Background: Forgotten Australians, Stolen Generations and Former Child Migrants
Forgotten Australians were placed in ‘out-of-home care’ as children in Australia between 1920 and 1990, under government child welfare policies. ‘Out-of-home care’ incorporates institutional settings including orphanages and children’s homes, and foster care placements. The reasons children were taken into out-of-home care varied. These reasons included being orphaned, being born “out of wedlock”, domestic violence, parents divorcing or separating, poverty and the parents’ inability to cope due to hardship or crisis. Under the Child Welfare Act 1939, children could even be charged with being neglected and made a ward of state.
At least 500,000 children are believed to have been placed in out-of-home care during this time.
The Stolen Generations are the generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were forcibly removed from their families and communities by both State and Federal Governments. This took place under assimilation policies. They too, were often placed in institutions including children’s homes alongside “Forgotten Australians” and “Former Child Migrants”, religious missions, or foster homes with non-Indigenous families. Others were adopted or assigned as servants to non-Indigenous families, rather than being place in out-of-home care.
Former Child Migrants refer to people who were sent as unaccompanied children from Britain and Malta, to institutions throughout Australia, between around 1912 and the late 1960s. It is believed there were approximately 7000 child migrants.
Before the war, Britain wanted to remove children from their overcrowded welfare institutions and provide them with farming or domestic skills. After the war, this policy assisted ‘Empire settlement’, which aimed to increase the white Australian population with British-born citizens. Children often came from disadvantaged families and were sent to Australia without the parents’ knowledge or consent.
Common experiences of trauma
For all these children, the environments within institutions and foster homes were generally not conducive to healthy physical growth, social and personal development or educational achievement. While not all institutional or out-of-home care experiences were negative, sadly a large proportion of them were incredibly traumatic. Many of these children were not only raised in environments devoid of nurturing and affection but were subjected to extreme abuse and cruelty. They suffered horrific brutality, sexual assault, humiliation, neglect, exploitation, poor or non-existent health and dental care, poor or non-existent education, separation from family, abandonment and a loss of identity.
Through no fault of their own, these poor children were placed at the mercy of people who turned out to be, in far too many cases, inexplicably cruel and exactly the opposite of what they needed for a thriving and successful life.
Evidence provided at the Senate Inquiry in 2004 highlighted fundamental long term issues for many survivors including a lack of trust, no sense of security and poor social, parenting and life skills, stemming from the absence of love, affection and nurturing during vital development stages.
It is important to note that there were some positive stories. The Committee also heard from people who, with a great deal of love and support from partners, families and friends, are now able to better come to terms with their past and live settled and more secure adult lives.
Some ongoing impacts of trauma
Fear of being triggered
It can be something as small as a smell, a sound, an item or a name, that triggers a distressing memory of the institution itself, or something that happened in the institution or foster home. For example, being in a hospital ward might bring back memories of being in the dormitory of the children’s home where the abuse took place.
Ongoing mental health struggles
Apart from specific “triggers”, ongoing mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and sometimes personality disorders are common. The trauma endured as children sometimes blocked the development the emotional building blocks required to form a healthy and positive sense of self and belonging.
Highly protective of privacy and belongings
Privacy and personal belongings were often denied to children in out-of-home care. This limited the sense of control the children had over their lives and their belongings. In adulthood, this can, understandably, heighten sensitivity over privacy and belongings being threatened or removed.
Struggles with Identity
Institutionalisation commonly removed a sense of self as individuals, their sense of connection and belonging and their sense of place and worth. Sometimes children’s names were changed and some of them were only identified by numbers. Record keeping about individuals was often poor or non-existent, so many often don’t even know standard things about their identity or family history.
Difficulty connecting with others
Connection to other family members was often completely severed. The children were commonly lied to and told that their parents had died or abandoned them. This, and the treatment they endured, quite often negatively impacted their ability to form and maintain positive and loving relationships, in turn affecting their marriages and parenting as adults. Being deprived of love and positive attention meant the children suffered a profound sense of separation and abandonment. “The loss of family, usually including separation from siblings, caused grief, feelings of isolation, guilt, self-blame and confusion about their identity.”
Difficulty trusting others
Naturally, trusting in people is very difficult when, too often as children, they had no one to place their trust in, or if they did, their trust was often betrayed or exploited. Government departments and authority figures still represent mistrust, given their past responsibility and role in such traumatic childhoods.
Fear of an unknown future
For many, the childhood experiences create circumstances in adulthood of greater financial disadvantage and poorer health. This directly impacts their sense of safety and security for the future.
 Fernandez, E., Lee, J.-S.,Blunden, H., McNamara, P., Kovacs, S. and Cornefert, P.-A. (2016). No Child Should Grow Up Like This: Identifying Long Term Outcomes of Forgotten Australians, Child Migrants and the Stolen Generations. Kensington: University of New South Wales.
Further Information and Reading
Alliance for Forgotten Australians
Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN)
National Museum of Australia Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions Exhibition
National Library of Australia Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants Oral History Project
Australian National Maritime Museum Britain’s Child Migrants virtual Exhibition
UNSW, 2017, Long term Outcomes for Forgotten Australians Study
Australian Government Department of Health, 2016, Caring for Forgotten Australians, Former Child Migrants and Stolen Generations Information Package
AIHW, 2018, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Stolen Generations aged 50 and over