Care Leavers Recovering Voice and Agency Through Counter-Narratives

by Frank Golding, OAM, PhD Candidate, Federation University Australia, Victoria

Care Leavers Recovering Voice and Agency Through Counter-Narratives is the working title of a PhD thesis I am completing at Federation University Australia. It incorporates previously published journal articles, book chapters and conference papers I have written—some in partnership with Associate Professor Jacqueline Wilson. Like me, Jax is a former ward of the state of Victoria. We met around 1997 when we were active in initiating Care Leaver advocacy with a Victorian group we called LOSS (Lives of State Shame) and, later, ForWards. These led into the formation of the national peak body CLAN (Care Leavers Australasia Network) in 2000.

For the PhD, I will link each of the nine previously published chapters to make a coherent argument and add two new pieces. First, I will provide an overview that examines previous approaches to research in out-of-home ‘care’ that will show the need for more autoethnographic work by people with direct experience. Second, I will undertake an extended critical analysis and reflection on the state of play in producing a counter-narrative that will go some way to making the history of ‘care’ more authentic.

As in other western nations, state authorities, churches, and charities in Australia have a long history of prosecuting—and persecuting—children they deemed to be neglected or likely to lapse into a life of vice. Once removed from their families—out of the public gaze—these children were often rendered silent, their voices supressed or simply unheard. I analyse the exercise of total power in institutions where children were framed as ‘the tainted other’ born to ‘ignorant and cruel parents’, deserving of no better than they got. Self-serving institutional histories appropriated the narrative and framed it as ‘care’ and compassion.

But advocacy by survivors led to a series of inquiries which relied heavily on direct testimony that produced a better understanding of institutional experiences of maltreatment. While media commentary and academics have paid insufficient attention to systems abuse, scandals around sexual abuse generated media headlines that heightened public consciousness of life behind the walls. Impetus also came through the opening up of records, especially access to personal case files, many of which (if they could be found) were offensive, inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading.

In this changing environment, Care leavers are now challenging the established views of historical ‘care’ regimes by producing compelling counter-narratives that re-interpret their lived and living experiences—two co-existing layers of meaning that interact in complex ways. My own memoir, An Orphan’s Escape: Memories of a lost childhood (2005) is just one of scores of personal or autoethnographic accounts published in one form or another in Australia in recent decades. A sort of new history is emerging from below driven by an appreciation that history is present in everything we are and everything we do—and “it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations” (James Baldwin, ‘The White Man’s Guilt’, 1965).

I argue that interpreting the past can’t remain the exclusive privilege of the powerful. We are all historians capable of making meanings of our experience. That is our right to personal integrity.

I go on to argue that even if children’s rights had no legal status at the time, rights always existed as moral rights for those who experienced ‘care’ in the twentieth century. Moreover, rights are inalienable—they do not expire when the person turns 18 nor are they subject to any statute of limitations. Therefore, if people were denied their rights as children, and they were harmed as a consequence, they must have a right to justice as adults.

I examine forms of child resistance that defied the silence and go on to explore contemporary campaigns for justice: making our history visible, talking back to and righting the record, and various forms of apology, redress and restitution that acknowledge, validate and vindicate our accounts of ‘care’.

I aim to present a coherent argument about the discovery, or recovery, of voice and agency in an historical context while recognising that many survivors still feel that they can never recover what they lost—or never had. I will conclude by identifying lessons we have learned and directions warranting further development.

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