20 June 2008: Australian Catholic University (ACU) historian Professor Shurlee Swain has been awarded a coveted ARC linkage grant to study data management of the 'Forgotten Australians,' children and adolescents who formerly lived in foster or institutional homes and have little or no record of their past.As part of a team co-ordinated by Professor Cathy Humphreys at the University of Melbourne, Professor Swain’s three year research project has secured over $800,000 in funding and will create an innovative digital archive, incorporating materials from 13 community service agencies, the Victorian Department of Human Services and many individuals. By researching the needs of current ‘Forgotten Australians’ the project will look at both the past and the future, uncovering lost and incomplete information for personal histories while also informing current organisations on best practice models.
“Our project will help create a textured history that will help people understand their lives,” says Professor Swain. “The online gateway will provide information to people who were once in care, offer a history and set of resources to people currently in care, and also provide instructions to care givers for the future.”
According to Professor Swain, recommendations from the Forgotten Australians report, the Bringing Them Home report, and the Lost Innocents report all call for better research, data and data management of Australians who experienced institutional or out of home care as children.
“Often, children who grew up in care have no photos or tangible evidence of the past,” said Professor Swain. “They ask – what happened to me? Why? And how?”
“Victoria has the most dispersed forms of care, and the most non-governmental agencies responsible for taking care of children. State records and welfare or care provider records are often kept separately.”
“For many people, the state’s personal record will not cover the background of a foster home or provide context for what happened while the person was there. There are lots of disparate records in the system, usually based only on crises or major events. I would describe these records as patchy,” Professor Swain said.
“There are often valuable records sitting in a box, in a basement, at risk of fire, flood or another disaster,” she added, citing the need to digitise this information before it is lost.
The research team is also hoping their project will help give people a sense of completion to their own personal narratives.
“Some people within the system move from a baby’s home to a toddler’s home to a children’s home to a boy’s or girl’s home, leaving a scattered trail of records,” Professor Swain said.
Professor Swain, who was “thrilled” to receive the ARC grant, only awarded to around 20% of applicants, was also grateful for funding from the large number of community service linkage partners. She pointed out that the involvement of so many community service agencies not only shows the importance of the work, but actually acted as the genesis for the project.
“Wesley Mission in Melbourne approached me on behalf of the health and social services sector, and that’s how we got started. Their enthusiasm shows the importance placed on these services by the agencies, as they normally concentrate their money on service provision.”
Looking ahead, Professor Swain is eager to plunge into collaborative work and help overcome the ongoing impact which out of home care has had on the mental and physical health of care leavers.
“We are all going to go forward together. It’s hard work bringing people together, but it will be richly rewarding in the end.”
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