The Forgotten Ones – half a million lost childhoods
This extract of an essay by Christine Kenneally is reproduced with kind permission of The Monthly.
In 1937, at the age of 14 months, Geoff Meyer appeared before a NSW magistrate, who made him a ward of the state and handed him over to carers at a state-run orphanage called Bidura.
Meyer stayed at Bidura until he was four, when he was sent to the Royleston Boys’ Depot in Glebe Point Rd. Built in the 1880s, the Royleston mansion is a Victorian hybrid of ‘grand’ and ‘delicate’, featuring a graceful verandah and soaring windows. When the heavy iron gate first opened for Meyer, he was terrified by its squeal. Royleston housed 30 to 50 boys at a time until they were fostered, though many were repeatedly fostered, returned, and fostered again. Meyer never learned any other boys’ names. ‘We weren’t allowed to talk to each other’, he said, ‘and the staff always said “Hey you” or used terrible words.’
Known officially as ‘Forgotten Australians’ but among themselves as ‘care leavers’ or ‘homies’, children were incarcerated in large group homes until the 1980s in Australia. A 2004 Senate inquiry estimated that at least 500,000 children were placed in institutional care last century. While many have since died, often from drug- and alcohol-related causes, the homies who remain are a significant, living demographic. Most homies are now between 45 and 90 years old, and many built careers in institutions, like the navy, in nursing, or in the religious orders that ran their homes. Some homies are visibly successful, like the former Democrats Senator Andrew Murray, who was a British child migrant sent to Zimbabwe (he later immigrated to Australia). The last three people to be hanged in Australia were homies.
In many homes, staff controlled every connection children had with the outside world. When children were moved to another institution, as they often were, no one explained why. At Bidura, one girl entered with her three-year-old brother and woke one morning to find he was gone. No one told her where. Staff confiscated letters, and children were told their parents were dead when they weren’t, or that they never wanted to see them again when they did.
Meyer told me that, not long after he ran away to Sydney, ‘I started to get it into my brain to find out if I had any family’. He guessed that the best place to look was the Department of Child Welfare. ‘I’m a state ward’, he told a young man at the local office. ‘I’m looking to see if I’ve got a mother and father’. The young man went into another room, and after five minutes he returned and said, ‘I think you might have a sister’. He disappeared again. Then an older man came out and said to Meyer, ‘I think you had better leave’. Meyer thought he had misunderstood. ‘I think you had better leave’, the old man repeated. ‘No’, said Meyer. They argued back and forth, the old man dismissing Meyer with no explanation and Meyer refusing to budge. Then the older man told him, ‘Get out or I’ll call the fucking police’. Meyer left, asking himself why he was always in trouble.
He found work, and one day on the train, where young women cadged cigarettes off the working lads, he met a girl called Marion and gave her his whole pack. They were married and had four children and, as the years passed, 11 grandchildren. Meyer never told any of them that he had been a state ward. When his children asked him about his childhood, he changed the subject. But when he retired, he started to go to the state records offices to see what he could find. Even then, he didn’t tell his wife. ‘It felt very, very private’, he told me. He found his birth certificate and discovered that his mother was Maisie Aileen Meyer and his father was Leo Joseph Meyer, an American sailor. There was no information about why he was made a state ward and no record of contact from his parents after it happened.
The challenge for homies, said Leonie Sheedy [founder of Care Leavers Australia Network (CLAN)], is not just dealing with the events of their childhood but the way they are treated today. They want, like any other Australian, to have information about themselves and their family – or its proxy – and all the power that such knowledge brings. Yet there are enormous obstacles to getting this. Homies’ records are scattered throughout each state, held by government records offices and by the separate religious institutions that housed children. Government departments may take years to respond to a single records request. Many records were destroyed, but there’s little clarity about what was lost and what was never kept in the first place. There’s no central organising body, and most homies need professional-grade archivist skills to find and understand the documents. They distrust bureaucracy, and while it is intimidating enough to enter a neutral institution like a public records office, many must return to the very organisations that mistreated them and ask nicely for information. Two homies told me that for years they would look for any excuse to abandon their journey to the records office.
I first met Meyer at the Sydney CLAN office in April. He was courtly and jokey, and he called me ‘mate’ a lot. When he opened the big front gate for me, he lifted it so it wouldn’t squeal. At 76, he is not tall, with a Fair Isle jumper and slicked-down hair. He looks like anyone’s granddad. His wife died three years ago, but he keeps active on the CLAN committee and mows the lawn to help out. Since he left Royleston, he hasn’t eaten any vegetables except spinach, which wasn’t served there. He watches people on the streets, wondering how many of them were once wards, and, for reasons he cannot explain, he really loves the song ‘I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen’.
We looked at his files, a reasonably thick wedge of paper. The first thing he showed me was his intermediate school certificate. He had to pay to get a copy, but at least he now has something to show his grandchildren. There is a state inspector’s report from when he was ten – a year after he was attacked by his teacher – that describes him as an overanxious worrier. There is only one record from before this time, with nothing about the assault or the ensuing years of medical treatment. For Meyer, the missing files would be proof of an otherwise invisible life, but he also wants them so he can sue the NSW government for compensation.
Meyer told me he’d had three heart attacks but he always woke up happy – ‘Another day!’ He would keep looking for his files. What he wanted to know most of all was whether he’d been surrendered or taken. If he’d been surrendered, he reasoned, maybe the person who’d turned him in was a relative. Maybe it was a sister of his mother, maybe she had children, too, and maybe he had more family. Still, he said, ‘I’m 76. How long do I have to find out’?
For the full essay, see: http://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2012/august/1354057131/christine-kenneally/forgotten-ones