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Westbrook a stain on child welfare

By Harry Throssell - posted Friday, 14 September 2012

In the last decade of the 20th century there was growing suspicion that a Queensland State residential institution for boys not only failed to promote their 'reformation and rehabilitation', as was claimed, but neglected and abused them.

The institution had its origins in 1871 when a floating prison hulk was converted to a boys' reformatory under a Superintendent of the Water Police. In 1881 the inmates were transferred to a Reformatory at Lytton, moving in 1900 to Toowoomba, and from 1986 called the Westbrook Youth Detention Centre.

Boys under 18 were sentenced to imprisonment by Childrens' Courts, a magistrate responsible for ensuring the boys were properly cared for, complaints investigated, and deaths reported to the Colonial Secretary.


However Westbrook officials seem only rarely to have applied their duty of care. Annual reports published over decades by the Department of Children's Services were strikingly different from residents' personal accounts. The strong emphasis on discipline at times arguably amounted to torture, a picture confirmed when boys spoke freely to the new breed of university social workers, journalists and other professional observers in the 20th century.


In 1966 the Department of Children's Services provided a typical official report on Westbrook:

'The home has experienced another most satisfactory year, not only in regard to the behaviour of the boys but also in their training and general rehabilitation. It must be borne in mind that in a home such as the Westbrook Training Centre, the majority of the boys prior to entering the Home have never had any discipline and if they had they might not have been committed to care and admitted to Westbrook. Discipline, therefore, plays an important part in their rehabilitation … It would seem that if the boy knows there is a code of discipline and that there are consequences if he does not observe it, they can behave acceptably … Ten boys have absconded or attempted to abscond in the past twelve months and in the majority of these cases the absconding or attempt has been in the early period of residence.

'In attempting to help boys of this type …it is necessary that they should have available avenues to improve their attitude of living, including general and religious education, treatment of sickness or handicaps, good examples of conduct and bearing, and opportunity to exercise self-control and industrious habits. If this can be implanted in the period of residence, there is every prospect of successful rehabilitation.

'… Manual training activities have proved to be beneficial ... General education is also provided and classes are held on two evenings each week.


'Each boy is encouraged to take part in some sporting activity because … idleness… has been one of the problems …

'Excellent results were achieved again with the Berkshire pigs at the Toowoomba show ... '

However, journalists and other independent observers increasingly found that official reports hid the true nature of the regime, with homosexual men using boys as partners, bashings, and prejudice against Indigenous lads.

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This in a series of reminiscences by Harry Throssell about his time an child welfare and how it was viewed not so long ago.

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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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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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