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There is the same deft and careful touch in conveying the emotional problems of some children in adulthood; and in suggesting the consequences of Humphreys’ increasingly obsessive pursuit of the issues for her own family life. The film clearly establishes a heroine, victims, and villains; but it also conveys nuances of light and shade around them with an effectiveness more often found in fine novels than movies.
In concentrating on child emigration to Australia after the second world war the film covers only a slice of a larger and longer history. There were in all some 150,000 children emigrated under these schemes in the century or so up to the late 1960s. The majority went to Canada where they were farmed out to families, mainly in rural areas under arrangements somewhat similar to the US “Orphan Train” scheme which took children from the big East Coast cities to families in middle America.
The Canadian emigrations stopped in the early 1930s when demand for child labor diminished with the Depression. There was also, much to their credit, an increasing concern about the acceptability of the scheme on the part of the Canadian authorities. Even so, the delivery to Canada of 100,000 “home children,” as they came to be called, during the early stages of the country’s development and population growth was demographically significant. On a 1998 visit to government agencies in Ottawa I saw one estimate that, if memory serves correctly, 17 percent of the Canadian population may trace descent from home children.
The British and Australian governments were much slower to make proper judgements of the schemes. Early after the second world war when the Australian emigration of 7,000 children was about to begin, both governments accepted larger regulatory roles than they had previously had — the British government for regulating the emigrations and the Australian government for guardianship of the children after their arrival. Neither government did much to discharge these responsibilities.
The role of governments was regulatory and facilitating. The initiative came largely from the religious voluntary agencies which had care of nearly all the children who were emigrated. The state child care system in Britain seems always to have been wary of the schemes and rarely if ever consigned children to them. In our 1998 evidence to the British Parliamentary inquiry we quoted from an independent researcher who said:
“The most significant resistance to child emigration was located in central government, especially amongst the ranks of the inspectorate and the senior civil servants. They disliked the cavalier manner in which many of the philanthropic agencies operated. They suspected their motives and their charismatic styles of leadership and ...were conscious of the likelihood of public scandals.”
Even so, British governments readily facilitated the schemes and did not really regulate them. History can have lessons. The tension between private and voluntary agencies and movements in the children’s field and state regulators is not confined to Britain or to history, particularly where the agencies are religious or have their own fixed ideas about what is good for children. The horrific discoveries of child abuse in closed religious and other institutions and anxieties about the treatment of children in fundamentalist cults that have characterised the last two decades and are still continuing across the developed world tell their own story. The lessons of the recent past and the more distant past coincide: children’s safety and rights need constant public scrutiny, and the need is never greater than for children in closed communities or institutions or other situations of isolation from normal social interactions with mainstream communities.
There is also an international dimension. In 1990, the United Nations adopted its “Convention on the Rights of the Child.” This takes the form of a multilateral treaty between ratifying states. It is not of itself binding in their domestic law and cannot be directly enforced through domestic courts. Even so, it sets out general safeguarding standards for children which member states should and generally do follow in their public policies, however incompletely those policies may often be implemented. The Convention has been ratified by all the nearly 200 UN member states except two. The holdouts are countries with little else in common — Somalia and the USA. The child emigration schemes operated by Britain and the receiving countries would, on a rough count, have breached at least five of the Convention’s articles. It is inconceivable that any self-respecting country would nowadays allow such schemes.
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