There’s this feeling with kids who live in out-of-home-care that something is wrong with you. Why else are you there? This article takes the notion of wrongness to its darkest limits. Indigenous kids and babies criminalized through wardship and the impact on their lives.
I can only express my opinion here, an opinion based on the life I lived in the homes. I can’t talk as an expert on bureaucracy or ‘child welfare’. I can’t give insights into the cost of housing home’s kids (which I’ve heard is millions despite the often below par life they live). I only have my memories and the sense of something being very wrong that has stayed with me ever since.
That ‘criminalized’ feeling was common. The article talks about the 1950s and documented criminality as part of the abhorrent removal of Indigenous children from their families. My experiences are limited to the 1990s, Melbourne, mixed race kids, Anglo, Asian, Maori, Russian, Polish… but my comments are not race related because my memory is that we were all treated the same.
The social workers were a diverse bunch, some caring, others exhausted, a few vindictive. They faded into the background as the system we were moved through overwhelmed us with its mechanical coldness. We were not just cogs, we were broken ones unlikely to make anything of ourselves and the role of this machinery we inhabited was to move us through the production line and spit us out – without further consideration – at the other end.
I remember trying to do homework in the beginning. The short term unit I lived in for nine months or so was full to capacity, wide-eyed little kids trying to get cuddles from social workers overcome with the effort of dealing with the older kids. One teen boy was in a state because the pantry was locked between meals and he wasn’t allowed a snack.
I asked if I could go to the bedroom to study.
“You know the rules. Bedrooms are out of bounds.”
They assumed we would get up to things so they banned us from any privacy – assumption of guilt.
A failed attempt to care and protect.
After a while I gave up on my homework.
Soon I turned my back on school.
I didn’t pass a single year while I was a ward of state. It wasn’t until I left the homes that I managed to get to Tafe and do adult education VCE, later struggling my way to university.
Then there were the cops. We weren’t allowed to stay out at friend’s houses without the whole family and any potential visitor undergoing a police check. As a teenager this was a rule I could not accept. It ostracised me. Let everyone know I was different. But worse than that it upset people because they didn’t want to have to undergo full scrutiny just so little old me could visit their home. My friends outside the homes are why I survived as well as I did. They were where I ran to when the homes were crazy and unsafe and I wasn’t willing to jeopardise this by adhering to an unfair rule.
So I simply ran away.
This meant there were frequent ‘missing persons’ put out on me – a familiar story for home’s kids. The cops knew it and no one bothered searching for us. And when we crossed paths with cops and they found out we were home’s kids their demeanour instantly changed. They’d throw us into divvy vans and drive fast around corners. They’d interrogate us to discover what we were up to because ‘something must be wrong with you to be living the life you’re living!’ That was the unspoken message. I stress here that this isn’t all cops. I’m sure there were many nice ones. However the bad were unforgettable.
I’m not sure how many times I was told by social workers and the police that I would be ‘locked up’ if I didn’t do as I was told. This included leaving a home where I didn’t feel safe. It’s hard to respect and listen to others when no one respects or listens to you.
We had no words to articulate that we were surviving the best way we could. The sense of being a criminal by virtue of our circumstance was internalised and processed as truth.