Last night’s Four Corners episode highlighted the very real continuing problems with our child welfare system. The investigation into Australia’s residential group foster homes showed an ongoing system of neglect, ineptitude, and what may well be considered abuse.

We in Australia have a lengthy history of a failure to meet the needs of children left to the care of the state. The 2004 Forgotten Australians report demonstrated this in a way that was systematically researched and confronting. Reading that report, and the testimony of child survivors, there is much continuity with the type of neglect alleged in the Four Corners report. Stories of insufficient clothing, of inadequate food, and of children put together in the most inappropriate situations permeate both the contemporary and the historical reports.

In this context it is easy to feel that little progress has been made. For those children who are deemed too hard to be placed in foster care, for those who defy rules and refuse to accept adult authority, the pain is ongoing. Care is outsourced and inadequately supervised. Children grow up with little prospect for a life untouched by the criminal justice system.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope. The young women interviewed by Four Corners spoke to the media knowing that there was a real likelihood that they would be believed. And believed they were. Their stories rightfully sparked outrage.

Compare that to the children of decades past. Anyone who knows me knows that I am fascinated by the history of Westbrook, a reformatory, then farm home, then juvenile justice institution, which for much of its existence housed boys who were deemed too difficult for other institutions to handle. The conditions they faced were marked by neglect. Cost-saving measures led to weevils in the food, children left without underwear, and a necessity to wear the same socks days on end.

The children at Westbrook could not speak out and expect to be believed. Even where they were given the opportunity to do so, such as in the Schwarten Inquiry in the 1960s, their words remained closed to the public. The memoirs of those boys who chose, as adults, to share their stories are permeated by a sense that they would be disbelieved.

We are willing to believe the children who speak out today. That is the first step toward action.

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