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Dickensian England lives on in Australia

  • 26 August 2016


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.

I 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.


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