Coming out of the bush: survivor tells story of Forgotten Australians

Published in the July 2016 issue

A survivor of institutional care in the 1960s, who then spent years living as a hermit in the New South Wales bush, has completed a PhD highlighting the experiences of the ‘Forgotten Australians’.

It is estimated there are around 500,000 Australians who spent time in institutional and foster care from the turn of the century to 1974, when legislation regarding out-of-home-care changed.  The ‘Forgotten Australians’ were identified in a 2004 Senate inquiry and recognised with an apology in 2009 by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Dr Gregory Smith

Dr Gregory Smith

Dr Gregory Smith, a lecturer at Southern Cross University, took an in-depth look at the experiences of 21 ‘Forgotten Australians’ — of whom he is one.

The key finding of his study, ‘Nobody’s Children: An exploration into a sense of belonging of adults who experienced institutional out-of-home care as children’, was that the majority of participants experienced significant challenges in developing relationships in their family, within their community and in society more broadly.

“The idea was to explore a sense of belonging in adults who experienced institutional care as children,” Dr Smith said.

“Neglect is a form of abuse and that is something we now recognise in children. One of the most common situations in these childcare institutions was neglect. In some of these institutions you might have had 40 to 50 children and only six carers, or less.”

Another major issue was the forced separation of siblings.

“One particular participant (in the study) was placed in care at the age of 10. He had four sisters — they were separated and he didn’t see his sisters for six years.  At the time I interviewed him, it had taken him more than 40 years to re-establish communication lines with all his sisters,” Dr Smith said.

“There’s a lot of residual anger and a sense of shame. That anger manifests itself in many ways – in violence, mental health issues – our health care system is paying for that today.

“Over 50 per cent of my participants had serious drug and alcohol problems at some time in their lives. It’s estimated in the general population just two per cent of the population have addiction issues.”

Dr Smith’s own story echoes many, and it is one he is only recently learning to share.

Dr Smith was born in Tamworth, New South Wales in 1955. As a result of dysfunctional parents, he and his five younger sisters were surrendered to a Catholic orphanage in 1965.

“At that time, it was not considered important to inform children about issues which affected their lives in this way. As such, no one took the time to explain to us why we had been removed from our home and placed in the institutional care of nuns. I thought our parents no longer wanted us and just gave us away to the nuns.

“I spent nine years from age 10 to 19 in care and during that time some of the things I did NOT learn to do were how to communicate; how to find somewhere to live; how to get a job; how to live a basic life out in society.

“What I did learn was how to march, how to fold my clothes. Discipline was more important. Having control over these children was more important than teaching them the skills to have a normal life.

“I started off in Armidale and ended up in punitive care because I kept running away.”

Dr Smith said when he came out of the institution at the age of 19, he had no baseline reference of how to conduct himself.

“I felt that because I was so different people would make fun of me.  That remained with me for a long time. I was only ever able to find short-term employment.

“I actually became a hermit.  I went out and lived out in the bush by myself, with myself, for myself, for 10 years. I neglected myself very deeply and very badly and got very sick out there.

“I was so sick I was forced to come back in and engage with society. I was 45 when I walked out of the bush. One of the things I realised was that if I was forced to live in society I somehow had to reconcile myself with society.

“I began to realise that one of the problems was that I had nothing to offer. It struck me that if you haven’t got a skill, you can go and learn it.  I spent a year getting myself better then I went and did a tertiary preparation program and I did quite well at it.

“I learnt that I didn’t like computers, but I did learn that I liked to learn.”

After completing his preparation program, much of which he completed while still homeless, Dr Smith went on to finish a Bachelor of Social Science at Southern Cross University and then an Honours degree.

“I finished my undergraduate at Coffs Harbour and then applied to do my Honours. I was offered casual work at the University. The very first thing I did with my first pay cheque was go down and buy a pair of new shoes. That was the first pair of new shoes I had owned in my life.  I was just so happy,” he said.

“During the process of my Honours I had a couple of publications, wrote a few papers.  When the results came back I had First Class Honours.”

Dr Smith said his focus was now on making a difference in the lives of the ‘Forgotten Australians’. While there has been recognition of the impact of this institutional care on the children, there needed to be action around health care provision and other support services.

“The other thing is I don’t want to see this population going into institutional care at the end of their lives. You have an ageing population, but many are living in fear of how they will be treated as they age.

“It is not everybody, but there is a core of people who have been severely impacted.”

Dr Smith said it was time to get out there and tell the world.

“We are looking for support from the Stolen Generation, child migrants, academics and Australian society in general,” he said.

“We are not that different, we have aspirations, we have goals and we have rights. Our rights were abused as children. We want that recognised and we want a national redress scheme because as a process of that abuse we found ourselves with inabilities and deficits and some of that has taken away our ability to prepare for our senior years.”

Listen to Gregory Smith’s interview on the ABC’s Conversations with Richard Fidler program.

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  1. This is a wonderful story. I myself, am suffering from post trauma from childhood abuse and neglect, though I didn’t get removed from my family and placed into institutional care. I am 50 years old now and trying to deal with the reoccurring symptoms of childhood post trauma whilst I am studying. I am isolated and recovering with limited support which is a challenge. I do lack self-worth and self-confidence because of my life story. I do worry how am I going to get a job? How will I survive and how will I be able to help my daughter?. But reading your story and your story of research has helped me to feel confident that I can progress and be able to achieve all these things. Thank you for your story, it makes me feel not so alone.

  2. Irene E Hancock says:

    Thank you Dr, Smith for having the courage and will to put this issue out there. It is not as dramatic as your issue however I have a fear for the generation of babies who due to financial circumstances are placed in long day care as soon as they are born. These infants don’t experience the normal bonding process with their parents, but form some type of bond with multiple carers. I would like to see a longitudinal study on these babies/children to see if their percentage of antisocial behaviour as teenagers and adults is greater than the general population.

  3. Graham Rees says:

    So grateful to have read this. I have a sibling whose story maps to quite a bit of yours. He’s currently in the Blue Mountains, we think…I can’t tell you how empowering it is to me to read your story…to a PhD, for goodness sake!! What a redemptive journey. Bless.