The Forgotten Australians – Record Keeping Matters!

Ruth ECM, Newsletter

The MAV ECM Step Program participants recognise the importance of managing records for the protection of human rights and ensuring accountability and transparency.

The Ombudsman’s Report “Investigation into the Storage and Management of Ward Records” reminds us of the devastating impact caused through the Department of Human Services (DHS) failure to meet its legal obligation to properly manage ward records.

The DHS poor record keeping practices have impeded wards from accessing their own records through FOI to reconnect with their family members . This failure to effectively practice good record keeping may have also compromised legal claims by wards for alleged crimes and applications for compensation since these records have been rendered unavailable due to the lack of identification of the content of this vast collection.

The difficulty in locating such records was even used by parliament to justify not establishing a compensation scheme for wards who suffered while in care:

According to a press release from RIMPA a year ago 1 March 2012, “One of the problems, if we were to go down this track, would be actually locating records. Legal systems being what they are, it would be difficult to try to come up with the evidence that would be needed to mount a case to say that you were in fact the one who had all of these things happen to you. The record-keeping, I would suggest, was not fabulous.records are rarely in the one place’.

This problem has been known as far back as 2004, by our governments, according to the article writer.  It was in fact, raised publicly in the Forgotten Australians Report .  According to RIMPA, “The report details records of children in care being prematurely destroyed rendered incapable of identification or lost.  This is despite the legal requirement to manage them according to specific standards.”

Care leavers hardbreakingly described the hardships they face when their own records could not be found. They said within this report:-

“Not only did I lose my identity, but I lost my Mother, my Father, Brothers
and a sister, my family home, my bedroom, my toys, my family photos, my
school friends at St Kevin’s at Cardiff, Aunties, Uncles, my hometown
friends and connections education all blown away like points off the
stockmarket just as through it never existed. (Sub 360)

As a ward of the State I find it very degrading to be told by the Government
that we have to confront the institution where I was sexually abused to try
and find out information about myself. I feel that there should be a
Government body who would act on our behalf. This is not just for myself,
but for all the boys in the same situation who have to go to different
institutions where terrible memories exist, to grovel for information.
(Sub 211)”

As professionals, we are keen to see public reform of the Public Records Act 1973 (the Act). The Act is the very legislation that compels government to create, manage and maintain full and accurate records as evidence of Victorian Government business according to rigorous standards. We are also keen to see that Act enforced to protect the rights and interests of every Australian.

RIMPA stated in their article last year, “The Act currently has limited oversight, no enforcement or compliance monitoring, no defined community complaints process and mediocre penalties for the destruction of a public record, 5 penalty points. ($524)  Government’s failure to address these long known issues has a significant cost to the community, particularly its vulnerable and disadvantaged members such as wards.

With government continuing to outsource more of its business to private industry, and conducting business through the web – Can Victorian government assure RIM Professionals Australasia and the greater community that current care leavers will not face the same difficulties in 5,10, 15 years?

The Premier is also the current Minister of the Arts and hence responsible for the review and modernisation of the Public Records Act 1973 in line with current evidence law requirements, business practices and technologies.

Clearly a review of the Public Records Act 1973 and its current record keeping regulatory model is long overdue.

Lastly it’s imperative that we learn from the mistakes of the past. The Report of the Committee of Enquiry into Child Care Services in Victoria (Norgard report) stated as early as 1976 that:

The Social Welfare Department’s present provisions for record-keeping and for reviewing the progress of its wards require thorough overhaul. Inefficiency in these fields can result in real – sometimes permanent – harm to individuals.
The record-keeping standards in children’s homes were also evaluated:

Some organizations document children’s progress and social relationships most competently; in others, little may be known of children and their families except what exists in the memories of senior staff. It is still possible in some organizations for much effective knowledge of a child’s past to vanish with a retiring staff member.   The Committee recommended mandatory annual reviews of children in care to prevent children becoming
‘lost in the system’.

RIM Professionals Australasia recognises that well managed records ensure that the documentary evidence of the devastating and traumatic history of the Forgotten Australians is neither lost nor ever forgotten.”

Congratulations RIMPA for supporting this cause and the changes to our Public Records Act 1973.  Action is underway with the Royal Commission into Child Abuse and the Act is under review.  Let’s ensure we do all we can to support good records and the consequential outcome for our Forgotten Australians.