Motion: Apology for Past Care Leavers

07 March 2024

I rise to speak on the parliamentary apology to Victorians who experienced historical abuse and neglect as children in institutional care. Growing up in Geelong I was very fortunate to have a loving family, a roof over my head, parents who had employment, food on the table and security. Little did I know at the time that Geelong in particular had a very dark history where children did not have that security and care of a stable environment.

It was when I was working in a federal government as an electorate officer that I met Leonie Sheedy ‍– she has been spoken about in this place – at an organisation called CLAN, the Care Leavers Australasia Network. After meeting Leonie, it was like she had grabbed my shoulders or jolted me and awakened me to a chapter in our Geelong history, a place I have lived in my whole life yet where a reality existed that I remained blissfully ignorant about. It was from Leonie that I learned about the large amount of orphanages that were established in the Geelong region, a greater number than any other city in Australia outside a capital city.

I then visited the Australian Orphanage Museum that CLAN had established. I have visited a couple of times now, and I learn something new each time. I can only encourage people to go to the museum. It is based in Geelong, but it is very much a national museum with a national story. When you visit there you experience and learn the stories of children who grew up in institutions under the care of people who were meant to look after them. The museum is a poignant journey into that national narrative of suffering but resilience. These children entrusted to caregivers who instead inflicted cruelty and betrayal demanded to be heard. The museum is a unique experience, documenting in exhibitions authentic social history about the experiences of growing up in orphanages, in homes or in missions or other institutions, including foster care, in Australia.

The museum was established by care leavers for care leavers. That is their history that is visible now to all Australians. The collection contains hundreds of items from homes, and every object in that museum has a story to tell. I must say that visitors will be confronted by the stories, but the museum aims to raise awareness about the abuse, neglect and trauma these children suffered while being a place to learn and to understand. It is important for us as visitors to, while learning, be open and listen. I thank the CLAN volunteers and their team for their tireless work not only at the museum but through their continued advocacy. Through this museum your stories are being told, and with them your experiences are out of the dark.

But how did CLAN form? It started over 30 years ago with another extraordinary woman named Dr Joanna Penglase, who had put an ad in the local paper. She was doing a thesis at university and reached out to people like her who had grown up in homes and institutions and orphanages, asking for people to ring her to tell their stories. Well, a lot of people rang, and one of those people who did pick up the phone and ring Joanna was Leonie Sheedy. It was a phone call that changed both their lives. Together they established CLAN – dedicated to fighting for recognition, fighting for justice, fighting for an apology and fighting for compensation. Over those years they have fought. They fought for a Senate inquiry into children in institutional care, they fought for an apology from the Prime Minister, and they fought for the federal government’s royal commission. And make no mistake, Leonie is still fighting today.

With that continued advocacy from CLAN, forgotten Australians and care leavers here in Victoria this year, on 8 February, received that formal parliamentary apology to Victorians who experienced historical abuse and neglect as children in institutional care, from the Premier.

This apology was the Victorian Parliament’s opportunity to formally recognise and apologise for the wrongdoings committed against children. Children through no fault of their own had suffered. To those who endured unspeakable horrors, we extend our sincere apologies, although we know words alone cannot heal wounds so deep. To quote the Premier:

To those children, who were abused and neglected during their time in care, we humbly and unreservedly apologise.

For the grief of being removed from your parents, often without explanation – and the years spent fighting to find your family, sometimes in vain.

To those who died without getting the respect or recognition they deserved.

To the children who lost their lives while in the guardianship of the state, whose voices were silenced forever.

And to the families who were broken, permanently.

We failed you. For this, we are deeply sorry.

I thank the Premier for her heartfelt apology on behalf of the Parliament to those who suffered the unimaginable harm at the hands of the state. An apology was long overdue. To those Victorians who suffered: I too am sorry.

Reflecting on this momentous apology, though, I am humbled by the courage displayed by survivors braving that emotional storm to bear witness. The scars, both seen and unseen, serve as a constant reminder of the systematic failures that robbed them of their innocence and security. And I want to acknowledge those who died without witnessing recognition or justice for what happened. It is tragic that they had not been heard.

In reflecting also on that day I must say it was an emotional day for many of us as members of Parliament, but that it was nothing compared to the emotional toll and the courage needed by survivors to come here and to hear the apology. To sit here in the gallery or to watch in Queen’s Hall, to watch online or to go to a streamed venue takes enormous courage. After the apology I walked through Queen’s Hall and spoke to a few of those familiar faces from the Geelong region. For them, they shared how much the day meant and how much that apology meant to them. One reflected on his own family, on those who had passed, and what this day would have meant for them. I am always struck by the resilience of individuals.

But apologies, however heartfelt, are only the first step, and we owe it to those who have suffered to take tangible action – to ensure that voices are not just heard but amplified – and we must heed the guidance of organisations like CLAN, Open Place, Alliance for Forgotten Australians and others, offering solace and advocating for justice. The scars of the past should serve as a constant reminder of our collective responsibility to foster healing and prevent such atrocities from happening ever again. Together we must continue to advocate for justice and provide support to those affected by historical abuse and neglect, ensuring that their stories are never forgotten.

It has been a long journey for many. As described, in 2009 a formal apology was given by the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and in 2013 the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was instituted by the Gillard government. The final report handed down by the royal commission stated:

Victims and survivors of child sexual abuse, and those who represent and support them, had advocated consistently for government action.

For victims and survivors, telling their stories has required great courage and determination.

It is now apparent that across many decades, many of society’s institutions failed our children.

It went on to say:

It is the responsibility of our entire community to acknowledge that children are vulnerable to abuse. We must ‍… resolve … what we can to protect them. The tragic impact of abuse for individuals and through them our entire society demands nothing less.

I could not agree more. The 2009 national apology was also a significant moment, and when it was delivered it was hoped that it would offer individuals validation by ensuring that their stories were heard and believed and promoted emotional and psychological healing. I really hope that the Victorian parliamentary apology earlier this year offers the same, in that it is healing from that dark past.