“Where Are They? Who Are They?”
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Where Are They? Who Are They?Suellen MurrayPublished online: 28 May 2008.
To cite this article: Suellen Murray (2008) Where Are They? Who Are They?, Australian HistoricalStudies, 39:2, 229-244, DOI: 10.1080/10314610802033197
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Where Are They? Who Are They?
Reuniting With Family of Origin After Leaving Care
During the mid-twentieth century some Australian children spent as many as eighteen
years in orphanages and other forms of institutional care. Who, then, were the families
they left and what contact did they continue to have with them in the orphanage? How do
they make sense of these experiences and how do they think it has affected their
relationships with both the family members they already knew and others they only came
to know over the course of their life? In answering these questions I draw on oral history
accounts of people aged in their forties to their seventies who grew up in Catholic
orphanages and childrens homes in Victoria and left care during the period 1945 to 1983.
I ASKED THEM IN [THE ORPHANAGE] when I was about eight, Where are they? Who are
they? I still remember as a little kid, and they told me their names and where they were
living, so I focussed on St Kilda . . . and I prayed that I could see her . . . And [after I left
care] I remember looking them up, and ringing quite a few numbers . . . but I never
thought of my brother in Fern Tree Gully because he didnt know I existed. They just said
youve got a brother and hes ten years older.1
Having gone into care as a baby in the late 1940s, Margaret never knew her
mother. When she left the home at sixteen she searched for people who shared
her surname, hoping to trace her mother. By the time she found out about her
in 1982, as a result of accessing her institutional records, her mother had died. In
this search Margaret found an older brother whom she had not known. The
reunion with her brother was highly anticipated and she travelled interstate to
meet him. However, it is not an easy relationship and Margaret is disappointed.
Like Margaret, John also came into care as a baby in the late 1940s and had
no contact with any family members. In contrast to Margaret, he was not
interested in searching for the family he never knew. As a young man he
attempted to enlist in the Army and sought a copy of his birth certificate, which
told him his mothers name. Many years later, aged in his fifties, he was contacted
by a younger half-brother and half-sister. They told him that they did not know
his father and that his mother, who had since died, had kept a lot of secrets in her
closet. While they expressed interest in maintaining contact with him, Johns
view was that he was too old and too independent and has had no further
involvement with them.2
1 To protect privacy, names of the research participants have been changed and pseudonyms used.Margaret, interviewed by Suellen Murray, 20 November 2006. Future references to Margaretsaccount of care and the aftermath are drawn from this interview.
2 John, interviewed by Suellen Murray, 18 July 2006.
ISSN 1031-461X print/ISSN 1940-5049 online # 2008 Taylor & FrancisDOI: 10.1080/10314610802033197
Australian Historical Studies, Month 2008; 39(0): 229244 :
Here are two very different responses to reunion with family of origin. As
these responses suggest, the process of (re)uniting with family of origin is rarely
straightforward. As Audrey Marshall and Margaret McDonald have said about
adoptee reunions*they are often complex.3 But while some, like Margaretand John, were placed in care as babies and did not know their family of origin,
others were placed in care from situations of in-home care with known family
members. Depending on their circumstances, they may have then lost touch
with some or all of these family members or have been discouraged from having
contact with them. Some were in care with siblings, but may have had only
limited contact with each other.
In Australia there is an emerging interest in the effects of childhood institutio-
nalisation and in the need for people who grew up in institutional care to reconstruct
their life story. Peoples experiences of care and its impact on their subsequent lives
and sense of identity have been vividly documented in the Australian Parliaments
Senate Community Affairs References Committee report into children in institu-
tional care, Forgotten Australians: A Report on Australians Who Experienced Institutional or
Out-of-Home Care as Children.4 This report was the third of the trilogy of Australian
inquiries concerned with the institutionalisation of Australian children, the
preceding two having examined the experiences of Indigenous children and child
migrants.5 Australian autobiographical accounts have also revealed the nature of
childhood institutionalisationand its consequences.6 Eachof theseaccountspoints to
the importance of people who grew up in institutional care being able to build a life
history in order to make sense of their childhood experiences. As noted in Forgotten
Australians, the loss of identity and connection with family is one of the most
traumatic and distressing outcomes from a life lived in institutional care.7 The
identification of family of origin is considered central to this process of identity
construction and often part of this process is to trace and meet family members.8
3 Audrey Marshall and Margaret McDonald, The Many-Sided Triangle: Adoption in Australia(Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2001), 245.
4 Senate Community Affairs References Committee, Forgotten Australians: A Report on Australians WhoExperienced Institutional or Out-of-Home Care as Children (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia,2004).
5 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing Them Home: The Report of the NationalInquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (Sydney:Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997); Senate Community Affairs ReferencesCommittee, Lost Innocents: Righting the Record, Report on Child Migration (Canberra: Commonwealthof Australia, 2001).
6 Frank Golding, An Orphans Escape: Memories of a Lost Childhood (Melbourne: Lothian, 2005); DavidHill, The Forgotten Children (Melbourne: Random House, 2007); Joanna Penglase, Orphans of theLiving: Growing Up in Care in Twentieth-century Australia (Perth: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2005);Richard Szablicki, Orphanage Boy: Through the Eyes of Innocence (Sydney: New Holland, 2007).
7 Senate Community Affairs References Committee, Forgotten Australians, 253.8 Jim Goddard, Julia Feast and Derek Kirton, A Childhood on Paper: Accessing Care Records Under
the Data Protection Act 1998, Adoption and Fostering 29, no. 3 (2003): 8284; Christine Horrocksand Jim Goddard, Adults Who Grew Up in Care: Constructing the Self and Accessing Care Files,Child and Family Social Work 11, (2006): 26472; Gillian Pugh, Unlocking the Past: The Impact of Accessto Barnardos Childcare Records (Aldershot: Gower, 1999); Karen Winter and Olivia Cohen, IdentityIssues For Looked After Children With No Knowledge of Their Origins, Adoption and Fostering 29,no. 2 (2005): 4452.
230 Australian Historical Studies, 39, 2008
In this article I use the term family of origin to distinguish it from other
family forms. While family of origin is privileged over other forms of family,
partly because it provides the genetic link to our forebears, the term also
suggests other biological and social links. Like adoptees, those who grew up in
care can feel a sense of alienation from a society that regularly prioritises blood
ties and genealogies.9 For other very practical reasons, knowing who family of
origin is can be important for health reasons to assist in the identification or
prevention of medical conditions. For Indigenous people, in particular, family of
origin has important meanings in relation to kinship networks and to country
and is central to understandings of self and relationship to community. Removal
of Indigenous children from their families has devastating consequences for
their communities.10 For both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, loss of
connection to family of origin can result in a sense of isolation and feelings of
not belonging.11 And during the post-war period, when family of origin was
associated with the idealised family form of the nuclear family of a father and a
mother and their children, institutionalisation was especially disruptive to these
social norms. This family of origin was one in which there was supposed to be
mutual support and opportunities to be part of a wider social network, and it is
this that some people who grew up in institutional care believe that they missed
out on. For those who were institutionalised as a result of what was then termed
illegitimacy and who never knew their family of origin as children, as well as
others whose institutionalisation resulted from the breakdown of this idealised
family arrangement, disconnection and isolation may have been especially
In this article, I consider the relationships that people who have grown up in
Catholic orphanages have to their families of origin over their lifetime. First,
I discuss oral history, the research methods used in this study, and the
characteristics of the forty people interviewed. I then turn to the particular
accounts of those who grew up in orphanages, contextualised by the history of
childhood institutionalisation in post-war Australia. I consider why they came
into care, their contact with their family of origin during institutionalisation,
and experiences of reunion after leaving care. I analyse the factors that affected
the existence of relationships within these families, including the institutional
practices that promoted or inhibited contact. Finally, I examine how they have
made sense of these experiences and how they think it has affected their
9 Karen March, The Stranger Who Bore Me: Adoptee-Birth Mother Relationships (Toronto: TorontoUniversity Press, 1995), cited in Veronica Strong-Boag, Finding Families: Finding Ourselves: EnglishCanada Encounters Adoption from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (Toronto: Oxford UniversityPress, 2006), 227.
10 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 20220; Yvonne Clark, The Construction ofAboriginal Identity in People Separated From Their Families, Community and Culture: Pieces of aJigsaw, Australian Psychologist 35, no. 2, (July 2000): 15057; Doreen Mellor and Anna Haebich,eds, Many Voices: Reflections on Experiences of Indigenous Child Separation (Canberra: National Libraryof Australia, 2002).
11 Senate Community Affairs References Committee, Forgotten Australians, 253.
Murray: Reuniting With Family of Origin After Leaving Care 231
relationships with both the family members they already knew and others they
only came to know over the course of their life.
In its report on the Stolen Generations, the Human Rights and Equal
Opportunity Commission identified the importance of reunion to Indigenous
people, their families, and communities.12 Similarly, in relation to child migrants,
the Senate Committee reported that they had received many heart-warming
testimonials from former child migrants commenting on how the reunions had
had a very positive effect on their lives.13 In Forgotten Australians, the Senate
Committee did not consider peoples experiences of reunion specifically, but
noted that once people have found their own records, many try to locate other
family members.14 There is a substantial literature concerned with reunion with
family of origin by adoptees.15 However, there is little research on the reunion
experiences of those who grew up in care. In this article I analyse the impact of
reuniting with family of origin, taking into account individuals experiences of
family and the circumstances from which institutionalisation occurred, as well as
the potential disconnection from family that institutionalisation produced. This,
then, is a new contribution to the history of welfare.
Oral history methodology
This article uses oral history to explore the experiences of Australians who grew
up in institutional care, a methodology consistent with recommendation thirty-
seven of Forgotten Australians, which proposes that historical research be
undertaken into the role of institutional care in Australias social history
including the commissioning of personal histories of former residents.16 Oral
historians have been challenged for uncritically representing the past and not
paying attention to how memory works. Others, though, have argued that oral
history is centrally concerned with memory which, as Portelli has stated, is not
a passive depository of facts, but an active process of creation of meanings.17
Memory is affected by changi...