Shortlisted, Queensland Media Awards, Freelance Journalism
A succession of government inquiries dating back to the 1934 McCulloch Report in New South Wales show that over half a million Australians experienced childhood in an orphanage, children's home, training school, institution or some other form of out-of-home care in environments of excessively cruel and brutal institutionalised violence. Those environments were shrouded in secrecy and complemented by inadequate staffing levels and poor training and organisation for those assigned as state-sponsored caregivers.
Children were placed in state-sponsored care after being orphaned, born to a single mother, divorce, separation, poverty or family disintegration resulting from domestic violence, or simply their parents' inability to cope with hardship and crisis. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were separated from their families – in most cases, forcibly separated – as part of an official assimilation program orchestrated by successive state and federal governments.
Most children placed in state-sponsored care were made wards of the state through no fault of their own after being charged with being uncontrollable, neglected or "exposed to moral danger". Many of these vulnerable children were subjected to an institutionalised reign of terror that saw childhood innocence replaced with fear and psychological degradation. They were state-raised in an incarceration process that created unintended and devastating consequences during their adult lives.
A national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families conducted by the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission resulted in its April 1997 report, Bringing Them Home, that revealed children had been removed from their families and placed in state-sponsored care as part of official government policy and practices that continued until the early 1970s. A high proportion of indigenous children who were separated from their families under these policies and practices in turn had their own children removed from their care.
The predominant aim of the forcible removal of indigenous babies and children was to absorb and assimilate the children into the wider non-indigenous community so that their cultural values and identities would disappear. No other Australians were subject to the same discriminatory policies from the day they were born. It was believed that children of "mixed descent" – particularly those with "fairer skin" – could easily be assimilated into the community.
MARLENE RILEY BECAME ONE OF THEM. December 18, 1958: Marlene was snatched from her family at Gunnedah, New South Wales, and made a ward of the state. She was ten years old. Her younger sister and two brothers, Christine, Gary and Steven, suffered the same fate. They were charged with being neglected and destitute. The state separated the children inside different institutions in the care of the New South Wales Minister for Child Welfare. It was a care that failed for Marlene, who desperately tried to reunite with her family.
Marlene's forced separation from her family and siblings created an angry and rebellious teenager. On numerous occasions, she ran away from institutions. Those incidents resulted in New South Wales Child Welfare authorities charging her with being uncontrollable and exposed to moral danger.
On September 8, 1960, Marlene was given a General Committal and sent to the Training School for Girls at Parramatta as punishment for running away. There the rebellious fourteen-year-old became one of the youngest ringleaders involved in the 1961 riots. Marlene climbed on to the roof with another girl and refused to come down after witnessing the superintendent viciously attack a pregnant girl. Although the cause of the riot was buried in a bureaucratic whitewash, Marlene still vividly remembers the reason: "The riot resulted from the Superintendent making Barbara Price pregnant and trying to induce a miscarriage by bashing and kicking the girl in the stomach."
Her clear analysis of the riot was an embarrassment to the Child Welfare Department, which adopted an expedient and cost-effective containment for those children involved in the rebellion, who were said to be difficult and uncooperative.
The concept of a mini-Alcatraz for girls, based on an American experiment where a strict regime of isolation and institutionalised violence in a secluded maximum-security environment had been employed to punish, was considered the most appropriate model. The Institution for Girls at Hay was set up in the century-old Hay Jail, and opened in July 1961. The purpose of the converted jail in the remote town of Hay was a well-kept secret, but the girls who were sent there never forgot the horror they experienced.
Following the riots, New South Wales child welfare authorities were determined to suppress Marlene's rebellious nature and deter others from following her lead. She became one of the first teenagers to be incarcerated inside the new Institution for Girls at Hay.
On September 24, 1961, fourteen-year-old Marlene Riley was forcibly drugged with mind-numbing Largactil, handcuffed and spirited away in the dead of night to the converted jail in the remote town. "When they walked into the cell that night, it was out of the ordinary, so I knew something was up. They just said to me, ‘Marlene, we want you to take this medication.' I said: ‘No.' And I knew it was a psych drug and I wouldn't take it, so they said: ‘We're gonna have to – if you won't take it willingly, we're going to have to do it by force.'"
For the next thirteen years, hundreds of teenagers suffered a similar fate.
At Hay, the girls were subjected to a harsh and regimented existence in which they weren't allowed to talk to one another and had to march everywhere with eyes downcast.The girls were locked in their cells at 6.40pm, where they had to stay in their beds until morning and were forced to sleep facing the door. If they rolled over during the night, the guards rattled the door and got them out of bed. They were made to stand beside their bed for an hour before they returned to bed.
Marlene remembers that, one night, a sadistic senior officer tried to sexually assault her in the cell: "He opened up my cell door. Of course, you jump to attention straightaway, eyes down to the floor, facing the door, and he started talking to me. ‘Hello, Marlene. I'm here to see you. You lay down on that mattress and get your pants off.' I looked up at him and looked him in the eye and said ‘No' and he said: ‘You will. I've had all the other girls here and I'm going to have my way with you too.' I screamed out: ‘He's trying to rape me!' and the other girls started screaming too. It was the longest five or ten minutes in my life."
Four weeks after the attempted rape, the girls were interviewed by Edward Moylen from the Child Welfare Department in Sydney. Marlene Riley was accused of making the story up, but in the following days she recalls the officer involved left the institution and never came back.
Marlene was transferred from Hay back to Parramatta in June 1962, and an assessment for her release was considered. According to a letter from the Director to the Under Secretary dated August 27, 1962: "She is by nature a rebellious girl and has found it difficult to maintain acceptable response. However, she has tried hard and can be said to have satisfied minimum requirements. She has now been detained for almost twelve months on this committal and the superintendent considers she could be given further trial in the community. Her discharge has been recommended."
Ministerial approval was given for Marlene's discharge, and she was released on September 5, 1962.
The tragic dismembering of the Riley family by the New South Wales State Government continued to impact on Marlene as her younger sister and brother, Christine and Gary, who also followed the incarcerating child care process through the institutional systems at Hay and Tamworth respectively.
Gary, who was shot during a Sydney underworld feud in 1983, left the child welfare system as an eighteen-year-old apprentice in violent crime. Convictions for armed robbery and violence followed and a lengthy criminal record, including classification as an intractable prisoner that earned his transfer to the Alcatraz of the New South Wales prison system at Grafton.
Gary Riley was thirty when Gregory Francis McCarthy gunned him down in 1983. McCarthy was also a product of the state-run child-care process. For Marlene, the disintegration of her family and the death of her brother were the products of the brutalising child-care system that stole her childhood. "The daily ritual of floggings and bashings took its toll but we would say to each other: ‘Try not to cry. Don't let the bastards see you cry. 'I remember standing there and trying not to get knocked off my feet but I wouldn't cry.
When they locked me in isolation that is where I would cry. I am fifty-six years old now and I still find it hard to cry."
THE "STOLEN GENERATION" OF INDIGENOUS CHILDREN were not the only ones to suffer the brutalising effects of state-sponsored care in Australia. The August 2001 Senate Community Affairs References Committee (SCARC) report, Lost Innocents: Righting the Record, revealed that Australia also became a repository for over 20,000 "orphaned" children between 1947 and 1967 when the British government sought expedient solutions to problems caused by escalating poverty and erosion of the family unit after World War II. The British government exported their problem to outlying posts in the Commonwealth – Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. Very few child migrants were orphans. Most had been placed in state care because of marital breakdown, illegitimacy or economic hardship, and were transported without the knowledge or permission of their natural parents.
After the war, the number of children placed in state care soared as single mothers faced the prospect of raising their child (or children) in an atmosphere of social disapproval and without financial support. Many landed in Western Australia and New South Wales as "orphaned" child migrants.
The logic behind the child migration scheme was twofold. Britain removed a social welfare problem and Australia increased its population with children who could become labourers and farm workers. The children were transported under the scheme with the encouragement and financial backing of both governments. Responsibility for their well-being in Australia fell to the Commonwealth Minister for Immigration, who was their legal guardian, but that power was subsequently delegated to the relevant state-based agencies and church organisations.
One of the 20,000 "orphaned" children sent to Australia between 1947 and 1967 was seven-year-old James Richard Finch, who had been discarded by his mother and placed in the care of the Barnardo's homes in Britain in 1952. Finch was transported to Australia under the Child Migrant Scheme in September 1954, and his remaining boyhood years became a succession of boys' homes, training schools and juvenile reformatories.
In June 1962, Finch escaped from Sydney's Metropolitan Boys' Shelter after two other boys, Keith Higgins and Harry Swanson, overpowered the officer on duty. After his recapture, Finch was transferred to the Tamworth Institution for Boys in northern New South Wales, where his punishment was brutally extreme. Tamworth was the male mini-Alcatraz of the New South Wales juvenile justice system, designed to break the spirit of those boys who ran away or escaped from other institutions. It had a secret and sinister history protected by a government bureaucracy.
Keith Higgins still retains a vivid recollection of Tamworth Institution for Boys. He was sent there in 1961; and forty-five years later, he is still gripped by nightmares and uncontrollable bouts of depression as a result of the experience, as he recalled: "It was a brutally cruel place. The screws were sadistic animals and attacked without warning. We were bashed and starved for no reason whatsoever. I remember one time I was forced to stand with my nose touching the wall for some minor infringement of the rules. My arms were outstretched in a crucifix. After an hour or so my arms got tired and began slipping down. The screws got stuck into me. They bashed me every time my arms slipped. They eventually knocked me out and dumped me in a cell. They used to take our meals and halve them as punishment. Sometimes we didn't get a meal at all for forty-eight hours. Bouncing they called it, or being unprivileged. We were always hungry."
Tamworth Institution for Boys was a former jail in northern New South Wales. It opened its doors for business on March 10, 1881, and in 1883 the cat o' nine-tails was installed as a punishment. Tamworth Jail also hosted the hanging of five prisoners convicted of murder. On March 25, 1943, the Australian Army took it over and used it as a military prison until 1946.
On June 6, 1947, the then New South Wales Premier approved renovations and repairs to the jail and three months later the then Governor, Sir John Northcott, proclaimed the jail "an institution for the reception, detention, maintenance, discipline, education and training of children and young persons committed to such institution and that such institution be named ‘The Institution for Boys Tamworth'."
The first inmates were transferred from the Mount Penang Training School for Boys at Gosford in April 1948 and one of the most secretive and shameful episodes in the history of juvenile incarceration in Australia began.
LIKE FINCH, KEITH HIGGINS BEGAN HIS TREK TO TAMWORTH by running away from other institutions. He was made a ward of the state and placed in the Mittagong Boys' Home as an eight-year-old and ran away shortly afterwards: "He is a new admission and absconded because he was homesick and wanted to see his mother." On another occasion, Keith ran away because he was accused of stealing lollies from another child and was scared of being punished. The death of his mother increased the frequency of his absconding.
A 1957 psychological report described the little boy's emotional turmoil: "Keith is a quiet, rather serious little boy, who lacks the normal spontaneity and light-heartedness of the normal boy of his age. He still shows, even three years after her death, quite a strong attachment to, and dependence on, his mother. He has few really constructive influences in his life at present and therefore has some difficulty in adjusting to the world after so long in sheltered institutional life."
Repeated escapes from Mittagong earned Keith a two-year sentence and a transfer to Mount Penang Training School for Boys at Gosford, where he learned his father had also died. On March 8, 1961, he ran away again. This escape earned him a transfer to Tamworth.
"When my Mum died I felt lost and alone. I grieved for a long time but when my Dad died the remainder of my world just crumbled to dust. The Child Welfare Department showed no compassion whatsoever. They just said: ‘Get over it. They're dead. You have to move on.' So I did. I ran away. Running away seemed the only thing to do."
At Tamworth, he rebelled against the harsh discipline. He was repeatedly bashed and thrown into solitary, where he was given an iron bar called a "dolly" that had to be dragged across the bars without pause. If the noise could not be heard by the screws they would respond with another beating. The institutionalised brutality and mind-numbing, nonsensical rules carved a lasting impression. "They called us brothel-bred bastards," Keith said, his voice faltering: "That's all you were to them. A brothel-bred bastard. You had to stand six feet from a screw or another inmate. If you came anywhere within that no-go zone you were bashed. You had to snap to attention and yell out; ‘Report to you, Sir!' for everything you wanted. If you wanted to blow your nose or scratch your arse you still had to ask for permission. If you didn't, they bashed you. They had toilet parades. Stand ups and sit downs. There were no doors on the toilets. No privacy. The screws watched you the whole time. They rationed out three squares of toilet paper for a sit down. If you ran over the quota and asked for more, you got bashed for being wasteful ... We weren't allowed to talk to each other at Tamworth. That was a privilege. They had a fifteen-minute talk parade every day for those kids who earned good conduct points. If you were caught talking outside that daily talk parade you were bashed senseless."
Keith Higgins recalled the intense psychological pressure each boy was forced to endure. "We lived on our nerves the whole time we were there. One day I'd decided to stab another kid in the throat with a fork. I figured it would get me out of Tamworth and back to another boys' home or a mental institution. I was so desperate to get away from the place. I was hungry and scared. There was violence all around me. The place was getting to me but luckily I snapped out of it."
Keith Higgins was eventually transferred back to Gosford Boys' Home in November 1961. It was there he noticed the changes in all the boys who had been through Tamworth with him. "I knew Jimmy Finch. Ron Pheeney. Neddy Smith. I knew them all before they went to Tamworth. They were normal kids. Easygoing kids. They weren't violent or anything like that. When they came back, they were different. We were all different. Tamworth changed us forever. I remember tallying up all the kids I knew who were sent to Tamworth. Out of all of us, over twenty received life sentences for murder when they became adults. I was one of the lucky ones. I eventually got married and settled down. I never went back. But I've still got the memories. They never go away."
UNLIKE KEITH HIGGINS, FINCH LEFT THE CARE of the juvenile authorities when he turned eighteen and quickly earned a prison sentence for the attempted murder of Sydney underworld identity John Regan. During that prison sentence, Finch formed a close association with John Andrew Stuart, a criminal entrepreneur and stand-over man who had been educated as a youth inside the Westbrook reformatory in Toowoomba. Westbrook was established as a Reformatory for Boys in 1900, but from 1952 until the 1970s one of its most feared superintendents was Roy Golledge. It was in this environment that John Stuart graduated from childhood to adolescence. Although the 1961 Schwarten Inquiry into Westbrook revealed evidence of beatings and bizarre punishments inflicted by Golledge and his subordinates, he remained in power as the superintendent until his retirement in the 1970s.
During the 1999 Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions, inquiry chairperson, the then Queensland Governor Leneen Forde, heard further gut-wrenching recollections of the brutality inflicted upon children at Westbrook during this reign of terror. One former resident vividly described the period when Golledge was acting superintendent: "Westbrook was a place of extreme violence, institutionalised cruelty, both physical and emotional. Severe public floggings and bashings and verbal abuse and poor diet created an atmosphere of tension and fear, which adversely affected all the boys, not only those directly assaulted, but those who witnessed those assaults."
The description of physical abuse was corroborated by other witnesses. One described his personal experience of a public flogging: "Now I might have been talking to someone but I wouldn't be making a lot of noise, you wouldn't be game to. Anyhow, then he started on me ... he just started to bash, grab me by the ears and all my ears were half bloody pulled out and bashing my head against a tin wall and knocked me from there inside the bathhouse and give me a kicking in there, and kicked me in the side of the head ... and ripped all the side of my face up here with big scars all down the side of my face."
Stuart and Finch reacted to the brutalisation and psychological trauma of their institutionalised childhood years when they left the juvenile justice system and became adults. These childhood experiences were a catalyst that eventually contributed to the deaths of fifteen people inside Brisbane's Whiskey-Au-Go-Go nightclub in March 1973. Stuart and Finch were arrested, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for the crime. Stuart died in suspicious circumstances inside Boggo Road Jail and Finch was deported to England after serving fifteen years.
Mick Kennedy and his sisters, Rita, Ruth and Roberta, also grew up in the state-sponsored child nurturing process when they were assigned to the care of the Barnardo's homes after their parents' marriage broke down in 1963. The family had been in Australia for less than twelve months after emigrating from England.
"We were put in a place called Hartwell House in Farmer Street, Kiama," Mick Kennedy recalled. "The best way to describe the routine at Hartwell House is that it was an extremely institutionalised environment that existed within a culture of absolute fear. The house parents were Vic and Yvonne Holyoak. Both had been house parents at the state-run Mittagong Boys' Home before taking over Hartwell House. Vic Holyoak's brutality knew no boundaries. It could be severe beatings. Punching in the stomach. Pulling hair. Lifting off the ground by hair or ears. Caning. The strap. A constant stream of verbal abuse always accompanied these punishments from both Vic and Von Holyoak.
"Occasionally we would be summonsed into Holyoak's office and sexually abused or beaten just for the sake of it. He was selective which boys he sexually abused, but Holyoak sexually abused all of the girls."
When Mick Kennedy left Hartwell House in the mid-1970s, he discovered he was not the only child to have been physically and sexually abused by Holyoak – he had abused everyone in his care, including his own sisters.
"You have to understand that because of the fear that was instilled into us as children we did not discuss what was happening on a day-to-day basis with any other kids. Generally we were forbidden to talk to each other and even on the way to school we would be very careful what we discussed. It was not unusual to get home in the afternoon and be directed into Vic Holyoak's office where I would be physically beaten and emotionally tortured. The whole process revolved around what I had talked about with the others on the way to school and on the way home. At times he even wanted to know what I had discussed with my school friends. Over a period of time, I lost all of my school friends because I was so introverted and non-communicative. I did this in an effort to minimise the level of punishment which, towards the end of my stay in Barnardo's, was almost a daily occurrence."
DESPITE THE CHILDHOOD TRAUMA EXPERIENCED AT HARTWELL HOUSE, Mick Kennedy did not follow the path to violent criminality taken by Stuart and Finch. In 1978, he joined the New South Wales Police Force and worked at Bankstown, Revesby and Bass Hill in Sydney before he became a detective. "I wanted some job security and also wanted a worthwhile job. I wanted to be a social worker but this required a university degree. I had left school in Year Ten and did not have the required qualifications, and at that time there was little chance that I would ever acquire them."
In 1984, Kennedy was a member of the Viking Hotel Task Force which investigated the Father's Day massacre that resulted in seven deaths after a shootout between the Comanchero and Banditos outlaw biker gangs in the carpark of the Viking Hotel at Milperra in Sydney's south-west. He also served as a detective in the Bureau of Crime Intelligence and the Organised Crime Squad. "I served for a few years in the New South Wales Crime Commission and then moved into the Major Crime Squad South-West. I then shifted away from organised crime work and specialised in Child Protection Work. I found this work to be very rewarding and not as stressful as organised crime work. My own past was in fact an asset and had no negative impact on my ability to do my work."
The asset Mick Kennedy successfully used as a detective in the New South Wales Child Protection unit was his own childhood experiences of brutality and sexual exploitation at the hands of those employed to protect and nurture him as a child. During the 1980s, the Channel 10 program Page One, hosted by Katrina Lee, began investigating Hartwell House and produced a story called "The Class of 1966". As a result of the story, Detective Belinda Mole from the New South Wales Police Force began a criminal investigation into Holyoak and his running of Hartwell House.
Detective Mole interviewed Ruth Kennedy and other former residents, and the full extent of the sickening horror that had shattered their childhood was finally revealed. As a consequence of Mole's criminal investigation, Holyoak was prosecuted as a child sex offender and was found guilty at trial. New South Wales District Court Judge Kirkham sentenced him to ten years' imprisonment in 1994.
"After Holyoak was jailed, my sisters were approached by a firm of lawyers who offered their services so we could take civil action against Barnardo's. We accepted the offer and became part of a class action against Barnardo's. The Barnardo's organisation stretched everything out as long as it could. In the process, a number of people withdrew from the civil action because of the strain and stress upon their lives and their relationships. There was a special hearing before Judge Graham to determine whether or not we had initiated our civil action in the time frame or whether we could get an extension. It was a very traumatic process for most of those giving evidence because some were illiterate and had no family support whatsoever.
"After twenty years of having to give evidence in criminal proceedings, I was insulated against the fear of being in court. I was the last person to give evidence and an old barrister friend, Joan Locke, came along to support me. She advised me to get everything off my chest as it would probably be the last opportunity that I would have to be able to publicly give my version of events that had haunted me since childhood. It was good advice and I did as she suggested.
"The judgment came out in our favour and Barnardo's were directed to attempt conciliating the matter. Of course, what this meant was private negotiations and settlement offers. More importantly, it meant there would be no public acknowledgement on their part and any financial settlement would remain confidential. In essence, we had allowed Barnardo's to purchase our silence. I resigned from the New South Wales Police Force shortly after being promoted to Detective Sergeant in 1996. I had served almost twenty years, but I was tired and emotionally drained after Holyoak was convicted. I enrolled at university and supplemented my income by being a consultant to television drama productions about cops."
THE AUGUST 2004 SENATE COMMUNITY AFFAIRS COMMITTEE report, Forgotten Australians, revealed that as many as 500,000 Australians experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children.
A witness summed up the results of that state-sponsored childhood: "Institutional abuse does not stop when we are out of the system. Once in contact with the juvenile justice system we have a 90 percent chance of becoming adult criminals. We have a one in three chance of leaving care at sixteen as girls pregnant or already with child. We have a one in two chance of being homeless within that first year. Only one in a hundred of us will get to university, but one in three of us will have attempted suicide. We are also highly likely to wind up addicted to drugs, engaged in prostitution, unemployed, mentally ill or incapable of sustaining loving relationships."
These child welfare institutions used for state-sponsored child-care were the monsters of a bygone era. They were cloaked in secrecy and used to brutalise and emotionally scar children. They served no other useful purpose. Those who suffered that institutional brutalisation, under a guise of state-sponsored care, continue to occupy Australian prison cells and mental institutions today. Most of the child-minders employed to oversee them escaped detection and legal retribution, while people like Keith Higgins, Marlene Riley, Mick Kennedy and the many others who suffered under state-sponsored care continue to grapple with the demons unleashed by their stolen innocence. ♦