DALE LYNCH doesn’t have a single photograph of himself as a child.
A former ward of the state, he’s the victim of lax record-keeping and red tape which has left him with a life-long identity struggle.
Mr Lynch was shuffled through institution after institution in the 60s and 70s, but has been told every photograph taken during his early years has been lost or destroyed; so have crucial documents about his education and his health. When he applied to the Catholic church for his file, all he got back was a letter noting his entry and exit dates.
There’s also a sinister side to WA’s poor record-keeping; at one point the young Mr Lynch was handed over to a family that kept him as a virtual slave and simply didn’t give him back.
He was sexually and physically abused for years, and any time school authorities started sniffing around because their paperwork was missing a birth certificate, he’d be hustled off to a different school.
“There were red flags, because when I did get my file back there was a note that said the family was reliant on me rather than the other way round,” Mr Lynch says.
But no one noticed or followed it up, and when he started running away to escape the abuse, he was simply handed back and branded a trouble maker.
“No one ever asked me why I was running away.”
One note in a departmental file is simply horrifying: “Dale will not amount to anything because of his association with Aboriginal kids,” it read.
While the kids he was hanging out with were fellow wards of the state he’d encountered during the system, Mr Lynch says that file note is all the more cutting because later in his life he discovered he was part-Aboriginal.
His traumatic upbringing had major implications for his adult life; he’d never felt the warmth of a hug until he was married, and was too awkward to hold his wife’s hand in public because it was so unfamiliar.
Eventually he turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain and says it’s only in the last few years that he’s started his healing journey.
Fremantle’s Tuart Place has played a part in his healing, and the not-for-profit’s director Philippa White says Mr Lynch’s story exemplifies why the WA government needs to update its policies around releasing the personal records of wards, child migrants and the Stolen Generation.
Ms White says while the system has certainly improved since his time in care, young wards still face a brick wall trying to find out about themselves. It has also hampered efforts to get redress.
“The heavy redaction of content in personal files, derogatory comments, missing information and restrictive records release protocols can cause individuals great distress,” she said.
Ms White says under the state’s freedom of information laws, third party information is usually blacked out, but for wards that can be the only source of knowledge about their birth family and identity.
She says the state needs to turn things around so that the mindset of bureaucrats is to release whatever is possible and in the interests of the child.
This week Tuart Place and an initiative called Setting the Record Straight for the Rights of the Child, which was formed in response to a recent Royal Commission into institutional child abuse, held a workshop in Fremantle to push the cause.
Child protection minister Simone McGurk addressed participants and acknowledged the problem had “obscured the extent of knowledge of institutional abuse”.
She said the government supported five principals laid out by the Royal Commission, but her office later said it was too early to say whether the government would follow another recommendation and create a records advocacy service.
by STEVE GRANT