Growing up rough: Wounds never heal for my dad, the Fairbridge kid

After a few years at Fairbridge. Photo: Supplied.

After a few years at Fairbridge. Photo: Supplied.

My dad's stories were funny when I was a kid.

A child migrant who grew up at Fairbridge Farm School in Pinjarra, he'd regale us with tall tales of misadventure and misbehaviour during his years growing up in state care.

Copping a smack for being found in the girls' dorm; standing in cow pats with his mates; nicking off to the hills behind his school late at night.

For as long as I can remember he's told me and my brothers stories from his childhood, often as we sat around the dinner table.

We used to beg him for more. "Tell us another one," we'd plead. "Tell us about the time you ran away."

As the years have gone by, my dad's stories have taken on darker meanings.

Leaving London, bound for Fairbridge, 1953.

Leaving London, bound for Fairbridge, 1953.

What we didn't understand as children being 'entertained' by his tales was the heartbreak - and brutality - behind them.

That 'smack' was a public hiding; a severe beating of his bare bum in front of a hundred other kids for an infraction that consisted of him being found in a girl's cottage.

The piles of cow manure kept his shoe-less feet warm.

And he ran away - often - to avoid night-time terrors too horrible to face.

His stories aren't so funny these days.

'He thought he was going on a holiday'

As a six-year-old, my dad was taken from his single mother and the bleak public housing flat in the north of England he shared with his three brothers and sister.

My grandfather had shot through and left his wife and brood of scrappy kids with nothing.

An idea to populate the colonies with British kids torn from disadvantaged homes brought the authorities knocking on my impoverished grandmother's door.

The promise of a better life for her children saw her sign away her babies to men in suits, who knew better than her what was best for her children.

Soon to be shipped to Australia, my dad and his siblings were taken to London.

A last-ditch attempt by their mum to keep her children was ignored. It was too late.

My dad had his seventh birthday on the ship that carried him to Fremantle in 1953.

He thought he was going on a holiday; he had no idea what he was about to face, or that the next 10 years of his life would lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anger, and a deep and abiding sadness you can see when you look in his eyes.

Dad often seeks refuge in his shed in Mandurah. Photo: Kate Hedley.

Dad often seeks refuge in his shed in Mandurah. Photo: Kate Hedley.

Abuse in state care, and the plan for redress

Violent cottage mothers and sadistic supervisors were par for the course, not just at Fairbridge, but at farm schools housing child migrants all over Australia.

It amazes me my dad was capable of love at all, having grown up with precious little of it in his own life.

Birthdays went ignored, there were no Christmas presents, and the threat of abuse hung over his head every day he spent at Fairbridge.

In 2009 he applied for - and received - financial compensation through the Redress WA scheme for victims of child abuse while under state care.

He used some of the money to return to the UK to re-connect with his mother.

But five decades is a long time to make up for, and within a couple of years of their reunion my grandmother was dead, having never been able to forge a strong or meaningful connection with my dad.

Now a national redress scheme is offering further compensation for those who were abused in state care.

The aim is to provide support to those who were sexually abused while in the care of an institution.

Subject to the passage of legislation, the scheme will start on July 1 and will run for 10 years, with a maximum pay-out of $150,000 to victims.

Not that money makes anything better.

My dad still wakes up screaming.

He still misses his mum.

New South Wales and Victoria have already signed up to the scheme, but questions remain over whether Western Australia will opt in.

In the end, it doesn't really matter how long WA drags its feet on joining. It won't change much for my dad.

What it may mean, though, is my old man gets a chance to go home one last time, and try to put some of his demons to rest.

Nothing can give him his childhood back.


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