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On orphans in Catholic care

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Murray, Suellen et al: After the Orphanage. UNSW Press, 2009. ISBN After the Orphanage, ISBN 9781921410901

Over the past decade, a number of government reports, including most notably the 2004 Forgotten Australians study, have brought the experiences of Australians who experienced institutional or out of home care to public attention. This book by four Victorian academics builds on these earlier reports by documenting the specific experiences of 40 people who grew up in Catholic orphanages in Victoria and left care between 1945 and 1983.

Twenty-one were men and 19 were women, with their ages varying from 42 to 75 years. Some were in care from birth until they left at 14 years of age; others were in care for shorter periods. But all spent at least three years in care, and over half were in care for at least ten years.

In contrast to the Forgotten Australians study, which painted an overwhelmingly negative picture of out-of-home care, the experiences of this group appear to have been diverse. Some enjoyed supportive placements and moved successfully into mainstream employment, social networks and loving relationships. Others were disempowered and even traumatised by their time in care, and left with serious health and emotional deficits.

The book begins with a discussion of the first day they left care. Some experienced an abrupt departure from a large, regimented institution to a liberating but scary outside world, with little or no safety net. Others were given more planned and caring transitions, and moved into structured apprenticeships or domestic service positions.

Then we are informed of the range of reasons why they entered care in the first place. None were orphans. One contributing factor was the death or serious ill-health of the mother. Another factor was illegitimacy, given the stigma of unmarried motherhood, and the absence of financial support. A third factor was family breakdown and/or desertion. A fourth was neglect, generally associated with alcoholism, family violence and/or poverty.

Most of the children had some contact with members of their family while in care, but often contact with unmarried or allegedly 'immoral' mothers was discouraged by the nuns. Contact with other siblings in care was also often discouraged, although many strong relationships were nevertheless maintained.

The care leavers also described diverse experiences around forming and maintaining intimate relationships and a family of their own. Some experienced negative relationships marked by physical, emotional or sexual abuse. But the majority appear to have found positive relationships that provided relative happiness and contentment.

Fortunately none of the care leavers lost their own children to the care system.

There were also diverse encounters with education and work. Most had received a basic education in care, and many had later undertaken further study to expand their skills and qualifications. Most had retained paid work across their adult lives, and only a small number had relied on income security. Some remained in unskilled work, but others moved into professional careers.

The care leavers related diverse experiences in 'returning' to family members or the institution. Some had successful reunions with parents and siblings, others remained estranged. Some were interested in retaining or re-establishing friendships with other children or even former staff from the homes, while others had negative memories and wanted no further contact.

The authors remind us that their interviewees may not be representative of all care leavers of that period. They were recruited via contact with three welfare or advocacy organisations. Hence it is possible that the study missed two groups of people: those who moved on to lead successful lives and cut all contact with their childhood, and those who were so traumatised by their 'care' experiences that they ended up homeless, incarcerated or dead.

Nevertheless, the study provides a compelling picture of the stories of those who grew up in the institutional care system. It reminds us that the sole purpose of out-of-home care is to provide better life opportunities for children and young people than those offered by their natural parents.

We need to ensure that our contemporary care systems learn from the positives and negatives of the past, and particularly that the 'corporate' parents of today continue to provide ongoing support for young people after they have left the 'state parent' home.

Philip MendesDr Philip Mendes is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Work at Monash University, and the author or co-author of six books including Australia's Welfare Wars Revisited. He is a researcher on two leaving care projects funded respectively by the Helen McPherson Smith Trust, and the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.

Topic tags: philip mendes, after the orphanage, suellen murray, catholic orphanages, care leavers



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Existing comments

Phillip Mendes should not be surprised to note the strong contrast between the Senate's Forgotten Australian submissions which were overwhelmingly negative and the more diverse findings here. People (over 600 of them) in the Senate inquiry obviously felt strongly enough about how they were treated as children to initiate contact and to give evidence - often under great personal stress.

By contrast, as Mendes points out, the MacKillop study (40 people) were volunteers but only after they were contacted by a handful of welfare or advocacy organisations. All grew up in Catholic homes and that might have coloured their reactions to the interviews they gave.

Moreover, the terms of reference and purpose of the Senate Committee and the focus of the smaller study were fundamentally different. The latter study was about life after 'care' whereas the Senate concentrated on the tough life in the orphanages.

Notwithstanding that, I have to conclude that "After the Orphanage" makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the impact of institutionalised childhoods. It shows again that people make different meanings out of similar experiences and that in almost every case the effects of childhood experiences last well into adult life. Perhaps we can never fully put our childhoods out of our minds because the quality of that experience influences our beliefs about who we are.

Frank Golding | 27 March 2009  

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