Where have the entries about people gone?

Posted on 17 July 2014 by
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You might have noticed that the Find & Connect web resource no longer features pages about people. Following feedback and consultations with care leavers and other stakeholders, the web resource team made the decision to remove existing pages about people from the web resource. In this post, I outline some of the reasoning behind this decision.

When we first launched the Find & Connect web resource in November 2011, some pages were about individual people – and more entries about people were added as we did our research and added to the web resource.

Find & Connect had entries about people who we judged to be notable public figures who played a role in the history of child welfare in Australia. There were pages about people like Selina Sutherland (an important ‘child rescuer’ in Victoria), Andrew Murray (former Senator who was involved in the inquiries into child migration and children in institutional care), and about other people who were the founders of institutions and charitable organisations, or who were otherwise influential figures in the history of ‘care’. There were some pages about people who were staff members in institutions (like matrons or superintendents), and about public servants who oversaw government departments responsible for ‘neglected children’.

We included these pages about people because they had made a significant contribution to child welfare (for good, and sometimes for bad) and had played a part in the history of particular organisations, institutions, laws and policies.

In feedback from emails from visitors to the web resource, and in the project’s regular stakeholder workshops, we heard a range of different views about the people entries on Find & Connect. The range of views could be summarised like this:

“Why do you have this person on Find & Connect but not that person?”

“The histories on Find & Connect are the same old story – all about the people who ran the place and nothing about the children who were in it.”

“Did you get permission from that person to have a page about them on Find & Connect?”

“The page about that person is inaccurate – all the sources you’ve used only tell you the positive stuff.”

“Having the names of staff members in the histories is really valuable – for some people, their memory of a place is about the person. They may not know what the home is called, but they may remember the person.”

“Who is this website for? If it is a site for Forgotten Australians, and the first thing they see when they open it up is someone who abused them …”

Although there was a wide range of views about our people entries, it was clear that there were some very strong feelings about this issue and some very important reasons for us to revisit the way that we documented information about people on Find & Connect.

As a preliminary step, we removed the “Browse People” alphabetical list from the website. (Usability testing and other feedback indicated that many website visitors were confused by this list – it raised a false expectation that the Find & Connect web resource was a way that people could reconnect with childhood friends through the site, or find their records from their time in ‘care’.)

Then, the web resource team took stock of the people entries in each of the state and territory databases. This process revealed that:

  • Our content about people was piecemeal. For some institutions, we had an entry for every single matron and superintendent who had ever been in the role. For many more institutions, we had no entries about individual staff members.
  • The few pages relating to care leaver advocates were incomplete – many people who had made a significant contribution were not yet on Find & Connect.
  • Some of the entries about people told a one-sided story about that person, and did not include negative, controversial or contradictory information about the person. (Unfortunately, this comes with the territory in writing child welfare history – the vast majority of sources we can use come from the perspective of the institutions, the religious and charitable organisations running them, annual reports and ‘PR’ material produced by the institutions to raise funds. Sometimes we could include other perspectives about a person – using sources like oral history interviews, memoirs, or newspaper articles. But such sources, telling the story from the perspective of care leavers, are not as widely available.)
  • Some of the people with pages on Find & Connect had indeed been publicly accused of (and sometimes found guilty of) abuse against children. There was no way of knowing if other people on Find & Connect were abusers too.

When deciding what action to take, all of these points were taken into account. The arguments FOR having pages about people on Find & Connect were also considered by the state-based historians and the editorial team:

  • The name of a staff member at an orphanage could be the thing that jogs someone’s childhood memories – that won’t happen if we remove the page.
  • Some of the people died 50 or more years ago – is there some kind of ‘cut off’ date we can use to publish some pages but not others, to protect the privacy of people still alive, and minimise the risk of care leavers seeing pages about an abuser?
  • In removing all the pages about people, are we being paternalistic and deciding what’s good for care leavers?
  • Some of these people have amazing stories, and their stories tell us about so much about this history. Do we have to leave these stories out?

It was all very complex!

After much discussion and debate, the Find & Connect web resource team made the decision not to publish the majority of people entries on the website. (The entries remained in the database, but were not made available on the website).

Some people entries remained on the website. These were the entries that the team had judged as being ‘low risk’ in terms of causing offence, or triggering painful memories for website visitors.

Most recently, the team has made a decision to remove the remaining pages about people that managed to make it through our culling process. In July 2014, a small number of people entities remained on the website – the number was so small that it wasn’t worth having these pages as part of the web resource. Relevant information about people who formerly had a page will still be on the website, but in other pages (for example, information from the page about Selina Sutherland was moved into the page about the Victorian Neglected Children’s Aid Society).

All the URLs for the remaining people entries on Find & Connect will be redirected to this blog post, where I’ve tried to explain the processes and the thinking behind our decision.

If you are looking for information about a particular person, doing a search for their surname will bring up results if there are entries on Find & Connect with information about that person.

If you have any questions, you can get in touch with the web resource team.

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History and information about Australian orphanages, children's Homes and other institutions.

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