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Wilma’s story

By Bernie Matthews - posted Wednesday, 22 August 2007

“When we returned to Parramatta it was impossible to be normal. We were experimental robots. We were freaks unable to function properly outside Hay.” Wilma said. “Within 24 hours of my return to Parramatta I copped a bashing and isolation from the Superintendent for doing what I had been programmed to do at Hay.

“I had no eye contact with anyone and marched everywhere at the double. I was bashed and tormented while they tried to undo what Hay had programmed me into. I had nothing left. I was a broken spirit. They took it all.”

On July 23, 1966, after her release from Parramatta, the NSW Child Welfare Department stole Wilma Robb’s last chance of happiness as an adolescent.


“Welfare took my first born son from me within minutes of being born. They threatened me with Parramatta again.” Wilma reflected thoughtfully. “In 1987 I applied for information about my son. It was then I found out my real age. They had suppressed that information too. I found out I was not a state ward when I gave birth. I was 18-years-old. I had every right to be a mother to my first born son. My rights had been violated again.”

Hay Institution for Girls, Tamworth Institution for Boys and similar child welfare institutions utilised for state-sponsored child care were the Frankenstein monsters of a bygone era. They were monsters cloaked in secrecy by the NSW Child Welfare Department and were used to brutalise and emotionally scar children inside their walls. They served no other useful purpose. The unintended consequences of that institutional brutalisation process cloaked under a guise of state-sponsored care continue to occupy Australian prison cells and mental institutions today.

Most of the brutal child minders employed to oversee those state-sponsored child care processes escaped detection and possible legal retribution. They retired to lead productive lives as respected members of society while people like Keith Higgins, Marlene Riley, Mick Kennedy, Wilma Robb and the many others who suffered under their state-sponsored care continue to grapple with the demons unleashed by their stolen childhood innocence.

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This is an edited extract from Griffith REVIEW 16: Unintended Consequences (ABC Books). Full essay is available at

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About the Author

Bernie Matthews is a convicted bank robber and prison escapee who has served time for armed robbery and prison escapes in NSW (1969-1980) and Queensland (1996-2000). He is now a journalist. He is the author of Intractable published by Pan Macmillan in November 2006.

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