Forgotten no longer
Tina Coutts’ earliest memory is of being slapped across the face and told, “Stop your crying – your mother’s dead and she’s not coming back.” She was then hosed down with phenyl disinfectant.
Tina is one of the half a million people who were forced to live in orphanages or children’s homes between the 1920s and late 1970s that have become known as the Forgotten Australians.
Next Monday the Federal Minister for Families Jenny Macklin will formally apologise to the Forgotten Australians at a special ceremony in Canberra.
Tina said she would walk there if she had to.
“I’m moving hell and high water to get there...Unless you have experienced this, you can’t imagine how important it is to be there. I need my pain and suffering validated. You can’t underestimate the importance and magnitude of this... It will certainly help me in healing.”
Tina said there was “a lot of farcical stuff going on behind the scenes” because Jenny Macklin’s office had seriously underestimated the number of people who wanted to be present at the apology, but there was no financial assistance being offered to help them get there.
On Tuesday it was announced that there would be free train travel available to people in NSW to get to the apology.
Page MP Janelle Saffin, who has been one of the people working behind the scenes to get the free trains organised, said it was important for people who had suffered to be there.
“I hope in a small but significant way the apology can help them feel acknowledged that they suffered a wrong and recognition that they are no longer forgotten Australians,” Ms Saffin said.
Tina said after her mother died, she was considered to be “in moral danger” because single men weren’t deemed suitable to look after children.
But she said the treatment she experienced in the orphanages, including the notorious Parramatta Training School for Girls, was nothing short of barbaric.
“It was all designed to break the spirit. Cleaning bathrooms with toothbrushes, standing on tiptoes for four hours. Why? What was the point? It was senseless punishment and I was thinking, ‘What have I done?’ I was cowering in the corners, frightened. I couldn’t make sense of it as a child. I hadn’t done anything wrong.”
Tina experienced violence at the hands of her carers and suffered significant trauma as a result. For years she wasn’t even called by her name – she was referred to as Number 86.
Even today if she is doing a crossword or something, the number 86 can reduce her to tears.
But Tina considers herself a survivor.
She completed a degree in social science at university and now dedicates her life to helping others, and is also a wildlife carer.
“I managed to come out on top, but the pain is still very deep. It affects every relationship and every aspect of your life,” she said. “Some people are very angry over this (the lack of financial assistance to get the people who suffered down to Canberra for the apology), but I’ve been angry... I’ve been a victim for long time, but I chose to become a survivor. If I choose to remain angry, then I remain a victim,” she said.
The apology to the Forgotten Australians will be screened live on ABC 1 at 11am next Monday, November 16.