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Bonney Djuric, Parramatta Girls Home and the Forgotten Australians

This is the text of a piece I wrote for ABC Unleashed last year:

On Wednesday last week, during ceremonies to mark the nation’s apology, Bonney Djuric gave Prime Minister Rudd a letter seeking his support for a living memorial to the Forgotten Australians and the Stolen Generations in Sydney’s western suburbs, on a site called the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct which has long been associated with both indigenous and non-indigenous women and children committed to institutional care.

Bonney Djuric, and other ‘Parramatta Girls’, believe a living memorial could become a symbol of shared learning, giving voice to the voiceless and offer an economically-viable, culturally-rich environment for future Australians which would be of international standing.

And it would help the healing process for a lot of people.

Something like 500,000 Australians experienced care in an institution or some other form of out-of-home care during the last century. Many of these people have lived for decades with a legacy of depression, low self-esteem, phobias and nightmares which has in turn often led to alcoholism, drug addiction and prostitution. A large proportion of our prison population are drawn from the ranks of the ‘Forgotten Australians’.

In 2004, the Commonwealth Senate Community Affairs References Committee reported on the abuse of children in institutional care (Forgotten Australians: A report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children).

The Committee received submissions from hundreds of survivors. These detailed accounts of physical abuse and neglect, emotional abuse and neglect, sexual abuse, broad dehumanisation and cruelty by people charged with their care.

The Committee members and staff involved in the inquiry found that, ‘The scale and magnitude of the events described in evidence was overwhelming’. Indeed, two Senators broke down when speaking at the release of the report.

It is important not to condemn everyone who worked in these institutions, but it is equally as important to reveal the truth and condemn those who were responsible for perpetrating these acts, and those responsible for enabling the perpetrators to do so.

Parramatta Girls Home (PGH) operated from 1887 until 1986. During the course of that century, it was the destination for thousands of girls aged between 11 and 18 who were considered ‘at risk’.

The institution’s population represented girls from all social, ethnic and economic backgrounds including significant numbers of the Stolen Generations and many who had experienced a succession of institutions and foster care placements throughout their childhood.

PGH gained some public attention last year when it was the subject of a Belvoir Street production, Parramatta Girls starring Leah Purcell.

Bonney Djuric, who spent eight months in PGH in 1970, was an adviser on the play’s production. Written by Alana Valentine, the play pays tribute to the courage, hardship and inequality that the Parramatta girls experienced.

Australia’s convict legacy helped to shape its welfare system. In particular, those decades of transportation shaped ideas and beliefs about females who could be charged and committed to institutions for being ‘Exposed to Moral Danger’; a charge which did not apply to males. Less than two per cent of the inmates at Parramatta had been charged with a criminal offence.

The convict heritage was also pervasive in operating procedures and practices. The routines, procedures and institutional language which continued unchanged throughout the years at PGH had their origins in Parramatta’s convict beginnings.

The institution was not only associated with Australia’s colonial past in its underpinning ideas and operating procedures, but also in its physical location next to the former convict asylum known as the Parramatta Female Factory which was once the destination of all unassigned female convicts to the colony of New South Wales.

Arguably, the Parramatta site is as important in Australian history as Port Arthur and the Hyde Park Barracks. It was first explored by Captain Arthur Phillip in 1788 and shortly afterwards established as a gaol town and farm, with the first Female Factory operating by 1804 and later replaced with a grander building commissioned by Governor Macquarie and designed by Francis Greenway in 1821.

Speaking of the Forgotten Australians, the Senate Committee found that there had been wide-scale unsafe, improper and unlawful care of children, a failure of duty of care and serious and repeated breaches of statutory obligations.

The Committee recommended that the governments, churches and care providers should express sorrow and apologise for the physical, psychological and social harm caused by their neglect and worse.

Today, nearly 40 years after her own stay at Parramatta, Bonney says: ‘It is an eerie place. It could be beautiful with its old buildings and river views, but there is sense there of ghosts wanting to speak out, a sense of unspoken pain and of suffering, and the need for understanding and change.’

Bonney Djuric, and her fellow members of Parramatta Female Factory Precinct Association, want to save the area from further deterioration, while stimulating debate and raising the level of public and government awareness of the need to recognise, promote and value women’s contributions and heritage.

They propose the implementation of a dual purpose redevelopment of the site as a National Women’s Heritage Centre and the National Centre for Forgotten Australians.

They want to promote an interactive approach to historical and cultural preservation and they seek to create accessible public spaces that provide opportunities for participation in the arts whilst maintaining the historical integrity of the area.

They want the site to be a living memorial. A recognition of the wrongs of the past, but also an expression of hope for a better future for our nation and for the children who deserve better from a society as rich and sophisticated as Australia is today.

In her letter to Prime Minister Rudd, Bonney wrote that the memorial her group envisages has ‘the potential to become a world-class, leading-edge demonstration of what happens when people work together, combining art, history, technology and tourism into a site of economic opportunity, national significance and international recognition.’

Let’s hope that last week’s momentous events are not allowed to pass us behind, dimmed by the onrush of events and concerns. The events in Canberra should make us all feel a little more proud of being Australian and Bonney’s living memorial at Parramatta would be another fitting way to mark this remarkable time of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The author, a communications strategy consultant, has been advising Bonney Djuric.

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