Tears flow at apology to Victorian state care victims

Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan (bottom right) formally apologises to victims of historical abuse and neglect in Victoria's institutional care system on behalf of the state at Victorian Parliament in Melbourne, Thursday, February 8, 2024. (AAP Image/James Ross)

Callum Godde (AAP)

Tears have flowed during an emotional and long-overdue apology to victims of historical abuse and neglect in Victoria’s institutional care system.

Victorian parliament paused on Thursday to hear Premier Jacinta Allan deliver a historic apology to care leavers on behalf of the government for abuse and neglect.

Between 1928 and 1990, an estimated 90,000 Victorian children were placed into institutions such as orphanages, children’s homes and missions run by the state or religious groups.

Thousands suffered abuse and neglect.

“There are countless ways to harm a child and all of them leave a mark,” Ms Allan said in her speech.

“For the physical scars you bear to this day, we say sorry. We also recognise that many of you bear the emotional scars, the humiliation, the stigma, the neglect.

“So many of you were made to feel so worthless when you were and you are worth so much. For the heartbreak and humiliation dealt to you, we say sorry.”

Ms Allan choked up as she shared the story of Heather, a care leaver who ran away from Geelong’s St Catherine’s Girls Home in 1958 when she was nine to be reunited with her mother.

“The first night she slept under a bridge near a bar, eventually navigating her way back to her mum’s house,” the premier.

“The first thing her mum did was make her something to eat, and Heather had a shower to wash off the muck of two days on the road.

“Then her mum picked up the phone and called a taxi to take her back to St Catherine’s because, Speaker, she didn’t have a choice.”

As people in the public gallery wiped away tears, Ms Allan said the word “shame” came up over and over when listening to and reading the stories of former wards of the state.

“So many of these Victorians live with so much shame,” she said.

“The shame does not belong to you. It is ours. It was always ours and always will be ours.”

Opposition Leader John Pesutto joined the premier in acknowledging Victoria had failed children in institutionalised care and said their apology was well deserved.

“Whether it was the most barbaric form of physical abuse, whether it was, frankly, child exploitation, whether it was sexual abuse – for many it destroyed them,” he said.

More than 200 guests were invited to state parliament for the event, with others able to watch the apology online or live at sites in Geelong, Ballarat and Sale with counsellors on hand.

Among those at the parliament was Care Leavers Australasia Network co-founder Leonie Sheedy.

Ms Sheedy, one of seven children in her family who were farmed out to 26 Victorian orphanages and children’s homes, said the apology was long overdue.

“We’re in the Hansard now. Nobody can say they don’t know,” she told reporters.

Many care leavers who fought for this day died without hearing the government utter the word sorry, including three of her siblings.

“This needs to be taught in schools in Victoria,” Ms Sheedy said.

She called on the government to get on with delivering a promised redress scheme for care-leavers before they die, saying most were elderly and in ill health.

Ms Allan said the government would consult with care leavers and their advocates on the design of the scheme, with work to begin in the coming months ahead of its completion in 2024.

Slater and Gordon has also helped care leavers get compensation and the law firm’s abuse lawyer Sam Carroll said the apology was a step in the right direction.

“Although nothing can erase what has happened to survivors in years gone by, many consider an apology as a form of acknowledgement of their suffering,” he said.

The apology to care leavers was scheduled to be delivered on November 29 but was delayed to give victims and advocates more time to prepare.