Australian Biography

Barbara Holborow - full interview transcript

Tape of 11

Tape 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

So I spoke to the mother and father and, about how we accepted their culture, their clothing, their music, their food, their religion but we would not accept the cruelty to their children, what we perceived as cruelty to their children. And their little nine year old daughter came into my chambers and said, "Please, I promise I won't leave my cardigan in the library any more, can I go home?" And so often children felt they were to blame for why their parents were in court and the same thing happens with children whose parents divorce. So many times kids feel it is their fault that their parents have divorced. Very sad. And the parents blame them too. The parents blamed this little girl that if she hadn't complained about the pain in her back when she was at school that it wouldn't have happened.

I remember another little girl who was aged 15 who had walked home from school with a Christian boy and her father shaved her beautiful black hair half off her head because her brother ratted on her and told her father what she'd done.

And how did you deal with that?

With great difficulty, great difficulty. I couldn't think of anything crueller. This girl had that magnificent black thick hair that we Anglo-Saxons pine for and he had shaved it half off her head and encouraged her brother to take part in this. Oh, the disgust I felt, but again I was lucky that I was supported by his community in them speaking with him about this type of behaviour that won't be tolerated here.

Those are two of the communities that you came in contact with. There was a third.

Yeah, Tongan. Tongan community, lovely community, so many of them churchgoers with very, very good values. Somewhere along the line at this time - and I'm only talking about, oh golly I'm talking about ten years ago, 11 years ago - these boys formed gangs. The United Tongan Boys they were called, and they had some terrible wars with the Lebanese boys. Very ugly, yeah, and totally out of character for the Tongan parents. They found it very difficult to deal with because so many of their fathers were pastors and they were certainly all churchgoers. It was very, very difficult and they were finding it difficult to control these young boys in our environment. There was so much freedom. And it was - I realised how much freedom our kids have when I saw, when I saw other groups of people.

And what do you feel about that freedom?

I think there was a happy medium somewhere. I could understand that some parents, Greek, Italian parents would say, we don't want that much freedom for our children at such an early age. We want to know every moment where they are, we want to protect them and I could understand that.

At what age did you feel that it was reasonable for children to be given more freedom?

I think about 16, and of course we give it much earlier than that. I'm surprised even now when I, I go maybe to the pictures somewhere with a friend and I, I see groups of kids, 12, 13, out at night. I'm fearful for their safety.

What kind - did you find among the established, older Australian communities any gangs? Or did you only encounter them in these relatively newer ethnic groups that were coming here?

They - I found a couple. Pretty ineffective, pretty ineffective. They were imitating - I don't think they got to first base. These others were very formidable and I don't think they were as tough as them at all.

Were the gangs focused on fighting each other or were they also at war, as it were, with the rest of the community?

That's difficult to say but it really was territorial. They used to spray-paint their area with their initials and don't come inside that perimeter else there'll be trouble. And I saw one day myself, after I'd left the bench, I was in a line of traffic, near a railway station and I saw a boy as - I recognised as a South Sea Islander, I thought a Tongan but I could be wrong - being chased by a group of boys. Again I could have been wrong but I would have said Lebanese boys and they had ripped palings off a fence and they were beating this boy, outside the railway station. No one was taking any notice, just walking on. I drove my car up onto the footpath and at them and another woman ran across the road screaming, "You'll kill him, you'll kill him". I could only get so close to them, I'm tooting my horn and screaming, "Get out of there". Took no notice of me so I reversed and went straight to the police station, and they went around. And I rang later that evening to see and to give my name and address if they needed a witness, and they said, "No, the boy said he wouldn't be pressing charges". So.

Now, you saw the development of some of those ethnically based problems for children during the time that you were a magistrate and you saw also an increase in violence. What were some of the other trends that you were in a position to observe?

Drugs. I mean I would have had - at Minda - I would have had, never had a pusher in, in early '80s, mid '80s up to about '88, '89. I would have had - they would be smoking pot, that'd be the extent or they might be found with some on them. But, oh golly, at the end it was, it was pathetic, it was sad. I had heroin addicts come in before me who I feared that they wouldn't live through the weekend and I had nowhere to send them. Nowhere to detox.

Did that situation change while you were there?

No, no, we've still got very few places for kids to detox.

So what did you do with them?

I kept them in the detention centre for the weekend because their parents would say to me, "Please", they'd be pleading for help, "Please, he'll be dead, he's killing himself", and indeed he was.

Did the advent of drugs bring in a different type of parent to your court?

No, the only - well, there was a difference, it was parents who would never have been in the court because their kid wasn't committing any criminal acts. They were just shooting up. There were people there that without drugs would never have been there, and their kids were committing crime to get money to shoot up, and I lost so many kids, I went to so many funerals. And what made me so very, very sad was that every one of those kids who OD'd started on marijuana, and it's an insidious drug, marijuana. Kids won't believe you but it is.


Oh, you can't spend your life in Disneyland because life goes on. You've got to deal with your problems, and you've got to deal with the pressure of school work, you've got to deal with the pressure just of living and escaping for moments isn't going to change anything. And if you're not physically dependent upon it, you're psychologically dependent upon it, and then it does become a physical thing. And now of course the warnings that we received - and I can remember a magistrate who spent tens of thousands of dollars bringing people out from all over the world who had researched the effects of marijuana. He brought out pharmacologists, and that was the interesting thing to do, warning us and no one would listen to him. No, doesn't do any harm. He's now proven to be very right and if people had listened to him many lives would have been saved because it got to the stage with a lot of these kids that the marijuana wasn't enough, they then went on to heroin etcetera or anything because they weren't coping with their lives.

You were able in your Care Court to change the atmosphere of it, to make it a much more pleasant place to be. What about your goal of doing research?

Well that really got under way. The other point that I should have to made to you was that the bikies heard about what I was doing and they gave to the Salvation Army - and I always had a Salvation Army person in my court for assistance - they gave them hundreds and hundreds of big stuffed toys so that I was able to give every little person that came into my court a positive to go home with, because often these little people didn't go home with mum or dad but they went home with a big stuffed toy. I believe [laughs] that that wasn't repeated when I left the bench. None of my male fellow magistrates felt able to deal with big stuffed toys under the, under the bench. But with the research, yes, we were really making progress with post-natal depression because it was beyond my comprehension as to why ever a district officer would bring before me a woman suffering from post-natal depression and say she is neglecting her children. It was like bringing before me a diabetic who is having a hypo and saying she's a bad mother, she's a diabetic. Made no sense, it was a physical condition, and that's what we had to look at.

Who did you link up with to do the research? How...

All over the world. Yeah, all over the world.

So when you say you were doing research, you mean you were gathering information? So what sort of personnel were involved in the research?

Staff would collect it, very excited about what they, they had found and then there were people within the department, researchers within the department, that were assisting us.

And you were making available the statistics from cases and so on were you?

Well yes, starting to.

Sometimes one of the things that has been criticised about the legal and the court system is that it tends to be very tradition based and not very responsive or interested in research coming from other areas...

That all applies to the Children's Court. All of it.

So how did you manage to get these linkages and this work happening? I mean it needs funds...

Yeah, it does... And isn't that the tragedy, kids cost money, and your own kids cost money, and other people's kids cost you more but that's a fact of life. And it makes me so angry when I hear politicians say, with their hands over their heart, children are our future. Children are now. Those kids that suicide and those kids that OD have got no future, so put your money down now and stop talking about this John F. Kennedy, I wished he'd never made the statement, because they get behind it and they live off it. It means they can put kids on a shelf, "They're our future". Put them up there, we don't have to do anything until they turn 18 and then we'll convince them to vote for us but until then they cost too much money, let's forget about them. They don't do anything worthwhile. They'll pussyfoot around with this couple of things they've got on the burner at the moment, they'll pussyfoot around and this time next year it will be exactly the same. And what they're pussyfooting around with are things I said ten years ago. And don't think this is political. I am totally apolitical. I just want a government who is honest, sincere when they say they care about our kids because so often it is total Australian bullshit. They don't give a tinker's cuss. Only for a knee jerk reaction, that's all. Put in a bandaid and then don't do anything for a while, it'll come alright. I just wish John Clarke would do a series on juvenile justice. It would be brilliant.

But you did manage to get some extra funding out of them. You did manage to get your Care Court ...

Not enough.

And then you did manage to get financial support for the research that you undertook. How did you do it?

Wouldn't take no for an answer and I can be, I can be an embarrassment.

Through the media.


So how did you learn to use the media? When did that begin for you, Barbara, and could you talk about the way...

Well, the media started to seek me out and the penny dropped eventually that they were using me to fill in little gaps that they might have on a program. I could use them for big gaps that I had in my program and they were always available. They all liked a good story and so we used each other.

And there was one particular encounter that was quite spectacular and that was the one with the Sixty Minutes program where you invited them into your court.

Yeah, first time ever.

Could you tell me how that all happened?

That was - Cliff Neville, who was the producer, and I have, you know, wrote two books together - we still laugh about it. Truthfully, I'd never watched Sixty Minutes and he came in and I was so busy in Minda. I was smoking 50 cigarettes a day, I was as thin as a whipping post. I never walked anywhere, I ran everywhere, and my mind used to be going click, click, click, click, click. And they said, "There's a reporter here, wants to speak to you". And I said, "Well, he'll just have to sit here while I'm signing these documents. I can't do an interview". So lovely Cliff, who is the most patient, softly spoken person, came into my court and said, "I'm from Sixty Minutes", and I'm still writing and saying, "Oh yeah", "and you've said this and you've said that", and "Oh yes", "And I'd like to do a segment for Sixty Minutes. Would you let me in the court?" And I stopped signing and I thought, "Oh, is this guy for real? Or, you know, what is it?" So he said, "Could I sit in your court?", and I said, "Sure, but don't you use any names. You don't have a photographer?" "No" - because it is a closed court and you can only come in with permission of the magistrate. So I let him sit in until morning tea and he was nearly jumping over the moon. He said, "I've got to do it". He said, "Is it like - is this a special day?" And I said, "No, I do 30, 40, 50 kids a day, multiply that by five. Yep, I do over a couple of hundred a week". And he said, "Every week?" I said, "Every week". And so I said, "But I'm, I've got no time [coughs], sorry, to get me, to get you permission". And he said, "Well, we'll do all of that". And they did. Now, district officers in particular weren't pleased at all, and a couple of district officers went out of their way to make trouble over it. But they just fell flat on their faces because no names were mentioned, every kid's face was blotted out, or it was from the back so you couldn't identify them, and it was absolutely a stunning program and it was seen in Africa, South Africa. It was seen in Hong Kong, and it was seen in New Zealand. So it was a very popular program.

And what were the most important messages you were wanting to get across to the public, and in a way to the politicians, in that program?

This is a kids' court. Listen to how many facilities I've got to use to support this kid. There are none. There was none. I had no alternatives, I had no programs, nothing and that really got across.

So in the time that you had been a magistrate you had been able to change the physical nature of the court, you'd been able to bring in a different atmosphere but you were still frustrated in a way that you hadn't expected to be when you went in there so optimistically. What were your frustrations in essence?

I wasn't able - not only to help a kid - I wasn't able to help families. And one particular case caused me to close the book and I said, "No more, I am not going to take money for this job any more because I'll be a hypocrite and I'm already a liar and they are not two aspects of my character that I want to promote. So I'm out of here. I'm off this bench because it's all become a big living lie".

And what was the case?

The case was a man and his wife who were intellectually disabled, not very much but they were intellectually disabled. Both of them at birth had been given away by their respective parents. Both had been raised in institutions. They'd never known family life, never. They had married in a church with the blessing of some priest or minister. They had three dear little girls. When they came before me there was absolutely no sign or report that they had ever ill-treated those children, nothing. It was because they were intellectually disabled and the little five year old had gone to school in her pyjamas and her night-dress on a couple of occasions and they weren't as clean as they could have been. So quite properly that principal reported this. Now when the DOs moved in to see what was carrying on, they saw that they weren't really coping that well but why would they? They'd never lived, never, she'd never had a mum. I mean all of us who are mothers have learnt from our own mothers. Men find this very difficult to understand. They, they think that the moment that baby pops out and its feet are on the ground and running, that, that you know what to do and how to do it. You don't. You learn by trial and error or from your mum. And this poor woman had never had a mum, neither had he. So I thought, there's no problem here, where's the problem? She was crying uncontrollably. And I said, "Beryl why are crying? Come on, why are crying?" I haven't spoken, and she said, "Because you are going to take my babies away". I said, "No I'm not, don't be silly. You've never ill-treated your children". She said, "No, no". I said, "You haven't hit them", she said, "No". And I said, "What we are going to do is we are going to get you help. That's all you need. We need someone to show you how to cook and how to shop" - because they really didn't know how to shop - "and how to keep house and we need to get the second little one into pre-school". And they couldn't afford that and I said, "Well, we'll find a way".

And the other little one was too young, but I said, "I think if we could get you into a mother's group". She said, "Will they be nice to me?" You just wanted to take her by the hand. Anyway, she said, "You won't take my babies", I said, "No, I promise I won't take your babies away". So three charities came in to help and it was wonderful. She learnt, they learnt to shop, they used to go shopping with one of the charities and all of this, and the little girl was turning up to school spick and span, and Beryl was learning, but it was going to take a long time, you couldn't - there was no magic wand stuff here, and I knew that she'd waver off a bit and think it's all too hard, but anyway she was doing alright. So I knew I had to finish it off, you can't just go on indefinitely. So I asked her if I could have the three little girls while we did what we call a P and M test on them, which is a physical and mental survey. Now I wanted to see if these little girls, they were a little bit behind, if that was because of lack of stimulation or was it hereditary, genetic, I didn't know. So I said, "There'll be lots of access and I'm asking you a big favour, can I have them for four weeks?" And could she see them? "Yes". And this was the trust between us. She gave me the three girls. And the test came back, the kids were okay. It was just lack of stimulation because they lived in a terrible unit, like a cement box, nowhere for the kids to play. They watched TV when they came home, that was all there was for them. We were unable to get them a housing commission place. There was a three year waiting list at that time. So we all sat down, and I said, "Well I'm going to end this matter now, off the bench, I'll finish it next Tuesday, these are the orders I intend making, are there any objections?" "Yes." "What are the objections?" "The charities cannot keep this up." I said, "Not at all?" And they said, "Well, they can do a bit here and a bit there but this has been really intense". And I said, "Of course, we all knew that". And I said, "Well, what does that mean? What has the department got to offer?" "Well, we don't. This is not our role." I said, "You're not asking me to make these kids wards?" And they said, "It's the only alternative, ma'am". I left the bench. I made them wards and she stood at the door, pointing, and she said, "You promised". And I thought, "I'm not doing this any more, I'm not doing this any more". I had no guarantee those three little girls were going to grow up in the same household because it's very difficult to find foster parents to take three little girls. That mother had never raised a hand. Never raised a hand. That wasn't what I wanted, that wasn't what I was about. So, I walked off the bench. I got in touch with Sixty Minutes. I thought if there is a message I'm going to send here, they can do it on my last day, and so they did. And I walked off the bench and Doctor Clarrie Gluskie approached me and said, "Will you be patron for Hope For The Children?". And I said, "What is Hope For The Children Foundation?"

And he said, "We have mums who have raised their own children, who volunteer and we put them into homes where the children are under five and we mother the mothers. We show them how to cope, how to". And if I'd only had that, I would not have had to have made those kids wards. And I said, "Well, how long would you stay in a family, Clarrie?" And he said, "For as long as it takes". And I said, "What if it took three years?" He said, "We'd stay for four". I said, "Well, you've got me". And so I work now 26 hours a day for Hope because I believe in it and it's a service that we can provide.

So the overwhelming thing that you took away from that time on the bench and the options or lack of them that were available to you, was that, is it correct, am I correct in saying, that the things that were missing, the things that you could call education situations in which people could learn how to do things better?

Not only that. There are some people who are unable to do it alone. You know, we're not all perfect. And they need help and they'll always need help. They just do their incompetent best and sometimes it's not enough. So what do we do? We take away their kids? Their dignity? No, we hold our hand out.

But not knowing how best to parent was one of the issues of things that were lacking, there were other lacks that you felt. Lacks of alternatives that you had as a magistrate to deal with the problems. If you had to list those what would they be?

Oh golly, there's a hundred of them. As I've said, I'd start education in schools in parenting.

I'm talking here about the law, about as a magistrate, sitting there as a magistrate - we'll get to talk about you know the things for children later - but as a magistrate in the law as it now stands, when you came onto the bench you were able to fix certain atmospheric things. You were able to fix a style but you still had the law to deal with and what was available officially for you to do. Now, what was available to you? You could - what could you do with kids?

I could follow the Crimes Act which is the same for kids as it is for adults. I had better remedies admittedly for kids. I had no confidence in the detention centres where they may end up because my view was that you needed, if you sent a kid to a detention centre, you needed to do three things. That detention centre needed to educate, to rehabilitate and to punish, that was why you sent them there. I didn't see that any of that was happening, still, still isn't, still isn't, and that's why a lot of magistrates don't send a kid off to a detention centre when they should, because they know it's useless.

Why isn't it happening? Why aren't they educating, rehabilitating or punishing?

I know that the Director-General that we now have in Juvenile Justice is a good man, I know that. My understanding is that the changes aren't coming about because of the culture within the detention centres. Very, very strong. We're not able to bring about change. They will go on strike if they don't like it.

What kind of a culture? What are they there for?

Well, to me a lot of people that are there aren't qualified to be dealing with young people who need almost one-to-one and we don't see that happening. We don't see them getting the attention that they need. And we need people who aren't just jailers. We need people who themselves are educated and have the knowledge of kids behaviours and are able to deal with those and I don't mean you've got to be, have a university degree. I, I saw officers at Minda where we had the detention centre attached to the court, who probably didn't get their School Certificate, wonderful with the kids, the kids would eat out of their hands and they would encourage them. And I saw others walking around with keys hanging off their belt like a jailer. The kids hated them and they hated the kids as far as I could see. That all needs changing.

Is this a problem though of recruitment? I mean are they paid enough? Is there enough...

Of course they're paid enough. Sick of everything you do has got to be money, money, money. No, and you've got to have not a - you've got to care, you have to care about kids, you really do. And you want to be there to - you, to help them over this hiccup and to rehabilitate them. And if you can't, get out and go and get another job.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 8