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Confronted by Queensland Welfare

By Harry Throssell - posted Friday, 2 March 2012

After training for social work in Birmingham and London, experiencing rural child welfare in Yorkshire, followed by high-powered psychiatry in London, my move to a teaching position at Queensland University in 1966 was life-changing: a career promotion with considerable culture shock.

When I was allocated the child welfare teaching specialty I was thrown in the deep end of serious reform, struggling to rescue children and families from welfare services with a reputation for being punitive, even unethical.

University social work staff and students, academics in other departments, and a growing number of journalists were in conflict with members of Queensland State parliament on this issue, although courageous battler Vi Jordan, sole female MLA, was a reformer.


Charles Dickens would have had a field day. Professional social work had not long been invented in Queensland and numerous politicians and public servants still perceived children in care as the devil's army, needing to be whipped into subservience – while detailed interviews showed some staff viewed children as personal playthings.

After my English background this was all somewhat scary. But increasingly when university students saw the inside of institutions and talked to residents they were horrified. It became increasingly clear youngsters were as much punished as cared for. You had a decision to make: were you to go softly-softly, taking the non-combative route, so children continued to be tortured, or were you bound to take risks which could either place you outside the fence or make a positive difference for good?

Recovered interviews with locked-up children removed doubts about the reality of what was really happening.

Westbrook Training Centre, Toowoomba, a hundred-year-old junior gaol, liked to advertise its 'Excellent results with the Berkshire pigs', but eventually became notorious for subjecting young boys to violence and exploitation. Journalists, university personnel and new graduates started collecting taped evidence.

1972: Interview with Westbrook boy.

Boy: 'It's not very good in there, particularly for the dark boys, the way they get treated …quite often they get beat up for no apparent reason. One day an absconder was brought in and Mr Z hit his head against a steel gate …'

Interviewer: 'How did you know this happened?'

Boy: 'I saw it. I was in the maximum security all the time I was there'.

Interviewer: 'So even in maximum security it can't be very secure?'

Boy: 'No it's not …Last Tuesday a boy and two officers had a fight and another boy come in to help …And while that was going on some knives were stolen ... later on another boy was in the cell and Mr Y, Mr X and Mr W all come in and beat him up and busted his ear and made it bleed, and busted his mouth, they all come in'.

Interviewer: 'Now you said earlier the officers will only get on to you if there's at least three officers onto one bloke'.

Boy:'Even when there's a fight between the white fellers and the dark fellers the dark fellers always get the hidin''.

Interviewer: 'Just because the officers don't like darkies? You say that even though you're not dark yourself?'

Boy:'That's right …I spent a month in a cell because of that … the officer told me it was unnatural to have anyone who was not my own colour for a mate.'

Interviewer: 'Unnatural?'

Boy:'Yeah. He said he wouldn't punish me if I fought a dark feller …'

Interviewer: 'So, most of the officers in there are against the darkies?'

Boy:'Mmm. Even the head ones'.

Interviewer: 'What percentage of the officers would go in for bashing, though?'

Boy:'All of them …'

Interviewer: 'The pound is solitary confinement?'

Boy:'That's where they keep anyone who's a bit of a troublemaker'.

Interviewer: 'The place for punishment?'

Boy:'Yeah, you do drill down there'.

Interviewer: 'Marching up and down?'

Boy:'No. It's all these different kinds of exercises, kangaroo hops, push-ups …'


Many such verbatim interviews were recorded in that era.


In March 1994 a serious incident resulting in major damage occurred. The Official Statement read: 'After many years of complaints, much suffering by child inmates, and official reports hiding the true situation, the institution, Westbrook, was finally closed on 30 June 1994 after an investigation by State Governor Leneen Forde's Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions'.

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About the Author

Harry Throssell originally trained in social work in UK, taught at the University of Queensland for a decade in the 1960s and 70s, and since then has worked as a journalist. His blog Journospeak, can be found here.

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