History of Australian inquiries reviewing institutions providing care for children

Prepared by Professor Shurlee Swain

Australian Catholic University

October 2014

ISBN 978-1-925118-64-3

Executive summary

This paper documents Australian inquiries into institutions providing out-of-home care for children between 1852 and 2013. It identifies three categories of inquiries. The first, dating from 1852 through to the post-war period, was concerned with establishing and refining the child welfare system; the second, dating from the 1860s to the 1990s, convened in response to allegations of abuse. The third, dating from the 1990s to today, focuses on hearing survivor testimony. The paper argues that an inability or unwillingness to recognise abuse, and a tendency to individualise the problem where it could not be ignored, may well have served the interests of the government and non-government institutions that provided child welfare services, but did little to protect the children entrusted to the children’s ‘care’.

Scope and sources

This document provides a survey of Australian inquiries since European colonisation that have investigated institutions providing out-of-home ‘care’ for children. It focuses on the period 1850 to 1980, looking at investigations which predate the move away from large-scale institutions. The major inquiries, both state and federal, since 1980 are examined in far less detail. The more recent inquiries included in this report are those focusing on the condition of children in out-of-home care, rather than those dealing with protecting children in their own homes or those dealing with sexual abuse in other institutional or community settings. Inquiries into the sexual abuse of children in boarding schools and immigration detentions centres, while raising similar issues to those in relation to out-of-home care, are also beyond the scope of this paper.

The full list of inquiries is included in Appendix 1. It was compiled from the Find & Connect Web Resource1, augmented by a targeted search of the TROVE digital newspapers collection2, and the major scholarly histories of child welfare in Australia.3 It has also drawn on the knowledge of the state-based historians employed in the development of the Find & Connect Web Resource. The numbers cited in the discussion that follows refer to the inquiries as detailed in the accompanying appendix. The appendix also names specific institutions mentioned in each report, but does not extend to others that may have been mentioned in submissions or in the minutes of evidence. To be named was not necessarily to be condemned, as institutions could also be cited as examples of good practice.

The timeframe for completing this report did not allow for detailed research into archival or governmental papers, including minutes of evidence, which would have allowed for a more textured reading of the situations being explored. Inquiries solicit answers only to the questions they raise. Before 1990 it was rare for sexual abuse to be directly addressed, and in cases where it was raised, the information provided was often excluded from public reports on the grounds of morality. A more detailed research project which provided the resources necessary to access minutes of evidence and other archival material would allow a skilled historian to read into the silences to establish what was not being discussed, as well as the issues that made it into the public record.