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Aboriginal inmate experiences of Parramatta Girls Home.

This paper explores the inter-relationships between the inmates of Parramatta Girls Home (PGH or the Home), as well as the relationship between Aboriginal inmates and the Home. On the surface, the experiences of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal inmates were similar. By the unpicking of common threads, a story within the story emerges. It is the same but different. The story illustrates the broader abuses of Aboriginal girls and women in 'care' institutions. The similarities and differences in 'care' and treatment and the ramifications of that 'care' are central to the findings in this paper. Aboriginal voices are centrally positioned to provide an Indigenous voice to the body of historical and anthropological literature condensed throughout this paper. The Bringing them home report (HREOC 1997) and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2014a, 2014b, 2014c) illustrate the depth of suffering that Aboriginal girls were subjected to as a result of their removal from their families and their subsequent placement in homes like PGH. It estimated that as many as one in three Aboriginal children were forcibly removed between 1910 and 1970 and placed in institutions, 'where they suffered greatly and were treated appallingly' (Carrington 2011:39). Aboriginal females were treated by society as being delinquent and morally corrupt due to their race, class and gender. Their incarceration in PGH exemplifies the 'social and spatial positioning of [Aboriginal] females as indicative of the dominant colonial power relations' (Cunneen and Kearley 1995:79; Sullivan 2017) that were exercised within the era of the Home (Haebich 2000).


This paper is underpinned by a theoretical understanding of post-structural feminist geography, and applies feminist post-structural and decolonised methodologies to unpack the subtle and overt layers of power produced by a culture of fear in the Home. Feminist post-structuralism argues that women are highly differentiated from each other, not just by gender or class, but by culture, therefore seeking differences between women across time, space and culture (Grosz 1994). Weedon (1997) describes feminist post-structuralism as a mode of knowledge production that uses post-structuralist theories of language, subjectivity, social processes and institutions to understand existing power relations. Feminist post-structuralism coalesced with decolonised methodologies allows for the enquiry and study of those who are sexualised, racialised, and genderised (Smith 1999). This theory requires a trespass that opens the way for those who have been oppressed by Western researchers to have voice in academic discourses (McDowell 1993; Martin and Mirraboopa 2003; Said 1978; Sandol 2000; Smith 1999). In the context of this study, the application of this methodology enabled an appreciation of how power was exercised in relation to gender, class and race. Additionally, it sought to position woman as multiply located (Baxter 2003; Bondi 1990; Davies and Gannon 2005), engaging with complexity and ambiguity of Indigenous and non-Indigenous female experiences, attempting to unsilence and demarginalise their voices (Baxter 2003; Louis 2007; McDowell 1992a; Moreton-Robinson 2000; Smith 1999).

Decolonised methodologies 'invigorate and stimulate geographical theories and scholarship while strengthening peoples' identities' (Louis 2007:130) and purport to give voice to those who have been silenced (McDowell 1992b; Smith 1999). They are underpinned by a careful and considerate engagement with Indigenous peoples (Louis 2007; Smith 1999). Decolonised methodologies do not reject Western, colonised ways of knowing (Smith 1999); rather, they are about centring Indigenous people and their ways of knowing, being and doing (Martin and Mirraboopa 2003; Moreton-Robinson 2004; Nakata 2007). Indigenous knowledge needs to be acknowledged and referenced as belonging to Indigenous people, in part because, as Smith (1999) has pointed out, Indigenous people have become outsiders during the process of having their histories and stories told by others.

From the outset, it was important to me as an Aboriginal Australian researcher to tell the story of the Aboriginal women at the Home. However, as the research emerged, it became clear that in order to fully understand the history of PGH, multiple stories of the experiences of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal inmates needed to be considered.

Data collection and analysis

I used personal narratives of former Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal inmates collected from primary and secondary sources to establish an understanding of the power dynamics and relationships that prevailed in the Home. Three narratives were collected from participants who identified themselves as former inmates of PGH. These participants (Table 1) were taken through an informed consent process approved by the Macquarie University Human Research Ethics Committee.

The narratives were drawn from semi-structured interviews with each participant, where they were asked to recall memories about their experiences of the Home. Each participant could view and amend the transcription of their interviews at any time. This paper enables participants to have their voices, perspectives and histories heard and shared with a wider audience. All participants' narratives are included in this paper, but I have elected to prioritise Christine's voice in order to highlight Aboriginal voices within the body of literature. It is important to acknowledge that the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women involved maintain control of their personal information and histories, and they have given consent to have their stories published. The participants were given every opportunity to withdraw their consent at any time through the research process. All stages of this research were founded on the basis of providing a respectful representation and recognition of their voices.

To broaden the knowledge gained from the research participants, I also collected and analysed personal written accounts of previous 'Parra Girls' submitted for the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (HREOC 1997), the Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care (Australian Senate 2004) and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2014a, 2014b, 2014c).

Parramatta Girls Home

PGH is a significant site of Aboriginal history. The land on which the Home is located and the river that runs by its side are of great cultural significance to the local Aboriginal Darug people, namely the Burramattagal. Leanne Tobin, a descendent of the Darug people, explains:
The Burramattagal had special sites set up along this river. Some were
marked as women's places and further away, hidden from camp, men's
ceremonies would be carried out. On the north bank of the river is
where the female convict factory and later the institutions for girls
were built. Before the construction of the institutions, this place
was said to be [sic] used as a site for women's ceremony. It is where
the saltwater from the harbour meets with the freshwater of the river.
(Tobin and Djuric: 2009 para 11) (1)

The town of Parramatta, in Western Sydney, New South Wales, has a long history of incarcerating Aboriginal peoples, including women, under the pretence of education and training. Despite this history, 'post-contact' sites are largely invisible and are unrecognisable to the public. Among significant sites of Aboriginal supposed 'education and training' are the Native Institute and PGH. The Native Institution is commonly believed to be the first instance of the institutionalised removal of Aboriginal children from their families in Australian history (Brook and Kohen 1991; Hinkson 2002). It opened on 5 April 1815 and was an early colonial experiment by Governor Lachlan Macquarie to determine the extent to which Aboriginal people could be educated, trained, Christianised and civilised (Brook and Kohen 1991; Hinkson 2002; Kass et al. 1996).

The Native Institute was not only reserved for Australian Aboriginal children. The formidable Reverend Samuel Marsden, who for several years ran the home for Governor Macquarie, brought a number of Maori children from New Zealand to undergo the same 'educational' experimental process (Hinkson 2002). The Native Institute closed in 1820, having been deemed an over-whelming disaster by Aboriginal families and colonial powers (Hinkson 2002). Aboriginal families began to boycott the 'school' because it was seen as a deliberate attempt to distance children from their families while providing a Western education designed to inculcate subservience in order for the children to become domestic labour (HREOC 1997). Nevertheless, this process of 'civilising', 'educating', 'Christianising' and 'training' Aboriginal children remained unchanged (Bin-Sallik 2003; Read 1983). PGH opened some 54 years later, with the same agenda.

PGH existed as a state government institution that incarcerated (2) girls from 1887 to 1974, taking occupation of the former Roman Catholic Orphan School, built in 1841 (Aitken 2004). The Home is located in Fleet Street, North Parramatta, approximately 27 kilometres from the central business district of Sydney. When the Home opened, it was known as the Industrial School for Girls (Aitken 2004; Parry 2007; Quinn 2004; Willis 1980); however, during the Home's operation, the name was changed several times. The Home was regularly marked for closure. This was due to the buildings being 'repeatedly condemned as far back as 1855' (Quinn 1989:195; Quinn 2004), as well as media and social pressure to close the Home, which sparked inquiries into the conditions within the Home, particularly its regulations pertaining to the treatment of the inmates (Quinn 2004). Rather than close the Home, it was disestablished by name, and then re-established in another name throughout its existence: it was known as the Industrial School for Girls (1887-1925), Parramatta Girls Training School (1925-66) and Parramatta Girls Home (1966-74). It also was commonly known as a reformatory school for girls, although that title was never officially recorded. Despite the name changes, the systems remained the same, and the Home was popularly referred to as Parramatta Girls Home (Higson 2007), which is just a label, a misnomer perhaps, that does not acknowledge the fact that it was a detention centre for girls, with prison-like conditions.

The suburb of Parramatta has housed several state institutions for women and girls, including the first female convict settlement in the 1820s, otherwise known as the Female Factory, which is situated adjacent to PGH (Salt 1984). The Home held both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal adolescent girls ranging in age from 11 to 18 years. Although girls under 11 years old were still deemed viable for fostering, 'institutional life remained the only option for older girls' (Kass et al. 1996:233). The Home was established and charged with the 'care and protection' of 'corrupt' girls. The girls or inmates were incarcerated on the premise that the Home would provide training in domestic service and education (Aitken 2004; Parry 2007; Quinn 2004). PGH served dual roles; incarcerating girls who were considered to be delinquent and/or those who were destitute (Carrington 1993; Carrington and Pereira 2009). Overall, the population of the Home represented girls from all social, ethnic and economic backgrounds.

PGH was established under the authority of the state to educate and train recalcitrant girls with a view to morally reconstructing them (Aitken 2004; Geldard 1993). Indeed, the state and broader Australian society identified a need to maintain order and discipline through the transformation of such 'delinquent' people into worthwhile citizens under the premise of education and training (Thompson 1915; Willis 1980). With as many as 100 to 200 inmates incarcerated in PGH at any one time, discipline was used to ensure order and control (CWD 1950; Parry 2007; Tenison-Woods 1945; Thompson 1915). The Child Welfare Department's annual report of 1950 stated that the 'rehabilitation of the delinquent girl is a problem challenging the psychiatric, psychological and social work skills not only of this state, but of every country in the world' (CWD 1950:22).

Many inmates were incarcerated for being destitute, which included 'abandonment, neglected, orphaned, impoverished or stolen from their families and communities by virtue of their ethnicity, "poor" parenting, or mixed Aboriginal heritage' (Carrington and Pereira 2009:20). Many of the Aboriginal girls in the Home were considered to be from the Stolen Generations (HREOC 1997; Parramatta City Council 2010) and today former inmates consider themselves either as Forgotten Australians (Australian Senate 2004), Stolen Generations (HREOC 1997) or both. Former Aboriginal PGH inmate Christine states:
I am Stolen Generation and Forgotten Australian. I was taken from my
Mother and Father and extended family--Stolen Generation. I was under
State Welfare, and I lost my identity from ages 3-15 years until I met
up with family again--Forgotten Australian. I feel wholly that I cover
both. (Christine, 4 July 2011)

The inmates

Inmates who were incarcerated for indictable criminal offences were committed for such crimes as being uncontrollable, stealing, absconding, prostitution or even murder (Parra Girls 2011; Quinn 2004). Inmates who had been committed for these so-called offences were treated as criminals in PGH, rather than being seen as victims of circumstance. They were considered to be a risk to society due to the rationalisation that this risk would lead to a life of crime or moral turpitude (Aitken 2004). Girls who could not adhere to society's strict rules in regards to control and order would be banished to institutions like PGH for it was deemed too risky to allow them to potentially tread the path of criminality.

The inmates were all viewed as juvenile delinquents by the authorities, regardless of whether they had committed an actual crime or whether their alleged offending behaviour was for social welfare reasons. This occurred due to the conflicting nexus of the children's courts, whose role was both child welfare and criminal matters (Carrington 1993; Carrington and Pereira 2009). An enduring practice from Australia's convict legacy of 'penal welfarism' conflated the child welfare regime of 'care and protection' with the maintenance of social control and order (Carrington 2011:40; Cook 2008; Haebich 2000). This penal/welfare system continued until the later part of the twentieth century.

The focus of the Home throughout its tenure was on 'detention rather than re-education' (Tenison-Woods 1945:x). The girls were subjected to strict discipline, and punishments were considered extreme; for example, '[we] had to scrub the sandstone brick with our toothbrushes: ten minutes standing up, two minutes break, two minutes on [our] knees. This punishment would go on for hours, until [our] knees bled' (former inmate Vicki, in Griffin 1990:54).

It was not uncommon for riots to break out as the girls tried to draw attention to the horrendous conditions under which they lived (Carrington and Pereira 2009; Djuric 2008; Sydney Morning Herald 1961). It was this systematic mistreatment of girls institutionalised at Parramatta Girls Home that is thought to have led to riots in the institution recorded in '1887, 1890, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1945, 1946, 1953, 1954, 1958 and 1961' (State Archives & records). Although critics agreed that industrial schools and reformatories were an utter failure both during their operation and after their closures (Aitken 2004; Australian Senate 2004; Campbell 1996; HREOC 1997; Judge and Emerson 1974; Tenison-Woods 1944), the Home remained in operation until its closure in 1974 following a state government investigation into PGH staff misconduct (Aitken 2004; Parra Girls 2011; Quinn 2004).

To preserve order in the Home, officers would use physical force, intimidation and control mechanisms, and the use of corporal punishment was the most common form of power and control. Section 56 of the Child Welfare Act 1939 (NSW) outlines the approved use of punishment; it states, 'corporal punishment, not exceeding a maximum of three strokes on each hand can be used to discipline certain behaviour'. The legislation authorised corporal punishment to be administered for offences against morality, gross impertinence or for persistent disobedience; these recommendations, protected by law, were enforced to mitigate against unnecessary use of discipline or abuse of power (Penglase 2005).

Although the Act clearly prescribed the perimeters on corporal punishment, many former inmates declare that they were assaulted and that they witnessed assaults. This would seem to go beyond the prescribed three strokes of the hand. Reflecting on her first day of incarceration at PGH, Christine recounts, 'I got the biggest floggin', I got my hair chopped off, two black eyes and a busted mouth, and that's how I went to assembly' (2 April 2011).

Former non-Aboriginal inmate Maree provided an account of her first day in PGH:
On arrival I was so terrified that I wet myself. Matron then told me
to sit on a chair and she hacked off my hair using a large pair of
shears. She cut my hair off right up above my ears, like a man's
short-back-and-sides, and the back was cut off to less than quarter of
an inch long. I was devastated. I was [then] taken to the shower
block, in a dungeon. I was told to remove all my clothes in front of
several officers. When I held my long dress against myself once I'd
removed it, an officer grabbed it and whipped me on the leg with a
length of hose. (30 March 2011)

The aforementioned legislation specifically deals with issues of misconduct and outlines appropriate means of discipline. Examples of misconduct according to the Act include disobedience of the rules, assaults, using bad language, indecent behaviour, idleness or negligence of work, and lying or petty theft. If an inmate was found guilty of any of these offences, she could be subjected to one or more of the following disciplinary actions: loss of rewards or privileges, alteration of meals, isolated detention, fatigue duty, physical exercises and corporal punishment. As such, maintaining control and order in PGH was sanctioned by law and was considered admissible as long as the inmate's apparent misconduct matched the punishment. However, evidence from the stories of former inmates shows that more often than not the punishment did not fit the apparent misconduct and in some cases there was no misconduct by an inmate at all (Aitken 2004; Penglase 2005; Quinn 1989, 2004).

Inmate experiences

From the moment an inmate arrived at the Home she needed to remove all her personal belongings, including clothing, and was subjected to a medical examination. This examination was considered by inmates to be among the most invasive of legislatively controlled processes. A former inmate recalls,
The Doctor's visit... was brutal. I was instructed to remove all my
clothes and lie on a flat table with my knees bent, feet together,
legs apart... the Doctor pushed my legs wider apart, in his hand... a
large stainless steel instrument... he forced it in my vagina, tearing
my skin and making me scream in pain... I felt humiliated and
frightened... I'd never had an internal examination and didn't know
what was happening... I glanced over at the female officer standing at
the door but she had turned her back on me... later, I found out the
girls' name for him was Doctor Fingers. (Sharyn cited in Killens and
Lewis, 2009:91-2)

The examination was performed in a small room by a physician; it included a vaginal check for venereal disease and to ascertain whether or not the girl was a virgin. Previous inmates of the Home have often referred to the physician as Dr Finger or Dr Fingers (Aitken 2004; Killens and Lewis 2009; Penglase 2005).

Rape, sexual assault and attempted sexual assault were all forms of violence to which both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal inmates were subjected. The officers' use of sexual violence to assert power and control over the victims incited a sense of powerlessness or disempowerment whereby the inmates' will, desires and sense of efficacy were continually contravened and undermined (Finkelhor and Browne 1985). The sexual abuse and attempted sexual abuse experienced by some inmates of PGH contributed to their feelings of disempowerment, shame and humiliation (Goffman 1961; Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2014c). The effect of this treatment is long lasting and inter-generational: '[A]nother thing we find hard is giving our children love. Because we never had it... I can't even cuddle my kids... I never got cuddled. The only time was when I was getting raped' (HREOC 1997:Submission number 689).

Abuse within homes and institutions is well documented, particularly in the Bringing them home report (HREOC 1997) and Forgotten Australians: a report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children (Australian Senate 2004). The abuse in these places have been severe 'emotional, physical and sexual abuse and often criminal physical and sexual assault' (Australian Senate 2004:xv). The inmates in PGH claim 'they were being subjected to harsh discipline, punishment and sexual abuse' (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2014c:4). PGH is 'renowned for extreme cruelty, [and] was the subject of many inquiries which were scathing of its activities' (Australian Senate 2005:55).

PGH reflected the monstrous and evil practices of a [not so] bygone era (Matthews 2007). It was a place of secrecy and left girls brutalised, emotionally scarred and without the ability to know themselves. The consequences of enmeshing child welfare with order and control, rather than with care and protection, still haunts many of the girls today; for them, this is still happening some 40 or more years later. Punishment and discipline were built on the premise of retribution and reform; retribution to control and minimise iniquitous behaviour and reform to achieve control (Platt 1969). Most of the former inmates will never see justice for the abuses they endured. Although there were national apologies to the Stolen Generations and to Forgotten Australians, (3) some believe that it was the apologies that were memorialised rather than the harsh realities of home life (Hummell 2008). There has been no redress for those who were in PGH; for them the abuses have become the most hidden and secretive part of the nexus of criminal and child welfare practice and process.

However, once the stories of the former inmates are heard, what happened behind the high stone walls, within the buildings, begins to emerge, and what can be heard are stories of pain, suffering, humiliation and shame. These women, adolescents at the time, were disempowered, their voices stone-walled against the harsh and unfair 'punishments' that were meted out so maliciously.

Once an inmate's sentence ended, she was able to leave the place that caused her to endure such awful pain and suffering. Former Aboriginal inmate Marjorie (Woodrow 2001:29) recalls the day she was freed from PGH: 'Then one day after nearly two years I was told there was a job for me and I was free to go. Goodbye that walloping strap, goodbye that solitary cell, goodbye that chaff bag dress, goodbye all that floor scrubbing, goodbye all that strict discipline! Goodbye!'

Shared identities

The treatment of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal inmates of PGH highlights a powerful convergence of a shared history. The recollections of both groups of inmates tell a similar story of shame, abuse, violence and neglect. Both groups had to fight hard to get their stories heard, known and acknowledged. Despite there being some information about PGH, 'just how many girls went through that devastating experience of life at the Parramatta Girls' Industrial School is impossible to know. There's been no official interest in finding out, no research on the numbers, no information on what happened' (Stateline 2003a). This is a shared history that few people talk about, and that fewer know.

With the inmates sharing experiences of being incarcerated at PGH there became a sense of belonging, a belonging to the Home and to each other (Franklin 2014). Throughout the time of the Home's operation, there are few instances, if any, of the Australian Government or the State of New South Wales placing Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people together, particularly children, which is indicative of the lack of racial harmony in broader Australian society (Bird 1998; HREOC 1997; Read 1981, 1983). Despite racial relations being tense in Australia, within the Home Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal girls became unified in the face of the trauma that both groups of inmates experienced.

Being in the Home and sharing similar experiences fostered camaraderie and belonging among some of the girls, so much so that former Aboriginal inmate Coral Pombo advertised on 30 October 2002 in the Koori Mail (p.13) (4) for other former inmates to contact her if they were interested in a reunion. This reunion was held on the site of PGH in 2003. Quentin Dempstar reported that 'about 100 women returned to the Girls Home for a reunion that they hoped would help them deal with their hard early years' (Stateline 2003b). The following excerpt from an interview with former Aboriginal inmates on the ABC program Stateline (2003b), which took place post-reunion, elucidates the paucity of racial tension between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal inmates:
Fay Carroll: Not only have we come back to front what's happened to
us, it's brought back a lot of memories of a lot of good friendships
we made.

Coral Pombo: Exactly.

Fay Carroll: With both black and white.

The inmates of PGH, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, were subjected to a regime of abuse and assault forcing them to submit and conform to the identity of inmate. The systematic abuse of power and the enduring threat of violence promoted camaraderie among the inmates and to an extent a shared identity of being a 'Parra Girl'. Former Aboriginal inmate Christine reflects, 'In Parramatta you were never labelled, ah she's Aboriginal or she's this or she's that, we were all one you know. Nobody sort of judged you by the colour of your skin. If anybody judged you it was the officers' (Christine, 2 April 2011).

The sense of camaraderie or belonging serves to highlight the sense that many inmates felt connected to each other because of this experience. Christine recalls memories of the time after her release: '[I] felt that alone that I used to go back to Parramatta... sometimes I would get the train and walk down to Parramatta Girls Home... I would sit on the brick fence opposite the Girls' Home and I'd sing songs' (Christine, 2 April 2011).

Former non-Aboriginal inmate Bonney continues to campaign for the site of PGH to be preserved as a cultural and historical precinct so that the history of the Home no longer remains hidden, standing as a testament to the lives of many Indigenous and non-Indigenous women who were incarcerated there:
The Home is a part of us all, we cannot erase this part of ourselves.
If we can keep the Home maybe some good will come of our experiences.
We might be able to start to heal ourselves and each other. And then
this place can stand as a reminder to the Government that children
cannot be institutionalised ever again. (Bonney, 29 January 2011)

PGH provides one of the strongest examples in Australia's history of colonial state control of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal girls incarcerated together, born out of an anglophile regime of 'classism, racism and sexism' (Baldry 2009:25; Parra Girls 2011). Although Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal girls were incarcerated for more or less the same sorts of reasons, there remained an underlying suggestion that treatment of the inmates was not equal.

The Home's foundations were built over Aboriginal lands and Burramattagal Women's place with colonial disregard. Aboriginal women were then incarcerated within its walls with the same level of disregard. The Home operated during an era when systems of control and oppression were imposed on Aboriginal people by the state, the church and society. The removal of Aboriginal children from their families was authorised by legislation, designed to protect them, that gave authorities, such as the state and the church, the right to 'care' for Aboriginal children (Goodall 1996; HREOC 1997). This legislation was used to remove Aboriginal children from their families without consent and often under false pretences.

Beyond the routine mechanisms employed to maintain order, Aboriginal inmates encountered an additional level of violence. The state placed Aboriginal girls in an environment that was not conducive to their cultural, emotional or physical wellbeing. This is cultural violence. Culture is often used to define an individual's ethnic origins, and it is about being different (Ramsden 2002; Spence 2005), encompassing nationality, as well as customs, language, history, and environmental and social perception of the lived world. Cultural violence denigrates and oppresses 'aspects of culture, the symbolic sphere of our existence--exemplified by religion and ideology, language and art, empirical science and formal science, that can be used to justify direct or structural violence' (Galtung 1990:291). The Home imposed Eurocentric or Western values of language and religion and actively condemned other belief and cultural systems (Galtung 1994), resulting in Aboriginal inmates being subjected to racist practices that were symptomatic of the value placed upon them by the institutional system and Australian society (Eckermann et al. 2010). The intensity of abuse and assault levelled at inmates was extreme--certainly PGH was an institution that damaged both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal inmates, however former Aboriginal inmate Marjorie believes that:
What they didn't realise, they hurt us all by taking us away from our
people. (Woodrow 1990:22)

For us Aboriginal girls, Parramatta was worse than it was for the
white girls as they were allowed to have visitors, relatives and
friends. No relatives were ever allowed to visit the Aboriginal girls.
(Woodrow 2001:28)

Christine adds, 'Parramatta Girls Home had a shame stigma about it [let alone] having Aboriginality... how much they have deprived us. How much have they taken away'. (Christine, 2 April 2011).

The overture of cultural violence denied Aboriginal inmates an environment of cultural safety. Williams (1999:13) defines cultural safety as 'An environment that is spiritually, socially and emotionally safe, as well as physically safe for people; where there is no assault challenge or denial of their identity, of who they are and what they need.'

Cultural safety is the recognition and protection of a person's cultural identity; its premise lies in the minimisation of power imbalances (Ramsden 2002), addressing issues of power, racism and discriminatory attitudes towards those who are from different cultures (Eckermann et al. 2010; Papps and Ramsden 1996; Ramsden 1992, 2002). Power, racism and negative attitudes are the same barriers that Aboriginal inmates were forced to contend with at PGH. PGH, and other children's institutions, have historically failed to provide adequate care and provision for Aboriginal inmates; rather, the power and authority to control has led to gross negligence and the carriage of injustice meted out in the form of culturally violent practices and discipline regimes (HREOC 1997; Shepley 2004). Cultural differences were frequently overlooked by both the Australian Government and state legislature; indeed, 'life chances have been determined and limited by racism, structural violence and cultural violence which are an endemic legacy of colonialism in Australia' (Coopes 2009:227). This indelibly led to the regime at PGH having low regard for the Aboriginal inmates under its 'care'.

In her autobiography, One of the lost generation (Woodrow 1990), former inmate Marjorie recalls that she was in PGH with six other Aboriginal girls. She tried to teach the girls, as well as two non-Aboriginal girls, her traditional Aboriginal language. (5) However, she explains that she was 'punished every time and that I was forbidden never to speak it ever again and told if I was caught I would be locked up and punished on bread and water. I would have spent 6 months a year in a gaol room for my language' (Woodrow 1990:21). Denying a person the right to speak their language is an act of cultural violence denying Marjorie any sense of cultural safety.

The incarceration of Aboriginal females in state/church institutions resulted in broken kinship systems and severed ties to country. Many of the Aboriginal inmates had long periods of institutionalisation over the course of their lives, or had been removed as babies, particularly those who were deemed to be of 'mixed descent' (Bird 1998). Being considered to be of mixed descent does not undermine their connections of family and their innate need to belong. This depravation of culture through the denial of identity and connection, an act denying one of cultural safety, can render an inmate with culture shock: 'Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols' (Oberg 1960:177). Being exposed to a new environment, particularly one that ascribes its discipline and punishment so harshly, and denies safety, care and protection can lead to a state of shock. For Aboriginal inmates, this state of shock stems from the loss of familiar Aboriginal ways of knowing, being and doing (Moreton-Robinson 2004). The denigration of indigeneity acts as an important signifier of difference and can act as a precursor to culture shock.

PGH impressed upon the Aboriginal inmates that their indigeneity was inferior, leading many to be deprived of their Aboriginal identity. Subsequently, they became disenfranchised and rendered powerless to control or maintain their cultural identification. Marjorie provides an example of this; upon being caught talking to Aboriginal men working at the nearby Parramatta Asylum, Marjorie and some of her fellow Aboriginal inmates were told by Matron that they 'were no more blackfellows [sic], we were now white people and were brought up decent, respectable, and we were to forget the black life we had because it was filthy' (Woodrow 1990:22). On other occasions Marjorie was told by an officer to 'pray that you never turn black, you always pray that you will go whiter because it will be good to you if you stay white' (Woodrow 1990:22).

Christine sums up the experience of being an Aboriginal child in state 'care':
It's just unbelievable what they did. That whole process of taking
children away rather than trying to help them it was all about their
way of fixing things was just to take you away and we'll give you a
better life, well they bloody never give anybody a better life.
(Christine, 2 April 2011)

The daughter of a former Aboriginal inmate adds that the effects of life in the Home never left her birth mother: 'My mother... was forced to give me up at birth... [she] never recovered from what she'd been through... in that dreadful place, called Parramatta Girls Home. She blamed herself for what she had been through, for being Aboriginal, and for losing me' (Australian Senate Inquiry 2004:56).

The following excerpt from Alana Valentine's (2007:45-6) play Parramatta girls is a dialogue between two Aboriginal inmates who question the difference of treatment based upon racial status:
Kerry: Do you reckon we got treated different in here?

Coral: Oh, for sure


Kerry: Yeah. Seriously, ya reckon us blackfellas had it tougher in

Racial demarcation within the Home is indicative of the prevalence of racism in Australia in that era (HREOC 1997; Haebich 2000; Johnson et al. 2000). Regardless of the racial tensions in Australian society, relations between inmates were reportedly amicable, and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. However, the relationship between Aboriginal people and the state were not. To understand these effects the welfare system must be examined through a historical and Aboriginal cultural lens.

'The Human Rights Commission estimates that in the twentieth century between 50,000 and 100,000 [Aboriginal] children were removed' (Gilfedder 2001:203). Unlike non-Aboriginal children who came into 'care', far greater measures were taken to ensure Aboriginal children 'never saw their parents or families again. Aboriginal children were frequently given new names, and the greater distances involved in rural areas made it easier to prevent parents' from tracing or seeing their children (Van Krieken 1992:108). The impact on Aboriginal families, their lives and culture have been devastating (Bird 1998; Gilfedder 2001; HREOC 1997; Ramsland 2006; Read 1981,1983).

Former Indigenous inmate Ms Farrell-Hooker states that her time in PGH isolated her from her community and affected her identity as an Aboriginal person: 'my community, which I lost, and [being in] the white man's world' meant that her siblings call her 'Gubba Aboriginal', meaning that she is black on the outside but white on the inside. She suggested that if Aboriginal children are put into care, they should grow up with Aboriginal people because only they know the stories of other Aboriginal people (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2014c:32).

Although Aboriginal girls were incarcerated in PGH since the Home's inception, the 1945 report on PGH found that there was a 'lack of facilities for delinquent aboriginal [sic] girls' and that 'there was evidence that aboriginal [sic] girls are committed because of a lack of alternative facilities'; it was believed that the 'training given in the school might complicate their return to an aboriginal [sic] station' (Tenison-Woods 1945:7). Despite the finding that PGH was inappropriate for Aboriginal girls, the state continued to incarcerate them there until its closure in 1974.


Both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal inmates of PGH shared a common experience, a common identity of being an inmate. This is not to say that those identities are unified. Rather, they marked the girls forever as being former inmates, and therefore one of the identifiers for them becomes 'Parra Girl'. This is an identity marker that remains fixed and unchanging, maintaining symbolical demarcation as being of a single group, regardless of ancestry/ethnicity, class or race--once a 'Parra Girl', always a 'Parra Girl'. It must be acknowledged that although the time incarcerated in PGH for inmates was relatively short in comparison to their overall lifetimes, this small period in time carries with it a lifetime of stigmatism and physical and emotional scars. Most of those who were Aboriginal left the Home not knowing who they were or where they were from. The cultural violence that Aboriginal inmates were subjected to within the Home had lifelong effects. Aboriginal inmates were denied knowledge of their families, were not formally educated and left the Home carrying the burden of guilt for being 'wrong'.

This paper, however, shows that despite the similarities between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal experiences of PGH, there are differences, concluding that those differences pertain to culture and issues of Aboriginality, as shown through the theory of cultural violence. PGH was a notorious female site of incarceration treating Aboriginal inmates with a categorical devaluation of culture and identity. The failure to recognise and respect cultural differences consequently placed Aboriginal girls within a regime of practices and procedures that callously denied their sense of self, their culture and their indigeneity, the significance of which is the lessons that can be taken beyond the walls of PGH, issues of racism, structural violence, and cultural violence, the consequences of colonialism today. It is time PGH inmates receive justice for the treatment they endured. The 2014 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse interim report (2014b:10) noted that the 'Letter Patents require us to consider justice for victims' --this could include civil litigation, criminal justice and a redress scheme. Since the interim report, the final findings and recommendations have been reported. Recommendation 1 of the final report states:
A process for redress must provide equal access and equal treatment
for survivors--regardless of the location, operator, type, continued
existence or assets of the institution in which they were abused--if
it is to be regarded by survivors as being capable of delivering
justice. (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child
Sexual Abuse 2015:4)

However, the final report has made clear that redress will only be made available for those who have suffered sexual abuse, and will exclude members of the Stolen Generations; the report states:
We do not accept that our Letters Patent allow us to consider redress
for those who have suffered physical abuse or neglect, or emotional or
cultural abuse, if they have not also suffered child sexual abuse in
an institutional context. Also, we do not accept that our Letters
Patent allow us to consider redress for all of those who were in state
care, who were child migrants or who are members of the Stolen
Generations, regardless of whether they suffered any child sexual
abuse in an institutional context. (Royal Commission into
Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2015:6)

To date there has been no real recourse to repair or account for the cultural violence that Aboriginal people endured during their incarceration in homes like PGH.

It is only fitting in a study that purports to enable the voices of Aboriginal women that the final word is theirs:
[W]e could've validated each other's, all our stories, but nobody got
to validate their stories. None of us had a court case... we were all
just told that we deserved it... and we believed it. So all these
years nothing was ever said, and all these people just walked around
never forgiven themselves and always feeling ashamed and different
from everybody else. Look at all the division [it has] caused in
families,.. It's just been hideous and so wrong, so bloody wrong... so
this is it... the last few years this has all been coming out and the
apology, the Stolen Generation apology, that was just fantastic to
think that we had a Prime Minister that had the guts to say, yes this
did happen and yes this was wrong. And then for the Forgotten
Australians... I really commend Kevin Rudd... he has opened doors...
some people say the apology meant nothing... If that never happened
nobody would be out of the closet talking about it today... it had to
happen, and it's happened... you can't expect all that pain is gonna
go away, just because there was a Sorry... that doesn't happen, but it
has opened the door for change... so many people lost it because
they're so emotionally damaged... they haven't moved forward.
Emotionally they're still traumatised by what's happened. It's so sad
twenty, thirty, forty years on to have carried that for so long.
Tragic, just absolutely tragic. (Christine, 2 April 2011)


(1) Bonney Djuric was also interviewed for this paper, and is listed as one of the participants.

(2) The term 'incarcerated' is employed throughout this paper to highlight that the girls were in prison-like conditions and were considered to be criminals.

(3) The national apology to the Stolen Generations was given by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on 13 February 2008. He made the national apology to the Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants on 16 November 2009.

(4) The Koori Mail is an Aboriginal-owned fortnightly newspaper reporting on issues relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

(5) It is unknown to the author which Indigenous Australian language Marjorie is referring to.


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Corrinne Sullivan

Macquarie University

Corrinne Sullivan is an Aboriginal woman from the Wiradjuri Nation, New South Wales. Her research interests are multidisciplinary and focus broadly on experiences and effects of body and identity in relation to Indigenous Australian people. Corrinne's knowledges stem from the disciplines of Indigenous studies and human geography, and she utilises both to understand the ways in which Indigenous people are affected by their experiences of space and place.

Table 1: List of research participants

Participant    Aboriginal/     Period within
               Non-Aboriginal    the Home

Bonney (*)     Non-Aboriginal      1970
Christine (*)  Aboriginal         1971-73
Maree (*)      Non-Aboriginal      1970

(*) The participants were given the option to use a pseudonym, all
elected to use their real names as they wish to be both known and
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Author:Sullivan, Corrinne
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 22, 2017
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