The death of Heather Bell’s younger sister in a Geelong orphanage more than 60 years ago still haunts her.
And it makes her angry.
Eight-year-old Evelyn died of rheumatic fever, despite Ms Bell and her other sisters pleading with the staff at St Catherine’s Orphanage to treat her.
That was in 1959. Speaking at the soon-to-opened Australian Orphanage Museum in Geelong, an emotional Ms Bell recalled how the Reverend Mother explained to her and another sister that Evelyn had died.
“She said ‘Heather, it’s like having a bunch of grapes. And God has taken the best grape for himself’,” Ms Bell said.
“I just stared at her and I said ‘Evelyn wasn’t a grape!’
“All my life I believed in my head as a little girl, I believed they had murdered my sister. That’s how we used to think.”
Ms Bell and her siblings were wards of the state, taken away from their parents in 1956.
She only remembers the year because she can remember watching Betty Cuthbert train for the Melbourne Olympics in Royal Park, near when she was first forced to live.
Life in orphanages was hard.
Punishments were often cruel and violent.
Only recently did Ms Bell learn of the cruel punishments her younger brother endured at another institution where a Christian Brother forced him to kneel on scrubbing brushes for just wishing him “good night”.
And while victims of child sexual abuse in these institutions can access a national redress scheme, which Victoria is part of, those who endured other abuse in the orphanages as wards of the state cannot.
Care Leavers neglected in new redress schemes
In recent weeks, Premier Daniel Andrews has announced two new redress schemes, including one for Aboriginal Victorians taken from their families prior to 1977.
The $155 million package includes payments of up to $100,000 and access to services to reconnect to country.
The state is also going to establish a scheme for people involved in forced adoptions.
Care Leavers like Ms Bell are happy for those groups, but it has them once again asking what help the tens of thousands of people formerly in state care can get.
“The government took us in and made us wards of the state through the court system. They took on responsibility to take care of all of those children in institutions. They failed miserably,” Ms Bell said.
“The fact is the physical and the emotional, psychological abuse was so traumatic. Set aside the sexual abuse, the other abuse was so traumatic people that couldn’t get on with their lives when they left the institution. Many of them ended up in prison.”
Many suffered terrible mental health issues, and some turned to alcohol and drug use.
A 2004 Senate inquiry found that more than half a million Australians had lived in an orphanage or other form of out-of-home care. The inquiry heard of “a litany of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and often criminal physical and sexual assault”.
Care Leavers told politicians stories of “neglect, humiliation and deprivation of food, education and healthcare” across state institutions and religious care providers.
“But the overwhelming response as to treatment in care, even among those that made positive comments was the lack of love, affection and nurturing that was never provided to young children at critical times during their emotional development,” the report found.
The committee recommended a national redress scheme to compensate people who had “suffered physical, sexual or emotional abuse while residing in these institutions or out-of-home care settings”.
Survivors of orphanage system continue redress campaign
The walls inside Frank Golding’s inner-city house are covered in photos of his family, including his own children, compensating for his own upbringing where he was deprived of family, care and love.
Dr Golding grew up in a Ballarat orphanage from age two to 15. He was never told why he couldn’t live with his parents.
And he was never shown what real family care for children was because he never got to experience it.
His brother and friends were sexually abused. He was not, but most nights he was gripped with fear that he would be.
Dr Golding is a long-term advocate for Care Leavers’ redress and attended a rally at Parliament on Wednesday to urge the government to act after the Premier’s recent commitments.
“We think that’s inequitable that you give one group of people in the community, well-deserving people in community redress, but not the others,” Dr Golding said.
Some Care Leavers thought inquiries like the 2004 Senate report and the Victorian Parliament’s Betrayal of Trust inquiry, as well as apologies from various governments, would pave the way for redress.
But the royal commission and subsequent national redress scheme has ended up overshadowing the experiences of Care Leavers.
The Care Leavers of Australia Network continues to fight for redress and has called on the Andrews government to implement a state scheme.
A Victorian government spokeswoman said the government recognised trauma could take different forms.
“We’ll continue working with those impacted to find a way to best support their needs,” she said.
“We acknowledge the courage of survivors and advocates in their efforts to raise awareness about the suffering caused and lifelong impact.”
A spokeswoman for the federal Social Services Minister Anne Ruston noted the 2009 National Apology to the Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants.
“The Australian government provides ongoing funding of $4.6 million per year to Find and Connect Support Services, which include a broad range of activities to improve the lives of Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants,” she said.