In 1961 the Nicklin government announced plans to turn the vacant wards at the Ipswich Mental Hospital (Female 2 and 3) into a training school for girls. On 17 January 1963 Karrala House (Training Home for Girls), was established under the provisions of the State Children's Act 1911 - 1955. The State Children Department's annual report for 1963 stated that Karrala House was established 'for the purpose of dealing with the more emotionally disturbed girl and those girls in denominational homes who are incorrigible and are continually upsetting other inmates'.
The Medical Superintendent of the Ipswich Mental Hospital, Dr Richard Aubrey Atherton, was appointed Superintendent of Karrala in 1963. The report of the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland (1999) contained this quote from Dr Atherton from 1963, expressing his views about Karrala:
''As indicated earlier, I believe that this Home would fulfil the most useful function by taking the more recalcitrant type of girl who is hardened to ordinary handling in a private or Church Home. Discipline should be as rigid as that in a Prison which would be the place these girls would find themselves but for their age. As Prison is a deterrent to crime so, in my opinion, should the discipline and consequent fear of return to this Home be a deterrent to the girls from returning to an antisocial or asocial form of behaviour' (p.150).'
The Department's annual report for 1965 referred to Karrala House's role in Queensland's child welfare system, stating that: 'The existence of this home acts as a deterrent to many girls in other homes and contributes in no small manner to the maintenance of good conduct'.
The system for disciplining girls at Karrala House was based on privileges and punishments. The concept was that girls started off at the institution with little or no privileges, and could gain privileges in stages for improved behaviour. The Minister for Labour and Tourism (Mr Herbert) stated in 1967 that a similar system was in place at the denominational institutions for girls in Queensland, Kalimna House (run by the Salvation Army) and Mt Maria Re-education Centre (run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd).
'The inmates start with very little and they advance in steps to ultimate release. They go up in steps, by which they earn the right to have hair-do's, use cosmetics and so on. These things have been used by both these institutions and that is the system that has been followed at Karrala. The system that was introduced was that they should gain privileges for good behaviour.'
Throughout 1967, members of the Labor opposition were vocal opponents of conditions at Karrala House, claiming that its approach to managing 'delinquent girls' was out of step with the rest of the world. In a May 1967 letter to the Minister, the member for South Brisbane, Col Bennett, declared: 'Quite frankly, the girls appear to be treated like animals and conditions related to me appear to be worse than those that previously prevailed at Westbrook'.
Bennett was referring to the Farm Home for Boys, Westbrook, a state-run reformatory which had been the subject of an enquiry in 1961. On 21 November 1967, Mr Bennett said in Parliament:
'We heard for a long time that Westbrook was all that it should be and that the conditions there would compare with the standard of treatment of boys of that age in similar institutions in any country of the world. An investigation (or should I say an inquisition) was held behind closed doors. The revelations were horrible and scandalous, and indicated barbaric conditions, although they were not quite as bad as what is going on every day at Karrala House.'
In November 1967, there was spirited debate in the Queensland Parliament about conditions at Karrala House, focusing on the 'admission room' where girls first stayed upon arrival at the institution. One parliamentarian quoted from an article in the Sunday Mail which had a detailed description of 'Room 9'. The room was 10 feet square, with a mattress on the floor and canvas sheets. There was no toilet or running water. There was little natural light in the room (politicians argued about whether it could be described as 'gloomy', 'dismal' or 'dark' in the room) and girls' only view was through the door, out to a bare wall across the corridor.
Girls' only human contact was with staff members, who visited 'at least 14 times a day' with meals or to take them to the toilet. The journalist stated that staff were not allowed to speak to girls during these visits. Although the Minister had vigorously denied on several occasions that girls were kept in 'solitary confinement' at Karrala House, the Member for Toowoomba East asked 'What name other than solitary confinement could one give it?'
The public concern and criticism directed at Karrala House in the late 1960s reflected a growing interest in the rehabilitation rather than punishment of delinquent children. Karrala House was an institution that came under the scrutiny of the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland (Forde Inquiry) in 1999. The report of the Inquiry concluded:
'The government, it seems, was content to allow the churches to carry on the business of reforming wayward girls. Its commitment in respect of Karrala House was limited to providing a quasi-penal institution to facilitate the task of extracting and disciplining 'problem' girls and returning them back to the denominational homes for future care.'
Over 500 girls passed through Karrala House between 1963 and 1971, when the institution was closed. All inmates at Karrala in October 1971 were transferred to the new girls' section at the Wilson Youth Hospital. The Forde Inquiry report pointed out that:
'Most of these girls had not been convicted of a criminal offence, but had committed status offences. In the majority of cases, it appears that sexual behaviour perceived as inappropriate prompted the Children's Court to make an order for care and control. Girls initially admitted to one of the denominational training homes or a similar institution for care, whose behaviour and emotional disturbance was such that they could no longer be cared for in that home, were also admitted to Karrala House.'
In the late 1990s, the buildings that had formerly constituted Karrala House (Byron House and Claire House) were repurposed as part of the Ipswich Campus of the University of Queensland. There is a memorial plaque dedicated to the residents of Karrala House on the site. The text on this plaque reads:
'Karrala House, as this building was formerly known, was jointly operated by the State Children's Department and the Health Department, as an institution for teenage girls committed to care between February 1963 and October 1971.
In remembrance of the girls who were placed in Karrala House.
To those who succumbed to harsh punishments meted out by a severe system, we remember you.
To those who overcame such experiences, we acknowledge your courage and your determination to have your story told.'
12 May 2017
Cite this: https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/guide/qld/QE00040
First published by the Find & Connect Web Resource Project for the Commonwealth of Australia, 2011
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