While I have survived extreme deprivation, I am left with deep emotional scars. I have a sense of abandonment, exploitation and not belonging. I feel it impossible to fully recover from my experiences.
Senator for Western Australia
This is a quote from one of the hundreds of submissions to the Senate's children-in-institutional-care inquiry, due to report at the end of this month. It captures a fundamental truth. Understanding this truth should alter public policy towards children.
What is that truth?
If you badly harm a child you will have a badly harmed adult to cope with. It doesn't end there. The effects of the harm are often transferred to the victim's children, creating generational social problems.
I initiated, and was a member of, the Senate's child-migrant inquiry in 2001 and its children-in-institutional-care inquiry this year. It is estimated that, over the past 100 years, more than 500,000 Australians, including the stolen generation of Aboriginal children, were placed in care.
I am often asked if my own experiences started me on this campaign. In a children's home in England by the age of two, I was shipped to Rhodesia at four under the Fairbridge scheme (which settled orphaned British children in that country).
This personal history has helped me as an advocate for recognition and action. It's not an area that people are comfortable with. One witness described institutionalised children as carpet children - as in swept under.
Setting up the inquiries was a struggle, each taking 12 months of continual hard lobbying. As few parliamentarians comprehend the issues affecting those who were abused while in care, few saw the need for inquiries.
They know now.
Although there are good stories, the sheer scale of damaged people is staggering. That so many endured a childhood deprived of the love and security of their own families is certainly sad. That so many were abused and neglected - including criminal sexual and physical assaults - is unforgivable. That so many are scarred and live on the margins of society as adults without programs to assist them is scandalous.
"A door opens in the memory bank and the ghosts escape to make us lonely children again."
Unfortunately, it is the case that many survivors of childhood trauma go on to produce another generation of victims.
I now detect some change. Through the Senate inquiries and increasing community concern, activism and media coverage, the message is getting out that the abuse, neglect and assault of children can no longer be tolerated. Not only because it is wrong, but because of the long-term social and economic effects.
There is an extensive body of research showing that, if you hurt and break the spirit of a child, you end up with a hurt and broken adult. Even those who are well adjusted struggle. One 70-year-old wrote: "Every now and then a door opens in the memory bank and the ghosts escape to make us lonely children again."
Evidence is overwhelming that a significant proportion of those abused as children descend into homelessness, welfare dependency, substance abuse, failed relationships, criminal behaviour and early death, often from suicide.
Politicians and policy-makers have to understand the scale and effects of child abuse. It is not a question of isolated incidents that are sad or repugnant; it is a widespread social problem with huge social and economic costs.
A recent independent report commissioned by the Kids First Foundation conservativelyestimates that child abuse and neglect costs taxpayers $5 billion a year, of which $2 billion is associated with long-term costs.
With the knowledge we now have, the cycle of abuse must become a priority for those in a position to make a difference. A resolution is needed.
One respondent wrote: "In my heart, I feel, if there is to be real peace for myself, I would like to be given a fair go."
Andrew Murray is a Democrat senator for Western Australia.
See related: Senate Inquiry into the Institutional Abuse of Children
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