House debates

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Matters of Public Importance

National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Bill 2018, National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2018; Second Reading

5:09 pm

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Australia) Share this | Hansard source

I started reading the report into institutional child sexual abuse, and I wouldn't recommend that people read it in full; it's an incredibly harrowing read, and most of us would stop quite early in the piece. But the thing you do notice, when you live in Parramatta, is the number of times the word Parramatta appears, perhaps more than any other place name in the report.

There is a group of women in our community who know absolutely why that is the case. And I think it's an indication of how long the whole issue of institutional child sexual abuse has been swept under the rug that most of us in Parramatta don't know that those Parramatta girls are still among us in Parramatta and that they were the victims of one of the most horrendous cases of institutional child abuse in the country. It was, of course, at what we now know as the Parramatta Girls Home that these women, as children, were incarcerated in one of the worst institutions when it came to sexual, physical and mental abuse of children.

Those women have been fighting for over a decade to preserve the site of their childhood torture as a site of conscience—a place that documents the reality of our history, a place of commitment to our children, a public statement that it will never happen again. Through the work of those women, and Bonnie Durack in particular, an application for national heritage listing was submitted in 2011, and they saw it come to pass in 2017. They've been coming together as the Memory Project since 2012, looking for recognition of their story and the story of all the women and girls involved, in the establishment of a site of conscience around the very place where they were imprisoned as children, the Parramatta Girls Home. They launched in 2012, and the Memory Project has enabled the Parramatta girls to supplant isolation, shame and silence with shared memory, creativity and social gathering. They have a simple message for us: agency for them is crucial to the activation of this institutional precinct as a site of conscience. That means first and foremost that those who experienced injustice—its former occupants—are empowered to determine how we remember the past and how to use it to build a better present and future. In the last couple of years we have seen state government plans to sell off the very ground on which these buildings stand. These women fought so hard to stop that, and now, with the heritage listing and a change in the government's plans for the immediate precinct, they are at least on their way to having this location recognised as a national site of conscience, as I, as their representative, believe it should be.

The Parramatta Girls Home, as it's now known, has an extraordinary history. It traces the history of the incarceration of women and girls for almost 200 years. It was originally opened in 1841 as the Roman Catholic Orphan School. Children of the female convicts who were taken from their parents almost at birth would stand on the balcony looking down into the courtyard where the women were, trying to work out who their mum was. So, right from an early time, the building has a history of incarceration. In 1887 it became the Industrial School for Girls, then in 1925 the Parramatta Girls Training School, then in 1961 the Parramatta Girls Home. It was closed in 1974 and then became the Girls Childrens Home until 1983. So it's essentially been a place for the incarceration of girls since 1841. It has an extraordinary history. There were violent riots in 1887, 1890, 1898, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945, 1946, 1953, 1954 and 1961.

It was a place of appalling stories. If you ever sit down and talk to some of the women and girls who are prepared to share their stories, you know that dreadful stories came from this place. There was rape, there was the turning of blind eyes and there was usually no consequences for the rapist. At best, they were suspended, but there was punishment for the child who objected. There was punishment for the person who told the truth. They weren't allowed to talk to each other for more than 10 minutes a day. There was no speaking unless spoken to with the staff. There was no privacy: they were always watched, including by male staff, including in the showers and on the toilets. They weren't allowed to turn their backs while in the showers. They were made to sleep on their side with their faces to the door; they weren't allowed to turn over in bed. They were punished with food deprivation, beatings, scrubbing of concrete floors for hours and being put in isolation cells for up to 21 days without a bed, a bucket or a chair. Sometimes in those cells they were stripped of all clothing and repeatedly raped, in many cases by two of the superintendents. In some cases they were punched in the stomach to bring on a miscarriage if found to be pregnant. They had invasive medical procedures. They were strip-searched by male staff and sexually abused by other children.

It was known as the 'home for wayward girls' when I first moved to Parramatta about 15 or 16 years ago. It's an astonishingly beautiful building with beautiful balconies, and it was known as the 'home for wayward girls'. It's worth just dwelling on that for a minute, because the children who were put in these homes were put there because they were at risk. A neglected child was defined as one who was destitute or had no visible means of support; who was ill-treated; whose parents weren't exercising proper care or were unfit to do so; who, without lawful excuse, did not attend school regularly; or were falling into bad associations and exposed to moral danger.

The vast majority of children who went into the Parramatta Girls Home in all its iterations were in fact children who were there for welfare reasons, because they weren't cared for by the people who should have been caring for them. Many of them had already been sexually abused or physically abused by family members, and they found themselves in a place, once again, where they were essentially imprisoned until the day they turned 18. There's a giant sandstone fence around that compound. They were in that place and they didn't go outside; they stayed there until the day they turned 18, when they were dumped at a place we used to know as the People's Palace in Sydney. Essentially, they were left there with just the clothes on their back at the age of 18. They had no experience of the world, they had a history of being physically, sexually and mentally abused and they were required to fend for themselves. There was no state support.

It's worth noting too that many of the stolen generation, the Indigenous community who were taken from their parents, were put here as well. In the Bringing them home report the inquiry noted that the definition and interpretation of the key terms of the Child Welfare Act adversely affected Indigenous families. It said:

'Neglect' was defined to include destitution and poverty …

A large of the stolen generation in New South Wales ended up in the Parramatta Girls Home and experienced the same punitive conditions that I described earlier.

The impact on these children was quite severe, as you would imagine. These were children who didn't know love, they didn't know friendship, they were unable to even develop relationships within the Girls Home because of the rule that they couldn't speak to each other for more than 10 minutes a day. They suffered incredible abuse, and when they were released they received no support. Several witnesses gave evidence that they became homeless and turned to prostitution on release. They had no money; they had no clothes, only what they wore; they had no skills because they hadn't been educated. The state claimed at the time that they were too old for education, but actually they arrived at the Parramatta Girls Home as young as the age of eight. But they received no education.

One witness said she went in an innocent girl and left a dangerous and uncontrollable criminal. She had only learnt two things: how to use her sexuality to live and that if she was good to men she'd be rewarded. She was homeless and worked as prostitute in Kings Cross to support herself. With no education these children struggled to adapt to life outside the institution, and many still face psychological issues today. I'm not going to name the incredibly brave witnesses who gave evidence to the royal commission—they are in the report; I'm going to refer to them as witness 1, witness 2 et cetera. Witness 1 has ongoing psychological trauma, including problems with her sex life and her bowels. The smell of faeces affects her, and she dreads using any toilet that's not her own. She has flashbacks, she's never had counselling for fear that it would drag up worse memories and she believes the sadness will never go away. Witness 2 is still burdened by the fear of Parramatta girls. She doesn't trust men, and her experiences have severely affected her self-worth. She vomits when she thinks about the abuse and feels she's been left with a legacy that will never go away.

Witness 3 feels like she's been in prison since she left Parramatta girls. She does not trust anyone and has nightmares about Superintendent Gordon. Witness 4 has suicidal thoughts because she could not talk about her experiences. She believes that people do not want to know about what happened. She fears people and does not go out. Witness 5 has been claustrophobic since Parramatta girls and fears closed doors. She's a nervy person who watches everything and walks close to walls so that people cannot approach her from behind. The sound of keys rattling reminds her of Superintendent Gordon. Witness 6 has had ongoing problems with sex. Talking about sexual positions with her husband makes her feel ill. Locked doors trigger bad memories. She won't go to venues like clubs if she cannot see a way out. She's now in her 60s and the impact of abuse still takes over her life. Another has suffered depression throughout her life and has needed medication for it. Yet another has nightmares that are only cured by heavy medication. She's been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Another suffers from traumatic flashbacks and has depression. With no self-confidence or self-esteem, she does not trust anyone and does not take criticism well. Medical tests make her anxious and she does not like being examined by male doctors. Yet another was committed to a psychiatric hospital after attempting suicide. She has self-mutilated to relieve the pain.

I could go on, because there are many more stories of what childhood sexual abuse has left these survivors with. I know many of them in my electorate of Parramatta. I organised a bus—a big bus, actually—to drive a whole group of them down for the apology. I picked them up at the Parramatta Girls Home and dropped them off there later that night. But there were some who even then couldn't come. They wanted to come; they couldn't face it. And there will be many even now, when this redress scheme unfolds, who will need time to come to terms with what it means for them. I would ask the government to consider the time frame they've put on this—that is, that the bill gives applicants six months to make their decision. The royal commission recommended a year. I would go further than that, having known so many of these women for so long, in that the decision that these women make should take place in the survivor's time frame, not that of the government. It should take place in their time frame.

Labor has a number of concerns about the redress scheme. It's been our policy since 2015. I would say one slightly partisan thing, which is I'm really sorry that it's taken this long. We've known it should be done and we've ignored these children—now women—for far too long. We shouldn't have ignored them since 2015 but we did. But we have a number of concerns about the redress scheme as it stands. We're going to support it because it's really important that it starts, but I want to make the following points.

The first is that the decision should be made in the survivor's time frame, as I've just said. The bill places an upper limit of $150,000 on the amount of redress, when the royal commission recommended $200,000. The bill also limits eligibility to people living in Australia who are Australian citizens. We know, of course, that child migrants were in institutions as well and that abuse of children has occurred in immigration detention. We're concerned that these people will not be able to access redress if they have returned to their country of birth. We're also concerned that the money for counselling provided to survivors will not be adequate—it's only $5,000. Some of these people will require counselling every week, or more than that, for the rest of their life, the damage is so great. The government's also sought to place restrictions on survivors who have a criminal history. I believe that is deeply unfair. We know from the research that childhood sexual abuse leads to criminal behaviour in many cases, so there will be people who are in prison who otherwise wouldn't have been there—the child who was neglected by their parents, who went in as an innocent 10-year-old and came out a criminal. We know that this is the case because the evidence tells us. It is deeply unfair, and we on this side believe that that should be changed.

We know this is a complex task. We're encouraged that some of the states have now come in. We're encouraged that some of the institutions have come in. Of course, there always needs to be a source of last resort, because so many of the institutions are no longer in existence. We need to make sure that people whose childhood torturers no longer exist still have appropriate redress. There are a number of things that we on this side are concerned about, but we will support this bill, the National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Bill 2018, because we believe it's timely. The scheme needs to start, and we'll support it.


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