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The Forde Inquiry is the informal title of a lengthy report presented to the government of Queensland, Australia in May 1999. The formal title of this document is "The Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions". The commission of inquiry consisted of Jane Thomason, Hans Heilperm and Leneen Forde, the latter serving as chairperson. As Ms. Forde was the former Governor of Queensland, her actions and deliberations on behalf of this commission carried great weight with the present Queensland Government.

During the period from August 1998 through May 1999, the commission conducted intensive inquiries into the current and past administration of various orphanages, reformatories, and detention centres for wayward children maintained in Queensland. A sizeable number of witnesses were deposed under oath to testify before the commission. Most of these deponents had spent part of their childhood or adolescence in one or more of Queensland's youth institutions. Some of these witnesses chose to be identified by name in the final Inquiry, but many requested anonymity. The commission solicited testimony from Indigenous (aboriginal) individuals as well as from those of European descent. As most of the deponents were testifying in regard to events which they had experienced or witnessed during their childhood or adolescence, in some cases they were testifying about events that had occurred as much as fifty years prior to the inquiry.

Some of the commission's findings remained sealed after publication of the report, as these referred to matters that were still under litigation or criminal prosecution as of May 1999.

The full report is a public document, available free of charge to anyone who requests it from the Queensland Government. Its findings are detailed and explicit, but here is a brief summation (chapter numbers and page numbers refer to the published text of the Inquiry's report):

  • Many of the children in Australian orphanages were not orphans, but were in fact "child migrants" who were expatriated from postwar Britain to serve the double purpose of easing food shortages in Britain and building up a population base of young white citizens in Australia. Some of these were children whose parents simply did not want them; others were children who had been separated from their parents during World War II due to evacuation or bombings. Although the "child migrant" scheme was originally implemented to ease postwar conditions, the British government continued expatriating children to Australia until 1966.
  • Many boys were placed in criminal institutions (reformatories, detention centres and work farms) not because they had committed any crime, but merely because they had turned 14 and were therefore too old to remain in orphanages.
  • Girls who became sexually active in their teen years were routinely placed in reformatories on the grounds that they were in "moral danger"; allegedly they were no longer in danger when they were locked into reformatories. (pp ii,v; Chapter 3, p39; Chapter 7, pp121-122, 154-158, Chapter 12, p279)
  • Children and adolescents were routinely used for slave labour, and were subjected to physical and sexual abuse by the warders and matrons of the institutions in which they were housed. Many of these institutions were administered by one or another Christian church — Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist or Protestant — so the authority figures administering the abuse were frequently priests and occasionally nuns.
  • Most of the children were given no schooling, no instruction in useful trades, and no opportunities for recreation. Although some of the orphanages possessed playgrounds and toys, these were maintained only as display for visitors and inspectors.
  • Suicide was rampant among the youthful inmates, to the extent that several of these institutions were designed and built in a manner that eliminated "hanging points"; i.e., points which could support a noose containing the weight of a child bent on suicide. (p xxviii; Chapter 7, pp166-167; Chapter 9, p197-198)
  • Children were routinely given severe punishment for extremely minor infractions. One example cited in the report was the sanctioned policy of inflicting physical torture upon left-handed children, in order "to get the Devil out of them" (Chapter 5, pages 71 & 78), the Devil being presumed to be left-handed.

The Inquiry Commission issued 42 separate recommendations for changes in government policy, in addition to implementing funding and staff to ensure that these changes were made. Two years after the original Inquiry, the Queensland Government issued a progress report, Queensland Government response to recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions. By an unfortunate chance, this report was issued on Sept. 11, 2001 — the day of the September 11 attacks — and so (in the conflict of news coverage on that day) the report's findings initially received less attention than had been hoped. Follow-up reports have verified that substantial progress has been made towards righting decades of incompetence, cruelty and malfeasance.

After the commission turned in its report, several youth institutions were decommissioned and closed, and several administrators were prosecuted for crimes against their young charges. Due to the decades that had elapsed since the time of the worst offences, many of the guilty parties had died in the interim.


Further reading

(All of the following are official publications of the Queensland Government, and are available free of charge upon request.)

Missing Pieces: Information to assist former residents of children's institutions to access records July 2001 ISBN 0-7242-8339-0

Queensland Families: Future Directions June 2002 ISBN 0-7345-1034-9

Forgotten Australians: A report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children

August 2004 ISBN 0-642-71239-5

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