Queensland trapped in a dark past, repeating sick mistakes

WHAT IS it about Queensland that it continues, almost wilfully, to ignore its history? That nagging characteristic was revisited again recently with children being locked up in watch houses, writes Matt Condon.

He wrote: "Queensland is a place, a people, a history, a climate, an architecture. But it is also a mood, a feeling, a spirit, a state of mind. It is known for its political eccentrics, its down-on-the-farm conservatism, its parochial uncomplicated people and its get-the-big-bulldozer economy. Yet it has produced radicals and ratbags, artists and thinkers."

That broad brush explanation largely holds true. Except for the bit about history.

What is it about Queensland that it continues, almost wilfully, to ignore its history?

That nagging characteristic was revisited again recently with the revelation that children had been systematically locked up in maximum security police watch houses due to overcrowding in juvenile institutions. It was also reported two children were held in the Brisbane City Watch House for more than a month.

Handcuffed child. Picture: iStock
Handcuffed child. Picture: iStock

There was evidence, according to the ABC's Four Corners, children as young as 10 had been held in watch houses, designed to contain adult offenders for short periods of time.

While this is appalling, we have been here before.

Queensland has a track record for being shocked when these instances of children being placed in actual danger when in the care of the State are exposed, then papering over the problem with some sort of official inquiry or royal commission.

One of the first of these was the formal investigation into the Westbrook Farm Home for Boys outside Toowoomba in the early 1960s. Westbrook was a notorious institution that housed "wayward" boys of up to 18 years of age.

Though the numbers dwindled after the Westbrook Farm mass escapes the daily drill continued before lunch every weekday. Westbrook in 1961.
Though the numbers dwindled after the Westbrook Farm mass escapes the daily drill continued before lunch every weekday. Westbrook in 1961.

Shocking tales of sexual and physical abuse at Westbrook had been circulating for decades.

The inquiry was sparked by the mass breakout of 36 boys on May 14, 1961. It was conducted by Stipendiary Magistrate A. E. Schwarten.

While Westbrook existed to correct the behaviour of troubled youths, it went about its business with a ferocious adult brutality. Indeed, many of the boys who served time there were of the opinion that life was easier in the adult prison at Boggo Road in Brisbane than at Westbrook.

The alarming Schwarten report was submitted to the government in late 1961. It did not get publicly released until 2005, through a Freedom of Information request. Yet another example of Queensland either not wanting to, or being obstructed from, learning from its history.

A more recent example was an investigation by The Courier-Mail newspaper into allegations that several Queensland women, as children and in the care of the State, were held in the infamous Wolston Park mental institution in Goodna on the outskirts of Brisbane from the late 1950s through to the 1980s.

These women - the "Wolston girls" - told of being sexually and psychologically abused while in the institution. They also detailed how they were experimented on with drugs.

Many, on release, turned to the streets and worked as prostitutes in order to survive. Others suffered lifelong health problems courtesy of their stint in Wolston Park.

Barbara Smith, who now lives in Brisbane, was 15 when she was committed to Wolston Park. She had been adopted out at two years of age, and had become lost in the government system.

She was in Wolston Park for three years, with adult mental patients.

Barbara said: "While in there I lived in a straitjacket. They also injected you with (the drug) paraldehyde (a central nervous system depressant routinely used in mental hospitals around the world up to the 1960s). If you had to have paraldehyde they'd get the male warders over to hold you down while they stuck the paraldehyde in your leg, and when you woke up you had semen all over you.

Wolston Park abuse victim Barbara Smith, revisits the site of her abuse in 2017.
Wolston Park abuse victim Barbara Smith, revisits the site of her abuse in 2017.

"They would strip you down, put a straitjacket on you, stick paraldehyde in your leg … you got so many different drugs … they experimented on us … I have got chronic renal disease, I had a heart attack and a stroke in 1985 and I've just had two heart attacks in the last year … I suffer something shocking with a lot of health problems.

"They'd take you over for shock treatment. They didn't even sedate us. They'd strap us down and put the thing in your mouth and put the electrodes on your head. We were little girls. Where was it right?"

Following this newspaper's revelations, the "Wolston girls" were offered an apology from the State Government and were financially compensated for their hardship albeit, in some cases, half a century after the event.

Whatever flavour the government is when these stories are made public, its response is wearily similar, time and time again - we recognise the problem, we will fix it, and this will never happen again.

Yet it happens again. And again.

Queensland has the power to determine the nation's future, the recent federal election being just one example.But it continues to have difficulty coming to grips with its past.