UK governments failed to protect children sent to former colonies from sexual abuse over decades

Inquiry demands compensation for children put at risk in institutions in Australia, Canada and elsewhere 

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 01 March 2018 13:15 GMT
The panel, led by Alexis Jay, said the policy targeting poor children and those in care was ‘wrong’
The panel, led by Alexis Jay, said the policy targeting poor children and those in care was ‘wrong’

Successive British governments failed to protect thousands of children who were sent to live overseas, a report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has found.

Post-war migration programmes saw around 4,000 British children taken from their families, care homes and foster parents to Australia and other former colonies, including Canada and New Zealand.

The investigation found that the “fundamentally flawed” policy left children in unsafe environments where abuse was unlikely to be prevented, and that complaints received were not properly responded to.

​IICSA said British authorities “failed to ensure that there were in place sufficient measures to protect children from sexual abuse, as well as other forms of abuse and neglect” and called for surviving members of the programme to be offered financial compensation.

“Most former child migrants have died – this means that in many cases [the government] has missed its opportunity to offer redress to those who were affected by its failure,” the report concluded. “However, around 2,000 child migrants are alive today, and the panel considers it essential that all surviving former child migrants are offered such redress.”

The inquiry panel called on the Government to establish a scheme to provide an equal award to every applicant “without delay”, with payments beginning within 12 months.

It also demanded that other organisations involved in implementing the policy apologised to child migrants if they had not already done so.

Abuse took place at Clontarf in Western Australia, which was run by the Christian Brothers as a children’s home between 1901 and 1983 (Google)
Abuse took place at Clontarf in Western Australia, which was run by the Christian Brothers as a children’s home between 1901 and 1983 (Google) (Google Streetview)

“We are keen to ensure that the scheme is a simple one, in the hope that it can be effective soon, and make a real, immediate and lasting difference to the lives of the former child migrants,” investigators said.

Led by Professor Alexis Jay, the panel examined the programmes as part of a broader investigation into the protection of children outside of the UK.

Many witnesses who gave evidence described regimes that included physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect, as well as sexual abuse.

Some described constant hunger, medical neglect and poor education, which had life-long consequences.

IICSA said that by any historical or current standards of child care, “all of this was wrong”.

One former child migrant said his schooling was “better described as torture than abuse”, having been locked in a place known as “the dungeon” without food or water for days.

Another was forced to carry out “backbreaking” work on the construction of a new school building, and one boy lost an eye after he was refused medical attention.

Beatings of both boys and girls were reported to be common and the treatment caused a 12-year-old boy to attempt suicide.

IICSA said one institution – in Clontarf, Queensland – had what it called a “special punishment day”, where on one occasion children were forced to watch a beloved pet horse killed as collective punishment.

Clontarf and several other institutions in the report were run by a Catholic order called the Christian Brothers, which has been named in previous child sexual abuse cases in Australia, the UK, Ireland, Canada and the US.

The children’s charity Barnardo’s was part of the migration scheme and operated institutions for both sending and receiving children, but suspended the programme when evidence of abuse emerged at its Picton school in Australia.

IICSA said another organisation, the Fairbridge Society, “failed to respond appropriately to a series of such allegations at its schools in both Canada and Australia”.

The report said children were treated as commodities, and left with few, if any, means of reporting abuse as they were disbelieved, intimidated and feared reprisals.

One witness was told to “pray” for her abuser, who was not reprimanded, and a boy was told not to tell anyone after reporting he had been raped.

The report said many children, who were sent abroad from the age of five, were “robbed of their identity” by being lied to about their family background and whether their parents were alive or dead.

IICSA said although numerous voluntary organisations and local authorities implemented the programme, the blame lay with the government.

More than 100,000 British youngsters were shipped abroad under varying programmes as far back as 1618, but the government took primary responsibility after the Second World War.

Sir John Major said the abuse allegations were ‘a matter for the Australian authorities’
Sir John Major said the abuse allegations were ‘a matter for the Australian authorities’ (Getty)

The policy was justified as a means of reducing the costs of caring for lone children, meeting labour shortages in the colonies, while populating them with white settlers and providing disadvantaged young people with a fresh start, the inquiry said.

“It was allowed by successive British governments to remain in place, despite a catalogue of evidence which showed that children were suffering ill treatment and abuse, including sexual abuse,” it concluded.

“The policy in itself was indefensible and [the government] could have decided to bring it to an end, or mitigated some of its effects in practice by taking action at certain key points, but it did not do so.”

While a formal legal process was eventually brought in to gain consent for children to be sent abroad from government care, it did not apply to voluntary organisations, and a 1946 report demanding that minors were offered the same standard of care in former colonies as in the UK was not acted on.

A damning series of investigations were carried out in Australia in the 1950s, but no protective measurements were put in place because “the politics of the day was consistently prioritised over the welfare of children”, IICSA said.

The last child was migrated to Australia in 1970, the inquiry added, but because the supply of children judged suitable “dried up” rather than due to recognition that the programme was wrong.

Later governments failed to accept full responsibility for Britain’s role in child migration, with former Prime Minister John Major publicly stating that he “was aware that there were allegations of physical and sexual abuse of a number of child migrants some years ago, but that any such allegations would be a matter for the Australian authorities”.

While Prime Minister in 2010, Gordon Brown publicly apologised to former child migrants on behalf of the government and established the Family Restoration Fund, and the majority of voluntary and public institutions involved apologised for their role.

The survivors’ stories

Michael O’Donoghue

Michael was born in Hampshire in 1942 and put in a Catholic care home when he was two-years-old, where he was raped by a male teacher and another boy, beaten by nuns and left constantly hungry.

His mother tried to take him out of the home when she married an American serviceman but was allegedly told Michael had already been adopted and he was transferred to London and later to Australia in 1953.

Michael was taken to Clontarf, where the physical abuse started on his second day and children said he would be flogged for any complaints.

The Brothers organised boxing matches between the children, giving older boys authority to beat the younger ones, or else beat the children themselves.

At “special punishment days”, they were made to watch horses being killed unless they owned up to accusations made by the Brothers.

Michael said animals were better fed than the children, who resorted to getting scraps out of bins and in one case roasting a cat, while doing heavy physical labour and being given very limited education.

He was punished for bedwetting with electric shocks and sexually abused by the Brothers, as well as a theatre manager who would visit Clontarf to fondle the children.

“Living with the injustice of perpetrators who always got away with it still makes me burn with anger,” he said.

“My mother died earlier this year, in her nineties, without any answers to why her son was treated with such cruelty by those we are supposed to be able to trust. We could have had a lifetime together, but instead we both endured the terrible loneliness and pain of the loss of family. I have lived a lifetime without identity and borne the terrible legacy of being a British child who was abandoned by my country.”

Marcelle O’Brien

Marcelle, from Sussex, was placed in a foster home at the age of two and migrated to Australia by the Fairbridge Society when she was four.

At the Fairbridge Pinjarra School, she was beaten, made to take cold showers and locked in a cupboard while being told she was a “bastard” whose parents were dead, which was not true.

Children had to work cleaning the cottages, including where the staff lived, and in the laundry after school, and Marcelle remembered constantly feeling hungry.

Sometimes she would eat handfuls of grain meant for pigs or take fruit from the orchard, but would be beaten if caught.

Marcelle said she was sexually molested by the deputy principal at Pinjarra at the time, then raped and sexually assaulted at farms where she was sent to work.

She felt pushed into marriage by the age of 18 so that she was “off Fairbridge’s hands”, having four children before the marriage broke down. She has suffered a mental breakdown and manic depression, and has been on medication for years.

“Having stuffed up my childhood, they then wrecked my early adult years,” said Marcelle, who has since found her mother and sister in London.

She travelled from Australia to give evidence “to wake up the British Government, the British people, to exactly what happened to us all”.

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