Australian Biography

Barbara Holborow - full interview transcript

Tape of 11

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When you became a magistrate you felt that you could really make a difference to things.


What in fact happened when you became a magistrate? Were all your objectives reached or...?

Oh, no. That's why I resigned in the end.

So could you tell us this - we had yesterday the picture of this optimistic woman, accepting this appointment, and feeling that there were certain things that she didn't like about the system that, if she were a magistrate, she could change.


Now, what things were you able to change?

Well when I was given my own court then I was able to set down what it was I wanted. Now I went into a court - Minda - it had no interior waiting room for the families. When it rained they had to stand in this courtyard and get wet. There was nowhere to go. And when I mentioned to the people who ran Minda I couldn't understand how this could be. And they said, well the court's for the young people, it's not for their parents. So that was like a red rag to a bull. And so I communicated immediately with the Law Society and said that, "I'd worked tirelessly for children and their families. So could they come to the party financially and could we furnish an indoor room?" Well the moment I did that of course the Attorney-General and every one of his departments said, "But we're prepared to do it". And I said, "Well that's great, do it". So we were then - had this internal waiting room where people could come in out of the rain. We were given a roof over the courtyard. All of those things that don't seem very important, except that the people who came before me at that court were people from a low socio-economic area. Most of them had been victims all of their lives. And here they were being victimised again even waiting to come into court. And not being treated with dignity. And I insisted that they be treated with dignity. I didn't care that they were an unmarried mum with a complaint of neglect on their baby. There was a reason for that. Many reasons. And we will treat them with dignity until we find out that they should be treated otherwise. If we do. So the atmosphere of the court changed. And very soon it was a happier atmosphere. Because you didn't have wet children and parents coming in. And truly, they stood in water and the solicitors got the feeling, and they donated indoor plants. And it really became a great spot. Then I got in touch with a local church, and they sent women along who sold cups of tea and coffee for ten cents, and soft drinks for the kids. So we had a happier atmosphere.

Was it just the physical things that changed the atmosphere, or did you conduct the court in a different way?

At the same time I conducted the court differently.


I spoke to the kids and called them by their first names. I spoke to the parents. And a lot of times - and there were solicitors who hated this - a lot of times I addressed them without speaking to the solicitor, because I just felt that solicitor didn't have a grasp on what this case was about.

Had you ever seen that in a court before?

No, no. And I know that a couple of solicitors went off the roster because of it. But I didn't care. It was my court and I was going to run it as I thought it should be run.

And up until you started doing this, were children in Children's Court never addressed by their, by their first name?

Hardly ever. Hardly ever. We then had a Chief Children's Court Magistrate called Rod Blackmore. And he and I worked hand in hand. We changed it that police did not wear uniform in our courts. Because kids felt intimidated by police with their gun and everything else. People didn't stand in our court, except when we came onto the bench. But after that solicitors didn't have to stand, they could sit and talk.

People of course would have been worried no doubt, the traditionalists, that this would result in a lack of respect. Did you find that?

No. I found I got far more respect, also from the parents. I had thank yous from the parents as they went out of court. I got letters saying thank God we've got a magistrate who understands our problem.

Were you always treated with respect?

No. [laughs] I certainly wasn't, no.

What were some of the occasions when you weren't treated with respect?

There was a certain age group of girls who I knew exactly what to expect from. They were 14, 15 and they would slouch down in the seat, fold their arms across their stomach and look down at their feet. And if I got a, a nice word or even a glance I was scoring well, because it was the "Harumph" and you know, "What do you know you old tart?" Yeah.

How did you deal with that?

I won them over.

How? How? Mothers would like to know.

Well, some mothers would say to me, "You're getting more out of her than I've got". But there were other kids I couldn't win over of course. And I'd have to try another tactic until I did. And I didn't care if I brought them back to court five times, I would win. Some I never did. But mostly I did.

So you remember these sulky 13 and 14 year old girls. The stereotype is of course for the boys of that sort of age to sometimes be aggressive. Did you ever encounter any aggression in the boys in court?

Yep. Oh yeah. Yes.

What form did that take?

Well, some of them became physical and one boy threw this typewriter at me. This little runt of a kid. I had a microphone thrown at me. I've had the Bible thrown at me. None of them connected. I, I was pretty nifty at that time on my feet, I could dodge but I never allowed them, not even a hiccup in mid sentence as this came flying through, I just went on and said, "I hope tomorrow's a better day for you". Yep.

Tell me about the typewriter. That seems like a heavy object.

[Laughs] It was unbelievable. I couldn't have lifted it. It was an old Royal typewriter. Had no ribbon in it, hadn't been used for 50 years and they never threw anything out in the public service of course, so they had it on - in the witness box but at the side, and this kid, he was a little 11 year old. Skinny, scrawny, you wouldn't have thought he could have lifted much more than a toothpick and he picked it up as if it was nothing and hurled it quite a distance at me, and it came through the air, in slow motion, yes.

Let me take you through some of the physical changes that happened in other courts as well that you were involved with, the structural sense that you were involved in. You altered Minda so that it was really unrecognisable to a lot of people. How long were you at Minda and what happened that made you move on from there?

Well, I went to Minda from '82 to '84. Then Yasmar was in a terrible mess. Now Yasmar was a court that dealt with crime and neglect, but mainly neglect, up to the age of 15 and the older ones came to us at Minda. And I moved over then to Yasmar... [INTERRUPTION]

So what happened when you went to Yasmar?

Well, when I went to Yasmar - which was a glorious old home, previously owned and built, I think, by the brothers Grace of Grace Brothers fame - we, there were no amenities there. If you needed a cup of tea, if you needed, and, something for the kids - and remembering people were there from nine in the morning, sometimes 'til five at night, with little children. It was pretty austere. So, communicated again with the local church and got the ladies auxiliary to come in but there were no drinks or anything of that kind. So I was president of the local junior soccer club and we used to buy for our canteen in bulk, so I took cartons of soft drink to sell and the profit went back to the soccer club. So who was going to sell these drinks? So I went over to the shelter and asked for their most trusted kid. Now the most trusted kid was about to be released next month, had a pretty horrendous record and they said, "Wll, no he's our most trusted. You've got to be joking, he'll rip you off, he'll do this, he'll do that". And his name was Jim. I called him James. I gave him some respect. Set James up with drinks and chocolates and stuff, made up bags of lollies, and James never ever diddled me out of a cent. If he had a can of drink for himself, he'd come in and say, "Is it okay if I have a can?" He'd come in and he'd say, "Don't buy any more of that ginger beer, it's a bad seller". He was just wonderful and only last year I received a letter from James inviting me to his home to meet his wife and his four kids. It was just lovely. And he said to me then that was that the break he needed. That somebody trusted him because up till then nobody had. So. And then the changes came that because it was mainly care more than crime, I was able to make one day that I did nothing else but care matters, then the next day defended care, the next day criminal matters, the next day defended criminal matters, and the last day a hotch potch, and then that was how I got it back into some semblance of order. And that's when I knew I needed to get a Care Court where I dealt with nothing but neglected babies, because we needed to research.

You'd noticed that there was a real difference in the way these things should be handled even back when you were a solicitor and, and campaigned a bit for it. Now you were in charge of a court that had both, what did you do to get your Care Court?

Well, firstly I spoke to my other fellow magistrates. The juvenile magistrates met once every three months and we had two days together. One day communicating with each other and one day visiting institutions and what supports we had. And so I suggested this to them and they said, "No way, there will be no way that any magistrate could sit full time doing nothing but care. It's too draining". And I said, "I can" and they said, "Well, you do it. We don't, we don't want to do it, you do it". And I said, "Well, will you give me one day a week?" and they said, "Yep". And I said, "Well, I'll do a list in a Criminal Court one day and somebody gives me a day off". [INTERRUPTION]

What was the difference between you and the other magistrates? That - why was it that they really didn't like doing care cases?

I think it's the difference between being male and female. I, I think that I had an empathy with a lot of the mothers. I could see where they were coming from because but for the grace of God goes every one of us. I mean rarely can a magistrate understand why a woman snaps and shakes that baby to shut it up. She loves that baby, she doesn't mean to hurt it but in a fraction of a second she can lose it with a baby that's cried all day, all night and she can't stop it from crying, and yet there is nothing wrong. She's fed it, she's - it's warm, it's clean and in the end she just grabs it. [INTERRUPTION]

I am interested in why it was that you were so interested in care.

Because I knew that those littlies that I saw in that care jurisdiction, I saw when they were criminal age in the criminal jurisdiction, so you didn't have to be Einstein to know that if we could correct what was happening in those first few years, even months, this child, this family, would have a chance in future. But if we just let the neglect go on and continue then again history would repeat itself and this child would be in the criminal jurisdiction in a few years time.

So you felt the care work was much more important?

Absolutely. Absolutely because there's no book anywhere, there are no laws anywhere defining what you should do with a child who is neglected. In crime I can look up, you get six months, you get nine months, you get nothing, you get probation. But that's not there in the, in the Care Court and that's where it needed someone to investigate, to research, that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to set up a court where we could research and become some authority on post-natal depression, schizophrenic mums. Could heroin addicted mums ever be good mums? Could a prostitute be a good mum? I wanted to do all of this because these were matters that came before me every day.

And did you get your Care Court?

Oh yes. I got my Care Court.

How did that happen? Tell us...

It took years, it took years. I went, I, I sat through four different ministers in that jurisdiction, Minister for Family etcetera and whenever they saw me coming they used to disappear, they just went. Now Minda was closed in '91 and through an error all the children's courts except one were brought to Burwood Local Court because they had estimated wrongly how many courts they could fill and at great expense they had two empty courts. So some bright spark who knew nothing said let's move Minda and Yasmar into those two courts. Now the outcome was, we were taken there screaming and yelling, the outcome was that the perpetrators who'd sexually assaulted a 13 and eight year old, whatever, were in the same area waiting for the case to be called as the victim. It was impossible, absolutely impossible. We had uncontrollable kids climbing up stairs and threatening to jump off balconies. It was awful.

This was a brand new court, wasn't it?

Yes, but it was built for adults, not children. It wasn't child-proof, at all. And so I had made an order for this little guy, he wasn't quite three, and when I made those orders, I always used to give them something. I used to sit them on my knee, talk to them, while I wrote out the order. I'd written that out and this little kid and I were getting on fairly well, so that was that. I was going down to have my morning tea and I got into the lift to go down to morning tea. This little fellow saw me and ran towards me just as the doors were closing, and I, he would have been, he wasn't heavy enough to keep the doors open and so there would have been a terrible accident. I ran forward and I got him before he got to the door and I then didn't go down to morning tea. I got on to every radio station, TV station, newspaper and told them. We told all these people not to bring us here and today we nearly had a death on our hands, and of course that was just fodder. So that night at home here I had a phone call from the then Minister and said, "Barb what can I do to shut you up?" And I said, "Well it's funny you should ask me that, give me a Care Court". He said, "What's a Care Court?" And I told him. So he gave us two courts. He gave us a Care Court at the Local Court at Campsie that had been closed down so they could come to Burwood and they gave us Lidcombe old court for the crime and I said, "And besides this we want to have input into the design", which they gave us. First time in history they allowed a magistrate, they allowed the people who worked in the office and solicitors to have a say and it's a glorious court. The only court of its kind - it's certainly in Australia and we don't know anywhere else in the world.

What's glorious about it?

It concentrated on neglected kids. We had Laura Ashley prints half-way up the wall. It was painted in Federation pinks and blues. We had a crèche for the mothers, we had a kindergarten for the kids where the kids were entertained all day with toys and we got them, we had some play things outside for them, swings and stuff. And we had a very special room which nobody could understand I wanted. It was a room with bars and big thick locks and that was for the prisoners who were brought from jail to be part of the statement that I made about their child's future because I thought it was wrong that they were never there. And when I did get them to come they would have to sit in a prison van and they wouldn't allow the kids into the prison van because they were frightened it could be a hostage situation. And so I said, "Right, give us this special room from which they can't escape and you can feel satisfied". And that's what we did, and the prisoners were able to have access to their children all day if they wanted to. Worked very well. I have to say I went out, and this is against myself, I went out and bought a clock for the courtroom which was two Friesian cows nodding as the minutes went by, nodding, nodding. It lasted 48 hours before it was knocked off, so I didn't buy another one [laughs], yeah. And I remember one of my very first cases and this mother from whom I had taken five separate kids, she kept having a child and I had to take the child away because she was totally incapable of caring for a new baby. She never blamed me, she always blamed the district officer and she came into this beautiful court. We had little chairs for little people. We didn't have, you know, they didn't sit right up and I wasn't sitting up like Her Majesty, I was almost at eye level with them and nobody who spoke to the children was allowed to stand up. All my court staff, knelt down so that they were at eye level and the kids didn't feel as if they'd been disempowered. And so this woman came in to these beautiful chairs that we had, sat down, looked around, she looked at me and she said, "Geez, Barb you've done well for yourself this time", [laughs] and I laughed, and then I took her baby away, but that was okay. She hated the district officer but not me.

Why couldn't she look after her babies?

She was a drug addict. It wasn't that she didn't love them, she loved them, but we tried. Oh, golly we tried, and when I suggested to her maybe if she went to a woman doctor and explained her predicament that the woman doctor would be able to assist her with birth control if she wasn't prepared to go the full bit and - so she said, "Oh no, Barb, I love feeling pregnant. I love those babies". The tragedy was all these babies were given away to different people and these babies, well, I don't know if they ever knew who their half-sister or half-brother was.

Looking back over the whole period of the different courts that you were in and the different places that you had to dispense justice, were there fashions in crime or in...

Oh yes. Oh, you can look back and see it. In 1982 it was big to blow up letter boxes, big. You wouldn't get a kid who would bother to blow up a letter box today. They'd blow somebody else up but they wouldn't blow a - the crime, the violence increased, when I left violence had increased. I, we had any violence in '82.

And to what did you attribute that?

I can't say. Everything, everything. Videos, TV, working mums, dads out of work. Oh, so much. It's still going on. The violence is still going on. And a lot of ethnic groups felt threatened and so they ganged together and then another ethnic group would gang together. We had some terrible gang warfares, really, really fatal gang wars which I'd never seen before, with one ethnic group against another. But of course you weren't allowed to say that because you had to be politically correct, and I was called in, there was an enquiry by a parliamentarian and we were all asked to go in and make a statement. Well, when I went in the room was full of TV cameras and everything else, because being outspoken they expected me to say, say it as it was, but I couldn't because if I had I would have been asked not to sit on certain ethnic races because I was prejudiced. But if I had told it how it was, maybe some good would have come out of it. But I just, I, I had to be politically - God I hate that expression - politically correct.

Well, I think it's a difficult expression because people mean different things by it, don't they? What do you mean by it?

Well, I, I can't single out one race, but I could have singled out three that were giving me gip in my court and they were three distinct races - there was no use arguing that it wasn't, they were - and they all had different problems that just weren't being met.

Maybe if you had said it but framed it in terms of the fact that it was to do with failure on the part of our community to deal with those problems.

Well, it wasn't. It was a failure on their community, that was the terrible part. Their community was so busy being established themselves that they didn't have time for the kids who were off the tracks, like, well, my kid's alright, let them get their act together. But as with the Vietnamese kids, so many of them came out here without parents, came out here with total strangers, a mum or a dad had said to a stranger who was able to come, "Please take my child with you to give them, the child a chance", and when the child got here, they were on their own.

So what did you see in the Vietnamese community and in the kids that came before you that made you really concerned about that community?

I saw the gangs and the drugs and by golly it was, it was frightening, it was frightening.

Could you give me an example?

Ten year old on his way to school, selling - I don't know what you do - heroin - I don't know what you do with a, a pusher aged ten, I've no idea. Take him home I suppose. I don't know. I couldn't send one to a detention centre and I was asking for, and not getting, assistance from the community.

How did you ask for assistance?

I communicated. I'm patron of Nguan Song, which is the South East Asian Youth Homeless, and so through them and their contacts I was able to ask for help, but it was getting too big. These, these whoever these people were that were supplying to these babes in arms they would then use another ten year old kid. I mean, there was no stopping it.

Were they using the ten year old kid because there wasn't a lot that could be done to the child...

Absolutely and the kid had never been in trouble and who would expect, in our society, to see a ten year old pushing. And yet when I saw these kids, it, they were just like any other ten year old. They were just - it was an abuse, a terrible abuse.

Did you have any way or did the police have any way - could the court and the police together find who was using them?

No, wasn't my role anyway, it was a police matter. It was big business, very big business.

So tell me Barbara, when a ten year old was brought before you as a pusher, what would you do?

I adjourned it. I adjourned it to another magistrate. I, I truly had no answer. This wasn't where I came from. I, I couldn't work with a ten year old pusher, what do I do? Say "Darling, this isn't what you do at ten, you do not push drugs on your way to school"? Couldn't do it. And there is such a high work ethic with the Vietnamese. It was very difficult for me to get mum and dad to court because they, they're such hard, diligent workers and it was a cultural thing that I, I had to learn. I was on a big learning curve. I'd learnt with other kids from other ethnic groups but this was a new one to me, altogether. But I had the same difficulty with Moslem kids because I was female and their father brought them to court. The father didn't want to see their son dealt with by a woman. That was another problem I had but I didn't pass that one. I dealt with that problem head on.


Adjourned the matter so that the mother could come to court. I wanted her to hear what I was saying as well as the father. Only to be told that she doesn't come to court. But she did, because I said what the consequences were if she didn't. And I don't know that that did any good, I really don't. But sometimes I dealt with it alright, sometimes I didn't.

You said that there were three groups that you noticed had particular and different difficulties. You've described the Vietnamese, you've talked about the Muslim communities and the problems there for you. What other problems were associated with the Muslim group? What sort of things were the kids coming in for?

A gang of them were on the trains taking gold necklaces, gold watches, gold chains. We just couldn't get the ringleader. Everyone knew who the ringleader was but he was never arrested.

Because he managed to avoid it?

Because there is a very closed community when it comes to the police. There's no co-operation and no respect.

And what would you think would be the answer to that Barbara?

Oh, again - and I've seen it working now and it's working very, very well - the Arab Muslim community now look after their own. They're, they're teaching their young, they're there showing them better ways. Yep, and helping the parents. It's very difficult for parents and I found this in relation to the punishment that they would deal out to their children when I was in the Care Court, very violent punishment, and yet when I would be saying that we would not tolerate that type of punishment, I would be told by the mother, sometimes through an interpreter, that I didn't know what I was talking about, that that type of punishment had been going on for thousands of years and that it was traditional.

So what would you say?

Not in this country it's not. We'll accept your religion, your culture, your food, your music, your dress. We'll accept all of that, but we will never accept what we perceive to be cruelty to your children. So find another method and it had better not be physical. I mean I'm talking about a child, a nine year old little girl who'd been beaten so badly because she left her cardigan in the library at school, that blood was drawn. [INTERRUPTION]

[end of tape]

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