Australian Biography

Barbara Holborow - full interview transcript

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Barbara, were you making any money?

[laughs] Funny you should ask that. Not really. And, and it wasn't helped by the fact that of course my parents were now two octogenarians who needed 24 hours a day nursing. And I had to find a nursing home for them where they could be together in the one room because they'd never been separated in their lives. And that was costing at that stage, $600 a week. And by the time I'd paid the staff and paid the bills and Mum and Dad, no, I didn't make any money.

What did you and Louise eat?

[laughs] Oh, well, yeah, we managed.

So what did - how did this go then, when you were not making as much money as you expected? Were there problems with the other people in the practice over that or were they happy?

No. No - they - what they did of course, they were very sensible about this - they just said, "Look, leave it to us. You don't bring enough money in. You only made eight thousand last year. Let us run the office. We'll make the money". I just found it very embarrassing to send out account rendereds and ask for money before I'd done a job. I hated it.

So you got somebody else to do your business work...

Yeah, and ask for money. And I just concentrated on the kids.

And how did you see your future in the legal practice? Had you thought, sort of, how that would, how that would develop?

Yeah, I'd got to the stage where I really was ready to give it all away, and do something else with my life. I didn't know what. But I just felt I can't go on championing a cause that's going to go nowhere. I'd made representations to politicians and it was all so easy and simple, but because it's kids they're not interested. And I just, I just got sick of banging my head against a brick wall.

What sort of representations were you making?

Well, there was, there was a wonderful house. It was a very large house. It'd been used for English migrants in Annandale. And it became vacant and it wasn't ever going to be used again. Now we had a lot of trouble with girls who came from the country to work in Sydney, or to go to school in Sydney, or to be educated in some way in Sydney. And they'd get themselves into trouble - alone in the big city. This was wonderful hostel accommodation. So you know, I went to the Minister of the day for children. "Oh, that's owned - it's a federal body who owns it". So I got in touch with the federal body. And you know, after ten months, nothing, absolutely nothing. And the fed - when I'd ring the federal people they'd say, "Well we've told your people that, the state people that they can lease it from us, no problem". Then the state people didn't have the money. And I thought "Oh". It just made no sense to me, at all, that if you were the Minister of these children, who were your responsibility, surely to God you'd give them somewhere to live. And this could have, this could have had a matron there. There was - it was set up for them to do their own cooking if they wanted. If they didn't - oh, anyway, it remained vacant for years.

And in relation to the system itself that you were so critical of, what were you do doing to try to change that?

Saying to politicians - if they'd stay long enough in a room with me to let me speak - that really we needed to divide the system up into crime and care, because there are two distinct sections for juveniles. One is the neglected children, and the other is crime. And I would be sitting - later when I became a magistrate - I would be sitting dealing with an attempted murder, and the next case would be a three months old baby with cigarette burns. Very difficult to turn your mind to that. And we weren't investigating enough as to why these kids were neglected. And as a solicitor I saw this.

What was your relationship as a solicitor with those cases of neglect? How did you come into the picture there?

I took eight of them home as foster children, I know. [laughs] Oh, gee. I, I, I used to bleed for those kids. The pain, the suffering. I used to remember my childhood and the love. These kids had never had a kind word spoken to them. You never could understand why they were born. And when they were, why weren't they given up for adoption. At least there'd be somebody who wanted them. They were so unloved. And you could, you could see it. They were just failures to thrive, in every sense. Intellectually, physically, emotionally. And they never would. That made me very sad. And I wanted a court even then, before I was a magistrate, where we could hone in on that.

Could you explain to me what you would do as a solicitor in relation to representing children who weren't charged with criminal offences, but who were charged with being neglected?

Right, well, if the baby - if the child wasn't old enough to verbalise, but I was asked to represent the child, well I really was like a guardian ad litem. You'd go in and you would read all the reports, and I would observe the mother, the father, I may speak to them. Might get a feeling about it. Particularly if the mum and the dad were intellectually impaired, because frankly they weren't always treated - those parents weren't all treated fairly and ,I thought, properly. Because that didn't make them inadequate as a parent. They needed support, sure. And they might need a hand. But it was never there. And they were always being, I felt, victimised.

While you were a solicitor you felt that?


So it was your job however to represent the child.

Yes, but there's one place a child should always be if it's possible, and that's with the natural parents. Not to be taken away. Those people didn't love that child any less because of their, their lack of intellectual brightness.

What kind of parents did you want to take the children away from?

Well, those parents who themselves had been so ill-treated and they'd just carried on the tradition. Terrible, terrible injuries that they would inflict on their children. You know, I remember one fellow who, who beat this boy that you could count the criss-cross on his back, with a stick, but a very fine stick. I think the pain. And right down the backs of his legs. For some trivial thing. You know, some - oh.

Of all the cases you dealt with as a solicitor, before you became a magistrate, ones where you were actually down there representing the child, was there any that you particularly remember as particularly upsetting you?

I don't think that there's - now in time I don't think that there is one, but I know that there were so many, so many of heartbreaking ones where the mother walked out of court saying she didn't want the kid. And the kid was three, four, five. And the child is calling out "Mummy" and she's still walking.

You found that hard to understand?

I found it, and I still do, impossible, and impossible to bear, just to think that your mother didn't love you.

So you were working there as a solicitor, and you were worried about the system and worried that - wondering if you had a future, and then what happened? What changed?

Well, because, Jacob came into my life in 1975. He came into my life. And so my home life totally changed, because I - he became the absolute pivot of my home life.

How did you meet Jacob?

Jacob's mother was in Elsie's Women's Refuge, the first women's refuge in Australia. And I used to do free legal aid for these ladies who'd left, for whatever reason, and were there, to get them maintenance maybe, to have custody of their children. They used to come down to give me instructions. And they started to bring down this Aboriginal child. And the very first time that this woman brought him in, he put his arms out to me. And he put his arms - he left her, and we'd never seen each other - and he put his arms around my neck, and his feet around my rib-cage. And I took instructions holding him like this and writing. And I, I called him my little koala. And they used to bring him down to get him out of the house. And...

How old was he?

He was nine, ten months. And he was mute through neglect. He didn't utter a sound. And his, his - hadn't been out of a cot. And his, he was muscle-wasted, his legs. And so anyway they came down this day and they said "We'll give you - koala a goodbye, because his mum's going into rehab, and his two brothers and sister are going down to Bomaderry, but he's too young. They can't take him". And I said, "Well how long will that be?" And they said, "Six weeks". And I said, "Oh, I'll take him for six weeks, that's nothing". And that was 26 years ago. [laughs] So. Yeah.

So who looked after him during the day?

Me, I took him to work.

Into your office as a solicitor?

Into my office, yes. And of course, I had four girls working for me. Yep.

And so you all looked after him in there?

Yep. Yes.

And how long did that go on for?

Well I put a locum in for the first month while I taught him to speak. The first word he said was light. Every time I walked through a room I'd switch the light on and point. And I walked through one day and he pointed and he said "light". That was the first words he spoke.

How old was he then?

Well, he was one, about one. And I went to the Spastic Centre and I got all these implements and toys to develop his muscles. And for that month, just did that. And - well he went to England playing cricket, so he came on alright.

And when did you - how long did you go on taking him into work?

Till I had somebody come and mind him here. Because Mum and Dad then, thank God, they were able to go into another nursing home where they just took their pension, and I had to pay $25 a week, that was all it took. So - and it was even better than the one he was in - they were in. So then that enabled me to get somebody to come here to mind him. [INTERRUPTION]

So in thinking about how you were going to have Jacob cared for, what were your considerations? What were your options?

Well I was a bit worried as to what I was going to do, because it wasn't going to be six weeks and I could see it was going to be long term. When he was three, we were staying on a horse stud property and he was kicked in the head by the horse. And there - he wasn't expected to live. And there was a frightful dash in the ambulance from Nowra to Sydney. And when I got to Sydney - I wasn't in the ambulance, they couldn't wait for me, they went - when I got to Sydney he wasn't expected to live. But they were going to operate that night. And they took me in to intensive care, and he was just rolling his head from side to side, making this animal noise. And they said to me, "Put your finger in his hand and see if he'll clutch it". And he didn't. And they said, "Just sit there and see if there's any sign at all that you think he's aware that you're with him". And when he turned his head once, our eyes met. There was only a split second. But I said, "He knows me". And of course, they were patting me on the shoulder saying "Yes, yes, yes". I said, "No, this is too serious. I didn't imagine it. He knows me". And the next day the prognosis was hideous - the next day was intellect impairment, permanent paralysis down his right side - oh all sorts of terrible things. Well then both Jacob and I went through the worst custody case that you can imagine. And I was so torn. Had I done the wrong thing? Should I return him? But I knew what he was going back to. And the tragedy was that it wasn't his mum instigating this, it was white activists who kept saying to me with anonymous phone calls, "Black children belong in black homes". And that was so traumatic. And the judge at the first appearance in the Supreme Court ordered that Jacob, that his mother was entitled to a day's access. It nearly killed him. He didn't know her, had no recollection. And he would go with these strangers and he'd be screaming "Mummy, Mummy, Mummy". And then it would take me a week to get him right. He'd be soiling his pants, he'd be - he was - and he wasn't well. And then he'd see us coming to the park where I used to have to hand him over and he'd start screaming again. And the estate agent who was next door to me - I would then go into my office, because the park was opposite - and he came in to me and said "Look, I don't know if you've done the right thing by taking that kid or not. I don't know. But I do know this. That kid is in total pain and this has got to stop. You can't do this to this kid every week. Either give him back to his mother or don't give him to the mother at all". Unbeknownst to me, the next week, he with a photoscopic lens, took these fantastic photos of the mother coming. She didn't have her hands out to get Jacob. And then taking Jacob. And Jacob hanging on to my leg. And you could see the anguish in his face. Then he let go of my leg and he ran away from them. And his mother was standing there laughing. I'm running after him, this busy road. Got him, and I handed him over and he's clinging round my neck. He's got his arms out. And he developed those photos and gave them to me on the Monday morning, and Monday afternoon we were in the court with them. And then it was given an early hearing, and no more access till the hearing, which was to be in about two weeks. Now I felt guilt ridden about that, I didn't want to deprive his mother, but I knew that his mother and I could have worked this out, with all these white activists. Mama Shirl, who's worked so much came here to my home and said "Now I won't get in the witness box for you because you're white and I'm black. But I'm just telling you. You keep this kid. He's got no life if he goes back".

So when we turned up at court the next - in the fortnight, his mum didn't turn up. There was nobody there. Only us. And the judge made him a ward of the court. And full care and control to me till he was 16. When he got to 14, there was a lot of water under the bridge of course, but when he got to 14 he said, "Are you going to adopt me?" And I said, "No. Because you're black and I'm white. I'm in a position of authority. And all the good books say that I shouldn't adopt you. That it's not fair to you or your mum". And he said, "Well give me the name of a good solicitor, because I'm going to adopt you". So I gave him the name of a solicitor and about four months later we were sitting in the motor car and he said "Oh, there's a big envelope in the letterbox". So I remained in the car and he got out and got it and came back and sat in the car. And he said, "It's got my name on it" And I said, "My gosh, I think you must have won something". So he undid it. And it was the adoption papers. They were approved. And he burst into tears. And he said "Now I belong". So it was a good story.

Why do you think his mother instigated the custody case at that...

She didn't. She had nothing to do with it. Nothing. Nothing.

What was the case that you had neglected him in letting him get his head kicked in?

No, it was just - no one could have foreseen. He just, he, he was standing there one moment - actually he wasn't with me, he was with a group of other people. But they were reliable people. And he was standing there one moment and as a little two and a half year old he just ran behind it, it was a colt. And the colt kicked him.

Barbara, I wasn't suggesting that you were to blame, but I wondered whether that was being argued.

It would have been. I'm quite sure it would have been.

I was wondering why they chose this time, you know, having left him with you for that period, why suddenly they were interested?

They weren't. It was a - the woman who instigated this was Kay Bellair, who is herself married to an Aborigine, and herself had adopted Aboriginal children. And I'd known Kay for a long time. And this was the stand she took on it, that black children belong in black homes. In fact her attitude was very cruel. She caused both Jacob and me a lot of sadness, a lot of stress that we could have done without.

After it was settled by the court that he was a ward of court, and he was in your foster care, did they let it drop then altogether? Did it - did this go away?

Yes, and his mother never communicated with him. And - for over 20 years. And then I located her three years ago and I rang her.

Why did you locate her?

Because he needed - I hadn't been able to find her. And these people knew that I'd wanted to know where she was, because I felt that he should meet his family. He met his sister, Sarah, about six years ago. And it was a wonderful meeting, a wonderful meeting. They were so - and they're so similar in looks physically. And then Sarah disappeared too and I couldn't find her. Then I found his mother. And I spoke to her. And there's no animosity between us at all. And he visits his mum now a couple of times a week, speaks to her almost daily.

And what does she think of him?

Like any mother, she loves him. Yeah, she loves him.

I guess I'm asking does she feel you did a good job?

[laughs] When she's sober I think she does.

And Jacob, he seems to be such a happy-go-lucky personality. Does he bear the legacy of those early years?


What form does that take? What, what are the problems that he faces because of those early years?

He is - you've seen him at his very best. He's, he's particularly shy, particularly shy. And there's, there is an ingredient that I know has been missing in Jacob's life that I was never aware of, until I see him now after he's visited his family. His mother is, has a relationship with a man, and they're - all their relations and extended family come there, and they all sit round and talk. And sure, they drink, but they sit round and talk and laugh and talk. Jay's missed that here, because we live alone. And although we - Mary came to us, an Aboriginal girl, and lived with us for eight years, nine years, it was never like Jay's home would have been and Jay loves that company. Loves a joke. He slaps his leg and throws his head back and laughs. And I know that's something that he's been deprived of.

The intellectual difficulties that were predicted as a result of his accident, what did - what challenges did that present the pair of you with?

Tremendous challenges. He went, he went to a GPS school, and again, I was just so wrong. So wrong. I blame myself for this, too. He went to school every day. Now you know, kindergarten mind you, and they made him repeat. Repeat kindergarten. Have you ever heard of such a nonsense? And I went to them and I said, "Look, he's made all these friends, he's so popular. He loves it. What does it matter? What does it matter?" And they said, "Oh no, we'll give him the grounding". Of course it didn't and he got it into his head from then on, I'm dumb. And that was from the age of six. And he's dyslectic. But he's a beautiful person. That's all I care. I don't want a nuclear physicist to live with me.

It must have been a period of great anxiety though when he was actually in hospital and you were wondering what the residual effect of the brain damage was going to be. When did you discover that he wasn't going to be paralysed and that he wasn't going to...?

Well again, I, I took three months off work, and again, I just, I just worked at it. In fact, Jay as a result of it, now is ambidextrous. And the only way that you can pick that there's anything wrong with his right side - and it's probably have to be someone like me that can detect it - is that he gets a little bit clumsy. But other than that, well you don't play for Schoolboys Australia, do you?

If you're totally uncoordinated, no. When you were making the choice - in those days we're talking here the late seventies - when he was a littlie, and you were having to work out what kind of childcare to arrange - you know, when you couldn't keep taking him to work all the time - what were the choices that you had then, in the late seventies? What could you have done?

I then took him to a pre-school, where they trained pre-school teachers, at Macdonaldtown. And it was, it was a great pre-school, except it was - I had to pick him up at four-thirty, and you were an absolute total failure as a parent if you weren't there at four-thirty. And I'd be in court till four o'clock, and I'd be ringing through to one of the girls, "Grab a taxi, get over to get Jacob". And then it was like different people are picking him up. All of that hassle. Yeah, it was a hassle.

Did you get somebody to help you mind him here? You mentioned that you got in somebody to care for him here too.

Well, school holidays were a nightmare, absolute nightmare arranging for him. I used to have to get somebody in. I actually remeber - he had the chicken pox and I had a court case on that I had to be there. I couldn't get, the woman who very kindly used to mind him for me, Auntie Rose down the street, she couldn't mind him. So I rang up Dial-an-Angel. And yes, they could send somebody out. So I said to him, "Now, Auntie Rose is going to mind you for a little while, then this angel is coming. I've dialled an angel, she's coming, she will look after you all day. I promise you I'll be home as soon as I can". So I got to court, I'd been on my feet about five minutes, I get a note put in front of me, 'Please ring home urgently.' So I said to the judge, "Your Honour, I've just received a message for me to ring home. May I?" "Certainly", the judge said, "Certainly, Mrs. Holborow". So, oh God what's happened? Raced out to the phone. It's Jacob, floods of tears. "What's the matter? What's the matter with you?" "You said it was an angel. She's a fat old lady. She doesn't even have wings". [laughs] So yeah. I just remembered that of Jacob's childhood and being cared for. I don't know how the fat old lady felt, what she thought about it.

[end of tape]

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