Australian Biography

Barbara Holborow - full interview transcript

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Jacob wasn't the only child you fostered, was he Barbara? How did you get into the business of fostering in the first place?

The first one was a little girl who was a truant from school. And I was acting for her. And in those days, if you were a truant you were put into a detention centre, where they had these teachers and you were made learn. And she just wasn't detention material. And so I thought that if she came here to me that I could get her into the habit of going to school, it'd be fine. And that's what I did. And she used to come here Sunday nights, and she'd go to school Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and then Friday she went home with Mum, and then came back Sunday night. And we did that for a term.

Why did you decide she wasn't detention material? What did - what do you mean by that?

Oh, she was too - she wasn't a knock around kid. She wasn't streetwise. She - the parents were living - it was a new stepfather, and they were living up the other side of Campbelltown. And there were these terrible arrangements from some estate agent. And the parents used to pay this incredible rental, which would come off the house if they bought it at the end of a year. And they had to travel from the other side of Campbelltown into Sydney to their work every day. And nothing like it is now. There was no freeway at all. Terrible roads, single road. And they used to have to leave quarter to six in the morning, didn't get home till half past seven at night. So that this kid would be left sitting in front of the TV in the morning, and was still there when they got home at night, with all her mates. They, they all used to come and watch TV. Well, where's the crime? And in my book you've got to commit a crime to earn going to detention centre. And she was a nice kid.

And she didn't go to school because she couldn't organise herself to get there.

Oh, she didn't want to go to school. It's much better to sit with your mates and eat your lunch, and eat a lot of Sara Lee, sitting in front of the TV. So she came here.

And what did you do with her here? How did you get her to school here?

Well I - the principal of the local high school, he'd gone to Fort Street, we used to go to dances together. And I went up and told him my problem with this kid. And he said, "Fine. I'll keep my eye out for her". And I organised her each morning, and then she got into the habit of organising herself. And got herself off to school. Came home. And everything went really well.

And after she'd been with you - how long did she stay with you?

Well, we did a term and I thought that may be enough. But I think that - and I could be wrong here - but that Mum and Dad were enjoying the freedom from the stresses of this 13, 14 year old who was really giving them the hurry up. So we did another term. And then she, she went back and she did quite well.

And when she went back did she continue going to school, back at home?

No, because they couldn't keep up the payments. They lost that house. They moved back into the inner city. And she, she went to another high school in the inner city.

But she was able - she developed the habits.

Yes, and that's all it took. Yes.

How did you feel when you gave her back? How close did you get to her?

Oh I had... No, I didn't. I had no emotional commitment to her. I mean I knew when she came it was Monday to Friday, and she was a nice kid. But there , there was no attachment there between us.

Did you help her with her homework and that sort of thing?

Oh yes. Yeah, yeah.

And that was, that was the first one. Then what happened? Because they clocked up, didn't they?

They certainly did. And then I had another one like that, somewhere in that number eight, I had another one like that. Then there was a lad from a local say boys' home for want of a better word. And I really felt, I appeared for him a couple of times at one of the courts. And his mum had died when he was eight. And he was now 12. And I thought he needed his mum. He was - it was a big family. The others were older. He was the baby. And I met Dad and he was a pretty cold fish. And I thought if I could give this kid some TLC we might make it. And I did. But he was - oh it didn't do any good. He needed more than TLC. He...

What did he need?

Oh, he needed a father who cared. And I couldn't provide that. He needed a mum and a father who cared.

So what happened to him?

Oh, he got into trouble while he was here, twice. And...

How did you deal with that? I mean a kid in your own home getting into trouble.

Oh, it could be your own child getting into trouble. That made no difference. He wasn't mine. But we - I just knew that I wasn't getting anywhere. And I think we'd outgrown each other, our - the purpose for each other I think was gone. And...

So that accounts for three of them.

Mmm. Another one was the son of a friend, of friends of mine. And they'd married, and he just hadn't settled into this - his father had come into this marriage and he hadn't settled well into it. And they went overseas. And I minded him in their house while they were overseas. Louise and I did actually. And when they came back, they could see the tremendous difference in him. And they - he asked if he could come and stay with me and they asked, and I said "Yes". He was a lovely boy.

And so how long did he live with you?

Oh, he was here when Jacob came. He, he was here till he left school.

And is he still close to you?

No. No, he's moved on.

And that didn't bother you. You...

No, it doesn't. It doesn't. I'm here for them if they, they wanted me, I'm here. But no. Doesn't worry me.

How - in this case - in each of these cases, was it something that was difficult for you to decide? I mean how much thought did you give to what was going to be involved in taking care of the kids?

Not enough! Not enough. No, no. I didn't. There was a need there. And I could, I knew I could provide it. I had - you know, I, I was single, I was committed to nobody. I didn't have to say to anyone, "Do you mind?" It was my decision. I had no problem with that. [INTERRUPTION]

So how did Mary come into your life?

Mary was typical of a state ward, what can happen to them. She was fostered - she was an Aboriginal baby - fostered at three weeks by a white family. They had two children. Had Mary brought home to them, then they had another two children. When Mary was seven, they decided to separate and get a divorce. Now Mary knew nobody else. That, that was her family. She was entrenched in that family, she was part of it. She called those brothers and sisters. Right? So she was sent on a plane to Sydney to say - and was told she was coming to Sydney for a holiday. They telephoned the Department that they were returning her - after seven years. And she went to this establishment which was run by these friends of mine. Now Jacob was seven. And it was a beautiful establishment where they - foster children went, state wards went. It was in Woollahra, it was run magnificently.

So this friend rang me, and said, "I'd like to come over, have dinner one night and see how you and Jacob are going". Now my daughter Louise had told me about this child, because she'd been teaching the kids to swim. And the penny dropped immediately. And I said, "Are you bringing anyone?" He said, "Well I thought I might". And I said, "Mary". And he said, "Mmm". And I said, "Well you're very welcome to, but when you leave I want to see a little brown hand clutched in yours. I have one child, I cannot have another. I am too busy. I can't do it". He said, "Never entered my head". I said, "You lie". He came over for dinner. Well within moments Jacob and Mary are playing as if they'd known each other all their lives. He said, "Goodbye", she said, "Goodbye" and off they went. Ten days went by. Had to pop in and see me again. And I said, "I know what you're doing. Stop it. I am not taking another child. I'm not". "Never entered my head." Over they came Jacob and Mary as if they'd known each other forever. Jacob and I always went out to dinner together every Friday night, just the two of us. He chose one Friday night, I chose another. So we're sitting there eating our meal and he said, "What's going to happen to Mary?" And I said, "Well some lovely people will foster Mary. She's a beautiful little girl. She'll have no trouble at all finding a lovely home". He said, "I don't have a brother or a sister. And everyone else at soccer's got a sister or a brother". And I said, "Well that's cute, I'm very happy for them". He said, "I get lonely". I said, "Jacob" - and then of course that rang bells - my childhood - I said, "Jacob, you've never had to share me. Ever. You would have to share me with Mary. She's a very troubled little girl. You might get jealous". He said, "No I wouldn't, no I wouldn't".

Needless to say, within a month we picked up Mary and Mary came home. For the first two months, six weeks, two months, I nursed Mary to sleep every night as she sobbed, "Why me? Why me?" So I couldn't tell her that these people had really never made a commitment to her. She said, "Why didn't they leave the others?" So we then went on, we went through the stealing, everything. Then one Saturday afternoon - my mother had beautiful Royal Doulton - she started dropping them all over the place. And I got the two last saucers and I put them down and I said, "Break them. I don't care. I will never send you back. If you're doing this to see if I'll send you back, you have failed. I will never send you back. I love you. Do you think I could nurse you the way I did every night when I was so tired and I wanted to go to sleep? Do you think I didn't love you?" And we kept those two plates, because she never broke them. And I never sent her back. And she and Jacob were great for each other. They had their fights of course. She was much quicker than Jacob, quick, quicker witted than Jacob. She was very funny and she would quick as a flash she'd come back with an answer. She always had to have the last say. Which used to drive him to distraction. Because he'd think of his answer an hour later. Then - I knew Mary was very different to Jacob. And I knew Mary, I knew Mary's mother. She had been in Glebe. And she'd been in a spot of bother in Glebe. And anyway, Mary - I came home from work one day and Mary was 15 and a half, and she'd gone. And I walked like any other mother, the streets of Sydney. You know afterwards - I mean I was sitting on the bench - and afterwards any mother that came and said, "You've got no idea what it's like to go looking for your child" and I used to think, "My God, don't I?" And we couldn't find her, anywhere. And then quite by chance a friend saw her on a railway station. And spoke to her. And it all sort of happened because - and I, I wasn't wrong but I was wrong - she wanted to stay in town at the pictures. And it meant she was coming home on the train at midnight. And I said, "No, no don't do it because I'll arrange to pick you up next time". She'd met by chance her sister. And anyway she stayed there in town. But unbeknownst to me, she'd snuck in home up the tree and got in upstairs without me knowing and I sat up till six o'clock in the morning sick with worry. And when she came down the next day I was just so angry with her, so terribly angry. And I, I didn't speak to her. I just couldn't. And I don't think I spoke to her for about 36 hours and she just packed up and left.

Now I didn't see Mary again until the showing of 'This Is Your Life', and they found her and I couldn't. And...

Now you hadn't attached to the others. But you really attached to her.

Oh yes. Mmm. I love Mary.

So she's really one of your children.


Like Jacob and Louise.


Whereas the others were children you helped.


And what's the difference? What's the difference between having a child that you help and you care about, and having a child that you feel is your own?

Oh commitment, total commitment. With the first little girl I was committed to her from Sunday night 'til Friday night. That was it. Mary was 24 hours a day for 9 years.

Did she interpret your not speaking to her as a withdrawal of love?

Probably, probably. Probably. I was so angry.

And they found her for 'This Is Your Life'?


So what happened after that show was over?

Well, we communicated again. And she came over and she stayed. But she's gone again. And I invited her, of course, to my 70th. She said she was coming but she didn't.

Do you think it's possible that if somebody early in your life that you depend on doesn't commit to you that that creates a problem for commitment forever for - will that be a problem do you think for Mary always?

Always. Mary will never - I believe, and that's why I said she's typical of a state ward - she wanted her family, and if she couldn't have them, or her mother, if she couldn't have her, she wanted someone to love her enough to make a commitment and she thought that family had. But they betrayed her. And that's unforgivable. I don't know how you could have a child from the age of three weeks to aged seven and send her on a plane and say, "You're on a holiday". She was too damaged when she came to me. Yep.

How did her brother cope? How did Jacob cope?

Same as me, he didn't. And then he, he was full of guilt. He felt it might have been him. Then he was angry with her, because she'd hurt him, hurt herself, hurt me. Mmm. He's still angry with her. And we both know that drugs are now playing a part in her life.

Has she met up with her natural mother?

Yes. She left here, but it - she lasted less than 24 hours with her mother. She doesn't speak to her now. She doesn't speak to her sisters.

Has she ever tried to find the family that rejected her?

She'll have nothing to do with them. I've found them. They located me through the magazine I write for. And I gave it all to Mary. And we'd been asking them to give her the photographs from when she was little to aged seven, because she felt that that was a part of her life that was now missing. And when she came here after 'This Is Your Life', I communicated with them and they did send that to her. So she's, she's got that now.

Did they express any feelings of guilt or regret?

They said it was a misunderstanding. That the Department misunderstood.

But they could have corrected that misunderstanding.

Of course. Of course. But it's yet just another child. Another state ward whose life's been ruined forever. Mary will never have a long lasting relationship.

When you say it's typical of state wards, have you seen any successful cases?

Oh yes. Yes.

What are the characteristics of the treatment that's given to those who do succeed?

Commitment. They're treated as their own. I've seen foster parents with children who are so disabled, so disabled, and they've taken them on as their own when the natural parents of those children couldn't do it. And they've made a lifelong commitment to those children.

Is that difficult for foster parents to do when they know that that child may be reclaimed by their natural parents?

Very difficult. That's why they're extra special people these foster parents. Because I've seen them in my court when they've had a child for three, four years, with maybe just let's say an alcoholic or a drug mum. And they've fostered long term. And they've put a lot into that child. Love, care, attention. And mum comes along and says "Well, here I am, I'm cured. Now I'll have my baby back". And most times they get the baby back. And I disagree with this.

What do you think the system should be?

I think the system should be you've got 12 months to show that you are getting your act together. If you're doing nothing in that 12 months, well let that child get on with its life by being with someone who's made a commitment to them forever.

But then what does happen if the natural mother, say, then does subsequently mature or whatever, and want to have contact? Would you give her contact?

Yes. I'd have an open adoption. Open adoption, yes.

What do you mean by that?

Where the mother can, can have access.

But not control?


How did you become a magistrate?

By receiving a phone call from Mary Gaudron, judge of the High Court. And Mary wasn't the judge of the High Court then. And she rang me and she said, "Did you see the advertisement in the paper on Saturday?" And I said, "No, what is it?" And she said, "They're looking for a children's magistrate". And this was at the stage where I thought, I'm sick of this. I'm going to do something else. Buy a coffee shop, anything. So I applied and I got the position.

Was that usual for a...

No, they all went on strike when I did it. [laughs] Yeah.

Why, what was the normal way that magistrates were recruited?

You just came up through the ranks. You started as a dep clerk, taking depositions. You worked behind the counter. And then you became a magis... - can't think of the term. Sorry... chamber magistrate. Then you were a chamber - sorry about that - then you become a chamber magistrate. And then you have to wait for somebody to die or retire. Then you became a magistrate. And in those days you didn't have to study law.

How could you be a magistrate without knowing the law?

Well they knew it, let me tell you. There - from working in the courts behind the counter, in the court as a deposition clerk, then as a chamber magistrate, yes, they knew the law alright.

It was like an apprenticeship?

Yes it was, yes. But that's changed now. So they advertised this position within the public service, because magistrates were public servants then. And there was nobody with the sufficient qualifications. Then they advertised outside and there was, there was truly nobody as experienced as I was.

Was it specifically to be a children's magistrate?

Yes. I was appointed to the Children's Court Bench. And we got less salary than other magistrates.

Why was that?

Children. [laughs]

Was - given that it was to do with children, was that an area where women were represented?

No. No, I was the first. I was the third woman to be appointed to the bench, and the first in the Children's Court.

The first woman to be appointed in the Children's Court?... What year was this?


Now, what made them go on strike?

I was a threat. I'd been appointed from outside. They were all saying, "We've got no tenure. What do you mean you're just going to appoint people from outside and we've done this terrible apprenticeship and waited for people to fall off their perch or retire or whatever? And now you're going to bring people in from outside".

And what was the result of the strike?

Absolutely nothing. I kept sitting. I sat in chambers. And then they saw I was no threat. I only - it was all I wanted to do. I didn't want to sit in the Adult Court. I just wanted to sit in the Children's Court.

Were they worried also then that you were a woman? Was being a woman a problem at all?

No. No, they thought it appropriate I sit in the Children's Court I think.

Among your fellow magistrates involved in the children's jurisdiction, how were you regarded by them?

Oh, really well, yeah. Because they all knew me. Because as a solicitor we were all on first name basis. Yeah, very well. But I'll tell you, the day I was appointed to the bench, the magistrate I spoke about who'd sat for 17 years in the Children's Court, he retired that day, the day I was appointed to the bench. And there I was, first time I'd ever been to a magistrates' dinner, a bit nervous, because these were people who put the fear of God in me because I appeared in front of them and I was still a bit frightened of some of them. I still am. And he stood up to say thank you for his present and said, "It is my belief that magistrates should be appointed from within the court system". Oh, I felt really good, it made my night, I tell you. I said, "Thank you".

What had made you decide that you should become a magistrate, that you should apply for this position?

Only that if it had been a magistrate in the Local Court I wouldn't have applied. This - to be magistrate in a Children's Court, I could bring about change.


Oh, gosh. I would get my Care Court separate from the Criminal Court, I would talk to kids, I would talk to parents. I would have - I would never, ever send a kid to a detention centre unless I had a full report, school report, family report.

So you were full of optimism?

Oh, yes.

Did you have any misgivings at all?

None. It was like taking on my foster kids. None. None whatsoever. I knew I could do it. I knew I'd make a difference.

What was it about you that made you think that you were going to be so different from the others?

Because I was dedicated. Absolutely and totally. I live a very ordinary life where really my work with kids has been top priority. I've never remarried. My social life it's - I've got very close friends, but that's it. And so I was able to dedicate myself to my work. And I did.

Did you feel that your experience as a mother and as a foster mother was useful to you?

I thought that my experience as an only child who'd been loved almost to death, a married woman who'd gone through the loss of their child, a mother, a working mother, a woman who was divorced. You name it. I'd had everything that life could throw at you. A diabetic. Octogenarian parents that were sending me loopy trying to care for them and visit them. Yeah, I'd had all of that.

Did you feel that that was more valuable to you as a magistrate than your legal training?

Of course. Of course. Constitutional law's got nothing to do with sitting in a kid's court. But by God, knowing who won the grand final does. That's far more important. Yeah.

So when you got to court, were you able to make these sorts of changes...

Well let me tell you, the day I sat, the first day I sat on the bench, I looked at a million forms in front of me and thought, I know why they're going on strike. I know why you should go through the public service. I don't even know which form to fill in. There were forms everywhere. So we still got, soon got that under control. And at first I was overwhelmed by the cases and the lack, the lack of alternatives that I had for kids. That they needed - and it wasn't there. I couldn't put things into place. And the best experience was when they sent me down to Wollongong. And I sat down there.


Wollongong is like Newcastle. There is a great community spirit. And down there was a district officer by the name of Morrie O'Sullivan, who is now the head of the Public Service Association. And he was the best district officer I'd ever come across. And he wrote these magnificent reports. And he and I were exactly on the same wavelength. He thought I was the best magistrate since sliced bread. And I thought he was the best district officer. And that experience of his knowledge from that side, and mine from the other side of the bench, and now sitting on the bench, was just so helpful to me.

[end of tape]

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