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Abusive orphanages and forced adoption: delving into past child welfare practices that haunt the present


Recent publicity the ongoing abuse of children in out-of-home care may be a source of embarrassment for Australians, but it comes as no surprise.

A series of investigations at both the state and Commonwealth levels over the past quarter century have exposed such “concern” as inherently abusive. The to ask Also detailed how far the governing institutions were willing to go to deny this reality.

Review: Ghosts of the Orphanage – Christine Kenneally (Hachette); Crazy Bastard – Abraham Maddison (Wakefield Press)

The United States has resisted the “age of investigation” that has engulfed much of the Western world, forcing former orphanage residents to pursue their cases as individuals in the courts.

It is this struggle that lies at the heart of journalist Christine Kenneally’s latest book, Ghosts of the orphanage. Her focus is on St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington, Vermont, where generations of children have been under the control of untrained and often brutal nuns and a string of pedophile priests.

A reunion in 1994 allowed former residents to share their memories of cruel and sometimes bizarre punishments. They hired a lawyer and were able to show similarities between these memories. But they were forced to redress as individuals at a time when the community was disinclined to believe that the church would lie. Most settled out of court.

The reputation of the Catholic Church has since been damaged by church sexual abuse scandals around the world, which have raised awareness of how far the Church is willing to go to keep its secrets.

Thus, Kenneally’s book appeals to a more sympathetic audience than past survivors. She also uncovered material that was not available at the time of the original cases. This new evidence enabled her to validate the survivors’ memories and document systematic failures not only within St Joseph’s Orphanage, but also in similar institutions within and outside the United States.

The most concerning scandals Kenneally has exposed are the persistent rumors that some children in institutions died as a result of their abuse and that their deaths were covered up: these children are the “ghosts of the orphanage”.

Similar rumors circulated wherever children were kept in closed institutions, out of public view. And children often disappeared from such institutions. They were sent back to their families or taken to hospitals or assigned alternative placements without any explanation to their fellow residents.

Children also died in care from illness, accident, or neglect, and were buried without ceremony in the unmarked plots maintained by institutions in local cemeteries until recently.

Such deaths were rarely investigated. In the few cases where an allegation that the death was the result of abuse led to a lawsuit, the sympathy of the courts tended to lie with the orphanage authorities, rather than the children.

In Australia, there are some notable historical examples of abuses that went public. In 1896, the Brisbane Courier reported that an Aboriginal child named Casey was beaten to death at the Myora Mission in Queensland by the matron, who was charged with manslaughter. 1911 George Jones died of neglect at the Swan Orphanage in Western Australia. In 1933, The Age reported that Rex Simpson died of unknown tetanus at Victoria’s Seaside Garden Home for Boys.

Yet these reported cases are rare exceptions in an environment where institutional deaths have been widely ignored. Surrounded by such silences, it is not surprising that rumors of unmarked graves abound among survivor communities, including in Australia.

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Children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, British Columbia, Canada, 1931.
National Center for Truth and Reconciliation/EPA

Investigations around institutions such as Bindoon in Western Australia and Ballarat orphanage have so far failed to validate such stories. But the shocking revelations from Ireland Tuam mother and babies at homeand the Canadian residential schools have added credibility to the unofficial accounts.

Kenneally’s investigation into similar allegations from St Joseph’s adds fuel to the fire. Her account goes beyond accepted stories of abuse to investigate deaths Toeam, Smyllum Park, kamloops, and other institutions in Canada and the United States. She contrasts survivors’ memories with public accounts of orphanage operations, while acknowledging the confounding impact of trauma on memory and the dangers of cross-examination.

Her book exposes orphanages as hidden places that keep their secrets. Their residents effectively became citizens of a separate realm regardless of where the orphanage was located, part of an abuse system Kennely describes as “an invisible archipelago”.

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Promoting adoption

The promotion of adoption, especially in the post-war period, would suggest that the negative aspects of orphanages were not unknown. Authorities assumed that single mothers would not be able to care for their children, so they put forward a clean break theory. Adoption at birth, it was claimed, would prevent children in orphanages from “withering away” when their mothers had to give them up later in life.

In Crazy bastard, journalist and adoptee Derek Pedley, writing under his birth name Abraham Maddison, tries to show that this assumption was fraught. He considers his life broken by his forced adoption.

According to the primal wound theory according to Nancy Verrier, Maddison credits his adoption as the main explanation for the dysfunction that followed his discovery of his adopted status at age 15. his alcohol abuse and psychological problems he interpreted this as a second abandonment.

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Joye Maddison in the early 1970s.
Wakefield press

But a letter written by his mother at his birth, but not given to Maddison until after her death, nullifies this tale of multiple abandonment. He also gains access to his mother’s diaries, which document her struggles to part with her child and her continued concern for his fate during the years when access to him was denied.

These documents lead Maddison to reevaluate their relationship. In Crazy Bastard he looks back on his life, his personal story intertwined with psychological insights, his memories supplemented by this mother’s writings and discussions with friends. He concludes that he and his mother were both victims.

Another critical element in Maddison’s re-evaluation is the evidence that emerged from the Senate inquiry into former forced adoptions. Here Maddison could hear the voices of many women whose lives were also shaped and harmed by the practice of forced adoption. His own experiences were validated.

Crazy Bastard is the story of Maddison rebuilding his life. It’s a valuable addition to the growing list of adoption memoirs that distort the happily ever after story on which the practice was based.

By placing his experiences within this broader narrative, Maddison has been able to move beyond the dysfunction that marred his past. Part of his rebuilding process also included a reunion with his father’s family – a reunion that was much less difficult than his original contact with his mother.

Voices of survivors

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Abraham Maddison, August 1974.
Wakefield press

Ghosts of the Orphanage and Crazy Bastard touch on child welfare practices of the past, but they are still relevant to the present. Like the recently opened Australian Orphanage Museum shows us that the legacy of such practices lives on for the survivors, whose adult experiences have been shaped by the disruptions of their childhood.

We must continue to listen to the voices of these survivors. Their voices provide a valuable counterweight to politicians and pundits seeking to impose simplistic solutions to the complex child protection issues that society continues to face today.

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