press later this morning via telephone link why did you exclude the national apology to women it is not about adoption as media have been brain washed to believe - no no it is not - it is about the crimes of child abuse - welcome to contact me - must now prepare for my interview with Irish media - survivors far out number the forgotten Australians statistics - although it is not a game

Brenda Coughlan | 26 August 2016  

I feel sorry for Charles Dickens. He exposes the squalid poverty and misery associated with the Industrial Revolution in Victorian England and his name is used as the descriptive adjective - Dickensian. Is a form of shorthand to stop us thinking too much about what caused those Dickensian conditions?

Uncle Pat | 26 August 2016  

Francis. According to Father Riley who has been working with children living in the streets for some years now, well over 80% of them are living in the streets because of abuse, both physical and sexual, within their own families - from parents, siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts - not within institutions. Uncle Pat alludes to the fact that we do not ask what led to the Dickensian child abuse conditions of 200 years ago. Neither do we ask what leads to the same conditions in todays society. I would suggest that failed, responsible parenting is the major cause and it is the parents who should be penally institutionalised not their sadly neglected children. However, in a society which has abandoned the ingrained human trait of knowledge of right and wrong and the instinctive responsibility for the product of its own procreation (something common to all parents in the animal world), no amount of money, government interference, charity or inquiry will make an iota of difference. Some would say our society has abandoned the Natural Law - and in doing so the notion of a creator God. While we continue to paint the societal wreckage with colourful words and grand enquiries the house will not be resurrected. It will still be a wreck and our society will not recover. We will remain buggered until we resume a belief in God over self. I am not holding my breath though.

john frawley | 26 August 2016  

What can be done? Reports, recommendations and inquiries and little improvement. There is one group which could change things in detention centers juvenile and others. More correctly two groups; staff and management. Who staffs these places? Who chooses staff? Who checks that they have not been slapped or worse? Who trains them? Who offers support for their personal difficulties? Who pays them a decent wage? Part of the blind eye is turned to the organizations running these places and their employment policies enacted on our behalves. Ever heard of someone wanting a career in a detention center? Torture traumatizes the torturer. Staff who have been in these places may need help or clearing out. But improvement must deal with these people and their needs to do the job we our governments ask them to do.

Michael D. Breen | 26 August 2016  

I tried unsuccessfully to get governments to ban 'smacking' - big people hitting little people - when I was SA's Minister of Community Welfare 30 years ago. But it seems it is still a 'sacred right' to smack/belt children in the family home. . It should be called out for what it is - domestic violence.

John Cornwall | 26 August 2016  

In fully endorsing wholeheartedly positives mentioned above, Child development and rights become a most painful issue re relatively small but significant number of budding psychopaths. International expert on psychopathy prof Robert Hare notes re causality: "The position I favor is that psychopathy emerges from a complex— and poorly understood— interplay between biological factors and social forces. It is based on evidence that genetic factors contribute to the biological bases of brain function and to basic personality structure, which in turn influence the way the individual responds to, and interacts with, life experiences and the social environment. 17 In effect, the elements needed for the development of psychopathy — including a profound inability to experience empathy and the complete range of emotions, including fear— are provided in part by nature and possibly by some unknown biological influences on the developing fetus and neonate. As a result, the capacity for developing internal controls and conscience and for making emotional “connections” with others is greatly reduced." As for counselling: "counseling would be wasted on psychopaths. Even experienced and case-hardened professionals find it unnerving when they see a psychopath’s reaction to a gut-wrenching event or listen to him or her casually describe a brutal offense as if an apple had been peeled or a fish gutted." Hare, Robert D.. Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us

Father John George | 26 August 2016  

As a child placed in a Christian orphanage I can totally understand that abuse of children should never happen. Adults grow up and look at yourselves. Treat children fairly - they are often more compassionate than the adults.

Noeline Champion | 06 September 2016  

"I tried unsuccessfully to get governments to ban 'smacking' - big people hitting little people - when I was SA's Minister of Community Welfare 30 years ago. But it seems it is still a 'sacred right' to smack/belt children in the family home. . It should be called out for what it is - domestic violence" Well done Comrade ! Like Frank Brennan you are another Australian Living treasure. Thanks for the comment John.

richie | 24 September 2016  

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