Long-term outcomes of adults who were abused or neglected as children in care during the 20th century


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Content type
Short article

May 2018


Elizabeth Fernandez

Many people who lived in child welfare institutions and other substitute care as children are known to have suffered significant maltreatment – physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect – and disadvantage in their life course. There is international concern about the trauma and victimisation many of them experienced while in care and the significant and lifelong impacts of abuse in care (Sköld, 2013).

An independent national research study conducted at the University of New South Wales has profiled the experiences of adult care leavers who lived in institutions (such as children’s homes and orphanages) or other forms of out-of-home care (OOHC) as children, with a focus on their care conditions and long-term outcomes.1

Participants in this study were drawn from the larger cohort of those who were in care between 1930 and 1989, namely Forgotten Australians, Child Migrants and members of the Stolen Generations. The findings are based on surveys completed by 669 participants, interviews with 92 participants and 20 focus groups attended by 77 participants.

The findings reveal emotional, physical and sexual abuse occurred frequently and concurrently. Almost every participant in this study was abused in care. They experienced a high level of abuse from predatory adults, and many were also abused by peers. The quality of their schooling was generally poor and many left care illiterate and innumerate. Many children were involved in hard physical labour from a very young age, mainly unpaid (Fernandez et al., 2017).

A range of factors contributed in different ways to children’s vulnerability to particular forms of abuse and neglect. In general, participants were more likely to be maltreated while in care if they:

  • were younger at entry into OOHC
  • were state wards at entry
  • stayed longer in OOHC
  • had more placements
  • did not have or rarely had contact with their families
  • did not have any staff or family members to help them while in care.

Participants were more likely to experience educational neglect while in care if they experienced more placements and lacked contact with their families. 

The consequences of maltreatment in care extended well beyond their childhoods, persisting into late adulthood. The research indicates that those who experienced poly-victimisation through multiple types of abuse had generally worse outcomes in various domains of wellbeing than those who experienced one type of abuse (Fernandez & Lee, 2017).

Most participants in this study were denied rights to protection, nurture, learning, health and wellbeing while growing up in ‘care’.2 The neglect and abuse that study participants endured was clearly shown in the research to have had lifelong impacts on their health and wellbeing.

The research report concludes with the implications from key findings of their research, and makes numerous recommendations to guide future service delivery and system reform.

The full study report – No Child Should Grow Up Like This: Identifying Long Term Outcomes of Forgotten Australians, Child Migrants and the Stolen Generations (PDF) – is available on the Forgotten Australians website.


Fernandez, E., & Lee, J. S. (2017). Experiences and Outcomes of Adults Who Endured Maltreatment as Children in Care in Australia in the Twentieth Century. In Child Maltreatment in Residential Care History, Research, and Current Practice (pp. 419–460). Springer. Retrieved from http://www.springer.com/gp/book/9783319579894

Fernandez, E., Lee, J. S., Foote, W., Blunden, H., McNamara, P., Kovacs, S., & Cornefert, P. A. (2017). ‘There's More to be Done; “Sorry” is Just a Word’: Legacies of Out-of-Home Care in the 20th Century. Children Australia, 42(3), 176. 

Sköld, J. (2013). Historical Abuse – A Contemporary Issue: Compiling Inquiries into Abuse and Neglect of Childrenin Out-of-Home Care Worldwide. Journal of Scandinavian Studies in Criminology and Crime Prevention, 14(1), 5–23.


This work was accomplished in close collaboration with research partners: Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies; Alliance for Forgotten Australians; Families Australia; Berry Street; Relationships Australia; CatholicCare Diocese of Broken Bay; and Micah Projects.


  1. This study was funded by the Australian Research Council. The project-administering organisation was The University of New South Wales.
  2. Study participants rejected the notion that they received care and consequently were sensitive to the use of the term.