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A New Forde Inquiry

The LNP has announced an intention to establish a “new Forde Inquiry”.  The purpose of this Inquiry would be to review progress that has been made since the time of the “original Forde Inquiry” and “chart a new roadmap” for Child Protection over the next decade.

The Forde Inquiry is the informal title given to the Commission of Inquiry into the Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions that was held from August 1998 until May 1999.  The Commission of Inquiry was chaired by Ms Leneen Forde, a former Governor of Queensland who now serves as Chancellor of Griffith University.

During the course of the Forde Inquiry, intensive investigation was undertaken into the current and past administration of various orphanages, reformatories, and detention centres for “wayward children”.  A sizeable number of witnesses were deposed under oath to testify before the Commission.  Most of these deponents had spent part of their childhood or adolescence in one or more of Queensland’s youth institutions.  Some of these witnesses chose to be identified by name, but many requested anonymity.  As most of the deponents were testifying in regard to events which they had experienced or witnessed during their childhood or adolescence, in some cases they were testifying about events that had occurred as much as fifty years prior to the Inquiry.

Key findings of the Inquiry included the following:

  • Many of the children housed in Australian orphanages were not orphans, but were in fact “child migrants” who were expatriated from postwar Britain to serve the double purpose of easing food shortages in Britain and building up a population base of young white citizens in Australia.  Some were children who had been abandoned by their parents, others were children who had been separated from their parents during World War II due to evacuation or bombings.  Although the “child migrant” scheme was originally implemented to ease postwar conditions, the British government continued expatriating children to Australia until 1966.
  • Many boys were placed in criminal institutions (reformatories, detention centres and work farms) not because they had committed a crime, but merely because they had turned 14 years of age and were therefore deemed to be too old to remain in an orphanage.
  • Girls who became sexually active in their teenage years were routinely placed in reformatories on the grounds that they were in “moral danger”.
  • Children and adolescents were routinely used for “slave labour”, and were subjected to physical and sexual abuse by the warders and matrons of the institutions in which they were housed. Many of these institutions were administered by churches – Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist or Protestant – so the authority figures administering the abuse were frequently priests or ministers and occasionally nuns.
  • Most of the children were given no schooling, no instruction in useful trades, and no opportunities for recreation.  Although some of the orphanages possessed playgrounds and toys, these were maintained only as display for visitors and inspectors.
  • Children were routinely given severe punishment for extremely minor infractions.  One example cited in the Inquiry Report was the sanctioned policy of inflicting physical torture upon left-handed children, in order “to get the Devil out of them”, the Devil being presumed to be left-handed.

The Commission issued 42 separate recommendations for changes in government policy, in addition to implementing funding and staffing arrangements to ensure that these changes were made. Two years after the Inquiry was concluded, the Queensland Government issued a progress report, Queensland Government response to recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions.

After the Commission turned in its report, several youth institutions were decommissioned and closed, and several people were prosecuted for crimes against children and young people who had been in their charge.

My personal recollections of the Forde Inquiry

At the time of the Forde Inquiry being conducted, I held a senior position within the Youth Justice program administered by the (then) Department of Families.  In this capacity, I had close involvement with the Commission of Inquiry, providing information and advice to assist the Commission in its investigations.  I also appeared as an “expert witness” during the public hearings that were a major feature of the Inquiry.

I look back now at the Forde Inquiry as a magnificent milestone in the history of both child protection and youth justice services in Queensland and I applaud the courage and foresight shown by the (then) Minister for Family Services, Anna Bligh, in having initiated it.  It was a Commission of Inquiry that was sorely needed.

I also recall the warmth, grace and determination displayed by Ms Lineen Forde in leading the Inquiry and the dedicated and skilful “prosecution” of the public hearings by Ms Kate Holmes, (then) Counsel Assisting The Forde Inquiry.

In various positions that I have held within both the government and non-government sectors following the conclusion of the Forde Inquiry, I have insisted that newly employed staff read the Forde Inquiry Report as part of their induction.  My insistence on this was based on my belief that you could not work within the fields of youth justice or child protection within this State unless you had read and reflected on the contents of the Inquiry Report and the atrocious ways in which children and young people have been treated in the past and their vulnerability to similar treatment in the present.

Sadly, familiarity with the Forde Inquiry and its significance has, I suspect, faded over time as more and more child protection and youth justice policy makers, administrators and practitioners have taken up their positions without the benefit of having “lived through” the Inquiry.

If a new Inquiry is to be conducted

It seems understandable and reasonable for a newly elected, incoming government to want to put in place a process that allows them to take stock of “where we are at” and “where to from here” in relation to the child protection system.

It would also seem reasonable to make use of the “original” Forde Inquiry findings and recommendations as a measure in reviewing progress that has been made. Time has moved on however since the Forde Inquiry was conducted.  We hopefully should now know more than we did then and other significant reviews and inquiries have been held both in Queensland and elsewhere from which lessons can be learned – such as the 2004 Crime and Misconduct Commission’s Inquiry into the Abuse of Children in Foster Care, the Review of the United Kingdom’s Child Protection System led by Professor Eileen Munro and, most recently, the Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Inquiry.

If an Inquiry is to be held, it would seem vital that its terms of reference allow for the findings and recommendations of these inquiries and reviews to also be considered.

There are also other critical issues of concern that have become increasingly prominent within Queensland since the time of the original Forde Inquiry and are demanding of close attention if an Inquiry were to be held.  Chief amongst these is the alarming disproportionate involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Islander children, young people and families with the child protection system.  This must surely become a focus of any Inquiry that is to be held.

The Shadow Minister for Child Safety, Tracy Davis in a Courier Mail interview stated that she would consult with the child protection sector about the matters to be examined in a “new Forde Inquiry”.

Do you think a “new Forde Inquiry” should be conducted?  What matters do you think should be examined if an Inquiry is to be held?  If you have a view or opinion, please enter a comment below or email us at election2012@peakcare.org.au.

Lindsay Wegener, Executive Director, PeakCare Queensland

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. Shelley Wall #

    This is a very difficult issue as it is hard to be opposed to examining how we might improve on the important work to help ensure our children grow up in a safe and nurturing community; supported by a well functioning ‘child protection system’ when they are not able to remain at home. However, there is a considerable amount of information out there already around what the challenges are to achieving success in the aspiration to have a well functioning child protection system. Hopefully, any inquiry will balance the need for action to address known issues from other relevant reports and inquiries; along with good will for the next government to work with the in partnership with the NGO sector to achieve a shared vision of a well functioning child protection system. Shelley Wall, Residential Care Manager, Mercy Family Services.

    March 10, 2012

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