“Where Are They? Who Are They?”

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  • This article was downloaded by: [UQ Library]On: 03 November 2014, At: 00:24Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Australian Historical StudiesPublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rahs20

    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

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/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 :




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  • 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




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  • 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




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  • 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...


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