Forgotten Australians rewrite childhood trauma through power of storytelling


Key points:

  • The Forgotten Australians are the 500,000 children who suffered abuse and neglect while living in out-of-home care in the past century
  • A storytelling project helps participants re-imagine their past and invent new ways to see their stories
  • It is funded by a Queensland Government taskforce set up to help those who have experienced institutionalised child sexual abuse and have been through the National Redress Scheme

Tania was just eight months old when she was removed from her parents and placed in the notorious Neerkol Orphanage near Rockhampton in central Queensland.

She spent the next five years there until it closed its doors in 1978, but the rest of her childhood was spent bouncing between her "cruel, horrible" parents, institutions, and the streets.

"It's hard to be normal in society after the trauma," Tania, who preferred not to use her last name, said.

She is one of the more than 500,000 so-called Forgotten Australians who suffered abuse and neglect while living in out-of-home care over the past century.

Since then-prime minister Kevin Rudd made an apology more than 10 years ago, many Forgotten Australians have been trying to rebuild their lives and come to terms with traumatic childhoods.

One form of healing has been through a storytelling project that helps participants reimagine their past and invent new ways to see their stories.

Focus on a middle-aged woman writing with another woman out of focus in the background.
Lotus Place has been holding storytelling workshops throughout Queensland, which have continued over the phone during the COVID-19 pandemic.(ABC Capricornia: Megan Hendry)

Tania is one of a dozen or so participants at a writing workshop at Lotus Place in Rockhampton.

She has already written her story and presented it to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse last year.

"It was easy to write, but reading it out later on I had a bit of a panic attack and it hit home," she said.

The Neerkol Orphanage was run by the Sisters of Mercy for about 100 years, before it closed down in 1978. But the scars remain.

"I've seen photos and then things come back, like playing there," Tania said.

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Her brother, four years older, lost his life-long struggle with drug addiction 10 years ago.

For Tania, stumbling across support agency Lotus Place five years ago has been a godsend.

"As soon as I started coming here and listening to other people's stories, I felt like I belonged, and I actually met someone who was in Neerkol with me as a child and we've formed a bond," she said.

Finding light in the darkness

Edwina Shaw is a published author and used creative writing as a means of dealing with her own childhood trauma.

Four years ago, she had been working with migrants and refugees when a friend asked her how to teach creative writing to Forgotten Australians.

"I said it would be easier if I just come along and show you," Ms Shaw said.

And that was that.

A woman, seated on a chair, stares at the camera.
Edwina Shaw used the power of writing to deal with her own childhood trauma and is sharing this method of healing with Forgotten Australians.(ABC Capricornia: Megan Hendry)

"Once you meet them and realise the horrors these people have been through, you can't level, so I've been there ever since," Ms Shaw said.

"They were starved, abused and in some cases even murdered."

The storytelling project, funded by the Queensland Government's redress scheme in response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, is to confront the memories and the stories.

"What I know from working with these people and also from my own experience is that by repeating these stories over and over, it only embeds them," Ms Shaw said.

"And you don't want that; you want to get them out."

The project focuses on what a person knows.

"It's the happy moments when they might have caught a fish on the sly that they could cook up to feed themselves.

"It's about getting into somebody's head, the fun of using your imagination, and then you can give that trauma to someone else and it separates it from you."

A middle-aged woman holds pen and paper and is concentrating on writing.
Melody Collins was eight years old when she was placed in an institution in Brisbane and says finding Lotus Place and other Forgotten Australians has kept her from being homeless.(ABC Capricornia: Megan Hendry)

The workshop creates a safe space for participants to tell their stories and it involves a variety of different exercises including taking a random picture and creating a backstory for that person.

The sad stories still come through, even when focusing on the positive, so the group is also completing a booklet with affirmations.

"So you can have something that you can put in your pocket and pull it out to read a positive statement and it helps stop you from going to that very dark place, because these are people who have suffered awful trauma and it impacts their whole life," Ms Shaw said.

Coronavirus pandemic does not stop help

The workshops have been running throughout regional Queensland and have been modified during the coronavirus pandemic.

Katie McGuire coordinates the project through Lotus Place and over the past three months has continued to run one-hour phone sessions with participants.

Once restrictions further lift, the workshops will continue across the state including Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

Lotus Place was set up in response to the Queensland Government's redress scheme to institutionalised child abuse and offers support to those who are often rejected from other services because of their level of trauma.

(Source)


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