articles/lectures, Forgotten Australians, memories

Inside Westbrook

Former inmate of Westbrook Farm Home for Boys, Alfred Fletcher, will speak at the National Museum of Australia on Thursday 1 September 2011 at 12.30 – 1.30 pm, in the Friends Lounge.

Alfred Fletcher was sent to Westbrook Farm Home for Boys in Toowoomba, west of Brisbane, in the 1960s.  He was 15 years old.  He lived there for two and a half years until he succeeded in running away.  He likens his time there to living in a concentration camp. He endured floggings that tore his flesh, torture and abuse.  Al records his experiences at Westbrook in his book, Brutal: Surviving Westbrook Boys Home by Al Fletcher as told to Cheryl Jorgensen which was published in 2006 and re-released in 2010. After Al escaped from Westbrook he worked as a merchant seaman and horticulturalist.  He married, has grown up children and now lives in a Bayside suburb of Brisbane. His story is one of many that will be included in the upcoming NMA exhibition Inside: Life in Children’s Homes. Westbrook was established in 1900 by the Queensland Government to reform boys. In 1994 there was an inquiry into the operation of Westbrook and it was closed down.

documents, Forgotten Australians

Schwarten Inquiry into Westbrook

‘The Superintendent said, “Don’t look at me in that tone of voice”  and banged boy 90’s head several times against the tin wall’. Read the full 1961 report of the Inquiry into Westbrook Farm Home for Boys by Stipendiary Magistrate, Mr AE Schwarten.

The report was conducted after an ‘incident which occurred on Sunday, 14th May, 1961, at the Farm Home for Boys, Westbrook, in which approximately 36 inmates of the said Home were involved and number of whom escaped’.

The report was provided to the National Museum of Australia by Al Fletcher, author of Brutal: Surviving Westbrook Boys Home by Al Fletcher as told to Cheryl Jorgensen. The report has since been published online by the Queensland Government.

Download a copy of the 79-page Westbrook Farm Home for Boys Inquiry Report (PDF 6.92MB)

Two boys seen through bars across a window at Westboork Boys Home
art, Child Migrants, events, Forgotten Australians, memories, objects, Responding to the National Apology, Stolen Generations

No more silent tears #2

by Leigh Westin (guest author) on 14 July, 2011

Leigh Westin, who grew up in Scarba House and Parramatta Girls Home, is creating a memorial entitled No More Silent Tears for Forgotten Australians. The memorial is comprised of a large panel of handkerchiefs sewn together, each decorated by those who spent time in a Children’s Home or institution.

If you experienced institutional or out-of-home ‘care’ and would like to contribute to this memorial, then on a lady’s-sized handkerchief embroider and/or write in ink, your name, the name of the institutions(s) and the year(s) that you lived there. Please feel free to decorate it however you wish, so that it will be suitable for people of all ages to view. The important thing is that you only use a lady’s handkerchief so that Leigh can easily sew them together. You may, of course, make a handkerchief in order to remember a Forgotten Australian or former Child Migrant who has passed away.

You can then post it to:
Adele Chynoweth
National Museum of Australia
GPO Box 1901
Canberra ACT 2601

Adele will then pass the handkerchiefs onto Leigh. Please make sure that your contribution reaches Adele by close of business Friday 12 August, 2011.

Below are some of the handkerchiefs that have already been made.

articles/lectures, documents, Forgotten Australians

Senators vote against child abuse inquiry

by Wilma Robb (guest author) on 7 July, 2011

The Australian Senate recently voted against Senator Nick Xenophon’s motion that the Heiner Affair be referred to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee for inquiry and report. Listen to Bravehearts‘ founder Hetty Johnston’s response.

Download the Hetty Johnston interview with Michael Smith on the 2UE website.

Download the Hansard excerpt (PDF 263kb)  to read the report of the Legal and Constitutional References Committee discussion and to see how senators voted on 23 June 2011.

Forgotten Australians, memories

Shock treatment

by Gwen (Sandra) Robinson (guest author) on 22 June, 2011

‘My heart broke for these defenseless people and still does today.’ Gwen (Sandra) Robinson was placed in Wolston Park Hospital, Tufnell Home and Home of the Good Shepherd Mitchelton. Here, she remembers her experiences at Wolston Park.

Gwen writes:

My name is Gwen Robinson preferably known as Sandra and I am going to write a little about the Shock Treatment that I seen given to patients at Wolston Park Mental Hospital also known as Goodna Mental Hospital. First I will tell you a little about myself and how I got there. I was put in there for being an absconder, better known as an habitual run-away, and not because there was anything mentally wrong with me which was proven by the I.Q. test that I did there and it came out as above average. I had the brains to be an accountant, which is what I wanted to be, but I was never given the education to follow that profession. There is a letter in my files written by a doctor to the Childrens Department stating that Wolston Park was non-theraputic to me and I should be out in a hostel and doing a business course. Needless to say that never happened and the Childrens Department just kept me there to be kept drugged up. We were given a drug called peraldahyde and it had to be given in a glass vial as it melted plastic. The mind shudders as to what it has done to my body being given to me as a young teenager. We were also given other mind altering drugs which kept us immobilised, which led to some of us wetting or dirtying ourselves as we could not move. It also left the staff free range to do whatever they wanted when we were in this state. I have cigarette burns on my arms from the staff and other scars.

I absconded from Tufnell Home and ended up in The Good Shepherd at Mitchelton and then I got out of there and was sent to Karalla House. I never got out of there but was locked up for more than a month in solitary confinement and when we got out of these rooms we came out as mad as hell and caused trouble and then this led me to be put in the Mental Hospital as it was the most secure place in QLD to keep me. I got out of there and was caught months later and was locked in a room for 2 weeks for the male staff to have access to as this was my punishment. I was also told at this time that if I escaped again that there was a lot of suicides in the Bremmer River. I believed them as I thought if you can lock me up with the Criminally Insane, and no one is doing anything about it, then you could do exactly as you pleased. Needless to say that I did escape from there one more time and was never caught, but I lived a life of being someone else as I thought I would be murdered. If anyone is interested I could explain that to them. In my mind I have never deserved any of this treatment as my only crime was being an orphan and being severly bashed at home and sometimes so bad that the school took me to the Hospital as I had blood and welts all over my body.

I cannot remember the number of the Ward that I was in when I witnessed the horror of seeing people being strapped down for shock treatment and also seeing them come out of the room when it was done. I am sitting here writing this with tears in my eyes as the pure horror of what these people went through comes back to me. It was one of the cruelist things that I have ever witnessed. The patients would fight the staff and come and hide behind other people, such as myself, and beg us to help and protect them. There was nothing I could do and they would be dragged away by staff and they would be begging and pleading to the staff not to do this to them. When they came out of the rooms after Shock Treatment they would be left lying on the beds and this is when I seen male staff interferring and doing sexual things to some of the patients while they were unconscious. Even today thinking about it makes my stomach heave. I have always been quite a strong person and have had a strong sense of survival, but what I seen in this place and also had done to me has had the worst effect on me even these many years later. Sometimes for days and even weeks these patients who had Shock Treatment would walk around in a daze with strange eyes, like they couldn’t focus, and also loss of memory. They were forever asking others what their names were and where they were. Another thing is that they were very skiddish as hiding behind other patients, such as myself, so as not to be noticed by staff and if staff came towards some it was like they were frozen with fear and I witnessed some patients just pass out with this fear and some of the staff thought this was quite funny. My heart broke for these defenseless people and still does today. Everyone dreaded Shock Treatment days but some of the staff loved it.

The Government in QLD. will not compensate any of us who were children placed in Adult Institutions or who were locked up with the Criminally Insane. They keep saying that the Redress Scheme has closed but they fail to realise is that these Mental Institutions were not covered by the Redress Scheme as it only covered places in the Terms of Reference for the Forde Inquiry and this Forde Inquiry did not let us speak of these Mental Institutions and we were told that they would never be included as it was a seperate issue. None of us have ever found a lawyer who is smart enough or has the fight to take on the Government or Health Department on this issue. Even the legal part of the Senate Inquiry says we should be looked at again for compensation as it was wrong that we were excluded as we were put there by the Children’s Department.

Forgotten Australians, memories

Lowson House

by Jessica Dalton (guest author) on 10 June, 2011

‘I stopped correcting them, and certainly stopped respecting them’: Jessica Dalton describes her time at Lowson House, Royal Brisbane Hospital, in 1980. Jessica was 20 at the time but some of her experiences were similar to those recounted by Forgotten Australians who were admitted to adult wards of psychiatric hospitals as children.

I had taken an overdose after being dumped by my first boyfriend, and when I began vomiting I told my mother what I’d done. She took me to RBH where she worked and I was admitted to Lowson House where I was kept in isolation for three days on the locked female Ward D. Before being discharged, I was examined by a room full of doctors, students and staff.  The registrar assigned to my case argued that I was schizophrenic and should remain in Lowson House for treatment.  The psychiatrist invited me to give my version of events and I explained that I was very unhappy at home and when my boyfriend dumped me I wanted to die.  However I didn’t die and I thought my best plan was to return to finish my schooling so that I could get a decent job or go on to uni and get out of home as soon as possible.  He agreed with my interpretation of events and I was released.

When I was 20, I had finally made it to uni and had become extremely anxious prior to first semester exams. One night I couldn’t deal with the anxiety and walked to RBH and asked for help.  I hoped that I would find intelligent reasonable people with expertise to help me deal with my emotional problems and mental distress.  The anxiety was so excruciating that I told the doctor at admissions that if they couldn’t help I’d probably have to end my life. I was admitted to Lowson House again and the same psychiatric registrar I had met when I was 16, was appointed as my psychiatrist. She remembered me and told me that now I would get the treatment I should have received when I was 16. Although I had admitted myself voluntarily, I became an involuntary patient. I revealed that I had been sexually abused over the first 12 years of my life which I believed was the source of my mental distress, but this was interpreted as delusional, reinforcing the diagnosis of schizophrenia. I was heavily medicated, refused leave to attend my final exams, and refused leave to attend another doctor for a second opinion. I asked if I was entitled to a second opinion and my psychiatrist said that of course I was. So when I asked for leave she would smile and refuse. If I tried to discharge myself, I was put on an involuntary order and sent back to D Floor, the locked ward. If I refused medication, I was sent back to D Floor. If I refused again I would be held down by orderlies and nurses, have my jaw prized open and have syrup poured down my throat. I stopped there. The next step was injections. I couldn’t win that battle.

In the first few days on D floor I felt so heavily medicated that I used to fall over if I got up from bed, or stood up suddenly from sitting position.  They made me go up to E Floor for ‘recreation’.  I kept falling over and the orderlies made me crawl up the stairs, laughing at me and kicking me with their boots. Up on E Floor, sometimes people paced up and down but they’d be yelled at and made to sit down and be quiet. Mostly the patients sat around the room in the chairs lined up against the walls staring speechless into space, some drooled, until we were allowed to go downstairs again.

They did conduct tests on me including inkblot tests, intelligence tests and a couple of EEGs. I don’t know how my responses to the inkblots were interpreted but I had the feeling at the time that it didn’t really matter what I said, it would be interpreted however my psychiatrist wanted it to be interpreted.  Whatever results didn’t fit the diagnosis, were discarded as irrelevant or false, rather than revisit the diagnosis. I remember the psychologist bailed me up in the corridor and accused me of cheating on my intelligence tests. I asked how that was possible and she said I must have done them before. I told her I hadn’t, she insisted, so I smiled and asked if she was upset because they were higher than hers, and would she like me to repeat them in order to produce a lower score? She was furious, stormed off and she had no more contact with me. I didn’t really understand the ramifications of showing disrespect to the staff in this way but I believe I tried to be totally honest with them initially. But they didn’t believe me when I told the truth or they twisted what I said to mean something else. I resisted their definitions of me but they still got inside me and hurt.

The EEG results indicated some sort of electrical disturbance similar to epilepsy, but that was not investigated.  The psychiatrist insisted I must have been blinking, even though I wasn’t. I complained of the smell on D floor caused by faeces smeared on the walls in the toilets. That was interpreted as olfactory hallucinations. I complained of feeling like a slug because of the effects of the medication. That was interpreted as a psychotic Kafka-esque metamorphosis. I stopped correcting them, and certainly stopped respecting them. My psychiatrist explained that I didn’t like her because I was projecting my hatred of my mother onto her. I assured her that I hated her for herself.

The psychiatrist refused to give me leave to have dinner with a dear friend who had come from Sydney to see me, when I actually wanted to go out. Well she didn’t initially refuse the leave, it was cancelled without reason at the last minute when my friend arrived to pick me up. Yet I was forced to go on weekend leave to my parents’ place although I begged them not to make me go … until I overdosed on my father’s heart medication and spent a week in coronary care. Then my parents decided that they wouldn’t have me and I was spared those visits. One registrar argued my case for me with the psychiatrist to trial me off the medication, but I guess he was disciplined because he wasn’t allowed to speak with me again.

Occupational therapy involved making a teapot stand with matchsticks or little tiles.  I was never a really crafty person. Then they decided I should learn to type. I was put in front of a broken typewriter in a cramped and messy office or storeroom with an old book on learning to type.  I was left alone and supposed to do something with that. The ribbon was worn out, keys were broken and I was medicated to the eyeballs. I was labelled as non-compliant and that was the end of my rehabilitation.

The food was revolting and at first I didn’t eat it. But eventually I lined up like everyone else, ages before the meal was served, in that long shuffling, dribbling line of human despair. Everything looked and tasted like porridge. I ate flies and bugs caught up in the food without a care. I put on four stone in weight.

I felt so tired and heavy, like my veins were filled with concrete. I didn’t want to get up, all I wanted to do was sleep. But every morning at 5 o’clock I was dragged out of bed, had cold water thrown on me a couple of times, and forced up to E floor for morning exercises. This consisted of orderlies physically placing us in rows facing the staff member who enthusiastically jumped about like a wannabee PE teacher or aerobics instructor, complete with whistle around his neck. Well, I’ve never been good at aerobics either but being drugged up at 5.30 in the morning, surrounded by people in a similar or worse state, did not inspire me … it was humiliating torture. And I’d be yelled at and called names, which also did nothing to improve my performance. I didn’t complain about all the courses of ECT because at least on those days I didn’t have to go for morning exercises and I really liked the IV valium. I had a really good peaceful sleep-in on those mornings.

I remained in Lowson House for 13 months, continued to be heavily medicated, received three courses of ECT, was not allowed to discuss the sexual abuse, and became totally dehumanised, demoralised and institutionalised by my experiences there. Although suicide had originally been an option to relieve the anxiety, I perceived it to be my only option after treatment at Lowson House. I managed to summon the energy to make a couple of attempts, which were not successful. Sadly, others I knew managed to do the job properly.  One man put his head under the wheel of a reversing truck while being walked to the canteen. I remember a nurse who was really annoyed about how inconsiderate that man was, considering the investigation the supervising nurse had to undergo. Another young man on weekend leave with his parents, threw himself off the faculty building at his university where he had graduated with distinction many years before. And another hung herself on the ward after excusing herself to get a tissue during a rowdy ward meeting. I was first back into the bedrooms, walked straight past her blue, lifeless, swinging body across the aisle from my bed and lay on my bed oblivious. Eventually someone else came and screamed. A male patient held up her body, while a young nurse aide ran to find scissors and cut her down. Those two did CPR together on the dead girl till the crash team eventually arrived and took her away. She had recently given birth and been forced to sign adoption papers. Then the nurse aide let loose on me for doing nothing. I don’t blame the nurse for that. How could I not notice? How could I not call for help? I knew why, but she didn’t.

I was not assigned a case-worker because, according to the social worker, she didn’t waste her time on hopeless cases. I began reading my file and was appalled by the fantastic rubbish written up as case-notes, informed by my mother and interpreted by my psychiatrist. Apparently, I was a lesbian because it was documented in my case-notes and all the staff and patients accepted this as fact despite my denials.  However, I was not abused as a child because the case-notes said it didn’t happen. I learnt early in my stay not to talk about the abuse, because staff abruptly got up and walked away if I raised the topic.

At one point I did make noticeable improvement and a registrar wanted to write a paper on me because she attributed my remarkable recovery to a new trial drug. I had to tell her that I had not been taking the drug and it was likely that the improvement in my behaviour (I was voluntarily getting out of bed, talking to people and feeling better) was due to not taking medication at all. I was forced to resume medication.

On my 21st birthday I was forcibly carried/dragged by 4 staff into the common room for a party I didn’t want to attend. After the party I stole my file, went to the embankment, drank a bottle of vodka, and burnt every page of my file. Another time I put a poster up on the front entry door to Lowson House. It was a picture of a sinking ship with the caption, ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here’. It was ages before the staff even noticed but eventually a visitor complained, an investigation launched and the culprit was tracked down. Yes, some of them really hated me. A new registrar let me read what she’d written in the file, and I was allowed to clarify it, if it was wrong. I thought that was respectful and sensible.

By the time I was to be discharged, my psychiatrist had left RBH and I had declined her invitation to be transferred under her care to another hospital. I don’t think I was allocated a new psychiatrist, because I didn’t see one again. I was not allowed to make my own living arrangements in the community and was given two options:  long-term accommodation at Wolston Park or a half-way house called Richmond Fellowship. By this time I had become institutionalised. I felt all my choices had been taken away from me. I had no hope for the future because I really was a mess by then, and besides that I’d been made aware that I should not have children because I would pass my mental disease on to them, and that I would never be able to work again, or achieve anything in my life. I badgered staff to help me make a decision about where to go, but nobody would give me any information about Wolston Park or Richmond Fellowship. The default option would be Wolston Park. I didn’t see how Wolston Park could be worse than Lowson House, I’d be fed and housed. Finally after following a registrar around for days, begging her to tell me what Wolston Park was like, she looked me in the eye and said it was a horrible place where I’d be treated worse than an animal.  I asked for an example, so I could differentiate between Wolston Park and Lowson House. She said that at Wolston Park I’d be herded with others, naked, into showers and hosed down. That sounded like a new experience I’d rather not be subjected to.

So I chose Richmond Fellowship, and discharged myself from there when it also proved to be less than helpful. When I arrived there I was not welcomed because a ward meeting was happening, which could not be interrupted. I was allowed to observe it from the corridor. I remember a young woman raised an issue about the way another group member spoke to her or treated her. The person responded by disregarding the complaint and telling her the problem was her inner child. The therapist agreed that she was dominated by her inner child and needed to use her inner adult more. The issue she raised was not addressed and she ran crying from the meeting. I thought that was interesting and some time later in life read about transactional analysis which shed some light on that strange interaction. Then I had to  complete several personality tests and was allowed to go to bed. Nobody spoke to me except the therapist conducting the test. I think they purposely made people leave you alone, in order to give you time to settle in. The next day the therapist asked to see me privately because there was a problem with my test results. The problem was that they were good. I didn’t know why that was a problem. He said they were better than most of the therapists. I still didn’t see why it was a problem. Then he told me that they have to show improvement between the before and after tests to justify the effectiveness of their programs. But my after tests wouldn’t be able to show improvement because my before tests were so good, and that was a problem for them. I offered to do them again and try to produce a worse result. He said that he couldn’t do that either, but he was pretty upset about it. I discharged myself and saved them the trouble of solving that dilemma.

After living in a share house for some months with other ex-patients, I was visited by the social worker who didn’t approve of my sleeping all day, eating hamburgers and watching television all night. She informed me that I was still under their supervision and would be re-committed if I didn’t assume a more normal lifestyle. I engaged a private psychiatrist, moved to another share house and never returned to a mental institution.

My life has not been easy, but I have raised a beautiful son to manhood; eventually returned to uni and graduated with honours; and enjoyed a successful career as a primary school teacher. But the horrors of my experiences at Lowson House still haunt me and make me cry. Although my family and very close friends know about it, they understandably don’t want to hear about it. Telling people has proven to be a poor strategy for maintaining friendships. And if I raise it with a mental health professional, I once again lose my credibility when I reveal my former status as a psychiatric patient.  So, it is a very lonely experience that I have not really been able to share, and it still weighs heavily on my heart. I remember there were people younger that me at Lowson House, who definitely fit your category of ‘child’ and I hope that at least some of them, like me, were able to recover. Thankyou for the opportunity you are giving people to share their stories.

Forgotten Australians, music

On eagle’s wings

by Christine Harms (guest author) on 7 June, 2011

Singer/songwriter Christine Harms was admitted to Nazareth House, Wynnum, Queensland at the age of three and left when she was 13.  Her original song On Eagle’s Wings, recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, USA, is a reflection on her experiences in the Home.

[2020 note: audio file no longer available]

See another of Christine’s tracks, Street Angel, on YouTube

Forgotten Australians, memories, photos

Silky Oaks

by Diane Tronc (guest author) on 1 June, 2011

Silky Oaks Children’s Home was founded by the Open Brethren and first opened in Toowong, Brisbane, Queensland in 1940. In 1946 the Home was relocated to Manly. Former Silky Oaks resident Diane Tronc shares historical photos of the Home, her foster family and the Silky Oaks Reunion in May 2011.