Background

We would like to acknowledge those who spent time as children or youths in orphanages, children’s homes, foster homes or any other form of institutional or out-of-home ‘care’.

At the University of Melbourne Archives, we strive to use inclusive, restorative and non-derogatory language. We know there is no single term that describes the wide and varied experiences – positive and negative – of people who have been in ‘care’ as children, whether as Forgotten Australians, child migrants, members of the Stolen Generations, adoptees, wards of state, or non-wards. In most cases, we have fallen back on the term ‘Care Leavers’.

Photo from MCM Poster located in file 1989.0090.00020
Photograph featured on Melbourne City Mission Eighty-Sixth public Meeting Notice, 13 May 1941, Melbourne City Mission collection, file 1989.0090.00020

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, at least 500,000 children throughout Australia were placed in government, church and mission institutions, or with other families in foster care, kinship care or adoption.

The reasons children were placed in institutional care varied:

  • Many children were in Homes simply by reason of poverty, in an era of almost no community or government support for families in crisis or need.
  • Others were placed by their parent/s because the parent/s could not provide for them. Sometimes these parents had to work and used the Home as a form of child care. If they could, they paid maintenance to those running the institution.
  • Many Aboriginal children were removed because of their race.
  • Others were brought to Australia from the UK and Malta as child migrants.
  • Many children had fathers and mothers who returned traumatised from war service.
  • Some children were placed in institutions simply because their parents had separated or divorced.
  • Some had parents who were deceased, in prison, missing or otherwise unable to care for them.
  • Some were removed from their parents and made state wards and/or placed in State care, because the State considered their parents unfit or that the children were unsafe.
  • Some children and young people were put in reformatories or 'training' institutions after being convicted of committing a misdemeanour or criminal offence.
  • Other children, who had committed no crimes were placed in institutions after being 'charged with' being 'uncontrollable', ‘in moral danger’ or 'likely to lapse into a life of vice and crime’.

Source: AFA Booklet, with edits by Frank Golding.

Many of the children, now adults, endured neglect and abuse in these institutions, and were disconnected from their family and culture. They suffer ongoing trauma from their experience.

Following a 2004 Senate Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care in which people from all over Australia told their stories and experience of out-of-home ‘care’, in November 2009, the Federal Government delivered a National Apology to the Forgotten Australians and former child migrants.

For its part, the University of Melbourne offered an apology 'to all the Forgotten Australians for the suffering their institutionalisation has caused', and also expressed its deep regret that researchers linked to the University had taken part in vaccination research trials conducted after World War II using children in orphanages as 'subjects'. For more information about the trials, see Bridie Smith, 'Melbourne Uni says sorry for trials on orphans', published 18 November 2009 in The Age, URL: https://www.theage.com.au/education/melbourne-uni-says-sorry-for-trials-on-orphans-20091117-ikc9.html (accessed June 2018).



The role of records


In the Senate Inquiry, Care Leavers highlighted the lifelong importance of childhood records in order to develop and nurture their sense of identity and connectedness to family and community; to account for their care experiences; and, to prevent, detect, report, investigate and take action against child neglect and abuse.

Care Leavers described the difficulties they faced in finding and accessing records in the search for identity and memory, connecting with family, holding the child-welfare system accountable for decisions and actions, and seeking redress for abuse and neglect.

Following the apologies, and more recently, research conducted by historian Cate O’Neill from the Find & Connect web resource team, UMA was prompted to review its practices with regard to collections with material related to children who spent time in institutional or out-home-care; and more broadly, Victoria’s child welfare history.

While there is no one collection at UMA that contains all the records related to Victoria’s child welfare history and children in out-of-home ‘care’, there are records contained in various collections that are relevant. Academics’ papers often document activities in the wider community as well as University teaching and administration. For example, there are children’s case files in the papers of social work academics and researchers such as Leonard Tierney and Teresa Wardell.

UMA is one of only two major collecting institutions in Victoria (the other being the State Library of Victoria). It collects records from University academics and alumni, but also houses the collections of many Victorian businesses, trade unions, the women's movement, and community groups such as Melbourne City Mission and Red Cross. Some organisations had connections to people at the University of Melbourne and so transferred records there.

These records are a rich resource for Care Leavers and their families that otherwise may have not survived had they not been transferred to the University of Melbourne Archives. Now UMA is working to make them more discoverable and accessible to Care Leavers.

Credits

The University of Melbourne Archives would like to thank Care Leavers, the Find & Connect web resource team and Open Place for their assistance and support.

Key resources

Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN) website, URL: http://www.clan.org.au/ (accessed June 2018)

Eris Jane Harrison and Alliance for Forgotten Australians (2016): Forgotten Australians: Supporting survivors of childhood institutional care in Australia, URL: https://forgottenaustralians.org.au/assets/docs/Booklet/AFA_Booklet.pdf (accessed June 2018), (accessed June 2018)

Find & Connect web resource: History and information about Australian orphanages, children’s Homes and other institutions, first published in 2011 by the Find & Connect web resource Project for the Commonwealth of Australia, (accessed June 2018).

Banner image on homepage: Ballarat Orphanage, Walter E. Bennett collection,  University of Melbourne Archives, 1982.0100.00013