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Marlene’s story

By Bernie Matthews - posted Wednesday, 15 August 2007

A succession of government inquiries dating back to the 1934 McCulloch Report (New South Wales) have indicated over half a million Australians experienced childhood in an orphanage, children’s home, training school, institution or some other form of out-of-home care during the 20th century, inside environments of excessively cruel and brutal institutionalised violence. Those environments were shrouded in secrecy and complemented by inadequate training, staffing levels and poor organisation for those assigned as state-sponsored care-givers.

Children were placed in state-sponsored care after being orphaned, being born to a single mother, divorce, separation, poverty or family disintegration resulting from domestic violence or their parents’ inability to cope with hardship and crisis. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were separated from their families, in most cases forcibly, as part of an official assimilation program orchestrated by successive state and federal governments.

Most children placed in state-sponsored care were made wards of the state through no fault of their own after being charged with being uncontrollable, neglected or being “exposed to moral danger”. Many of these vulnerable children were subjected to an institutionalised reign of terror that saw childhood innocence replaced with fear and psychological degradation. They were state-raised in an incarceration process that created unintended and devastating consequences during their adult lives.


A national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families conducted by the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission resulted with an April 1997 report, Bringing Them Home, that revealed a stolen generation had been removed from their families and placed in state-sponsored care as part of official government policy and practices that continued until the early 1970s. A high proportion of Indigenous children who were separated from their families under these policies and practices in turn had their own children removed from their care.

The predominant aim of the forcible removal of Indigenous babies and children was to absorb and assimilate the children into the wider non-indigenous community so that their cultural values and identities would disappear.

The forcible removal of children from their families on the grounds of their race was government sanctioned genocide unique to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander race. No other Australians were subject to the same discriminatory assimilation policies from the day they were born. It was also believed that children of “mixed descent”, particularly those with “fairer skin”, could be easily assimilated into the broader non-Indigenous community under the white Australia policies. Marlene Riley became one of those statistics.

December 18, 1958 Marlene was snatched from her family at Gunnedah, NSW, and made a ward of the state. She was 10-years-old. Her younger sister and two brothers, Christine, Gary and Steven, suffered the same fate. They were charged with being neglected and destitute. The state separated the children in different institutions in the care of the NSW Minister for Child Welfare. It was a care that failed to materialise for Marlene who desperately tried to reunite with her family.

Marlene’s forced separation from her family and siblings created an angry and rebellious teenager. On numerous occasions she ran away from institutions. Those incidents resulted with NSW Child Welfare authorities charging her with being uncontrollable and being exposed to moral danger.

On September 8, 1960 Marlene was given a General Committal and sent to the Training School for Girls at Parramatta as punishment for running away. There the rebellious 14-year-old became one of the youngest ringleaders involved in the 1961 riots. Marlene climbed onto the roof with another girl and refused to come down after witnessing the superintendent viciously attack a pregnant girl. Although the cause of the riot was buried in a bureaucratic whitewash Marlene still vividly remembers the reason:


“The riot resulted from Superintendent Johnson making Barbara Price pregnant and trying to induce a miscarriage by bashing and kicking the girl in the stomach.”

Marlene’s clear and incisive analysis of the riot was an embarrassment to the NSW Child Welfare Department which simply adopted an expedient and cost effective containment for those children involved in the rebellion, who were said to be difficult and unco-operative.

The concept of a mini Alcatraz for girls, based on the US experiment where a strict regime of isolation and institutionalised violence in a secluded maximum-security environment had been employed to punish, was considered the most appropriate model. The Institution for Girls at Hay was set up in the century-old Hay Jail and opened in July 1961. The purpose of the converted jail in the remote town of Hay was a well-kept secret but the girls who were sent there never forgot the horror they experienced.

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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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