Australian Biography

Barbara Holborow - full interview transcript

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Barbara, could you sum up for me, as a magistrate, when a child was before you what options were available to you in the criminal jurisdiction, what options were available to you to do with that child? And what you would have liked to have had available that wasn't there?

Well, firstly I could have dismissed the charge, or then I could make it so that if he was good for a certain period of time there would be no record of that crime. There were all those options, sentencing options until you got to the last one which of course was detention, having tried all others. The one I would have liked to have done was for there to have been programs such as wilderness programs where the - not only did the young person go away on a camp but also that a parent or parents could participate at the weekends in those camps, because I've seen them work wonderfully with single mums. And I would have liked that. I also would have liked education for some of these young people because so many of them truanted. Also there was no assistance at home with their education and it just got too hard, so it just snowballed, so they didn't go to school in the end because it was too hard. I would have liked to have seen that. I would have liked to have seen some recreation for them to attend to get some skills to socialise, a lot of them didn't have any social skills at all. Some of them had abilities in various areas, they, and they were never developed. I would have liked that to have occurred and I would have liked to then to have had a juvenile justice officer to supervise them who himself having worked with the young person could see what was missing in that young person's life, and for that juvenile officer to also to have some alternatives and some facilities to enhance this kid's life. See 47 percent of our male population in New South Wales went through our juvenile system. That's telling, isn't it?

Of the male prison population?

Yeah. Mmm. So, something's lacking.

Barabara, this all seems such common sense and so obvious when you describe it like that, why doesn't it happen?

That's, that's why it doesn't happen because that's all it is, plain common sense. And this isn't just coming from me. This came from every juvenile magistrate who did sit, and is still sitting, will tell the government or anybody who wants to listen, it is plain common sense. But do they? No, they don't listen. You know at the moment it's proposed in relation to the care matters that millions and millions of dollars be spent assisting families with young children, right? Two million has been sent, spent on research. We did it all at Hope, we've done it all, it's being redone, rehashed and it's still not off the ground two years later. One phone call to Hope and we have your research, certainly, and they'd be up and away, or why not give Hope two million dollars and let us get on with the job? Bungling. A lack of understanding.

Now you've summed up the criminal - what you'd like to see happen in that jurisdiction. Now in the care area...

I'm very strong about what I want in the care area.

What was available to you in the care area as a magistrate?


You could take the child or not?


And if you took the child, what happened to it?

God knows. I never knew because once I made a decision, that was it. If I put the child into the care of the minister, that was it. It was never relayed back to me except maybe through a caring district officer. "Mrs Holborow do you remember little Troy that you made a ward, you know, remember? Had a broken arm?" "Yes I do." "Well, now he's got another broken arm. The foster father broke it." I mean that was happening. The majority of foster parents are super but there was a group of foster parents who were in it, I don't know why, who were not super foster parents. What I wanted to happen, and again common sense, absolute, was that the solicitor who appeared for that child, represent that child for the first year of wardship and then that solicitor in a way could supervise that the care that was given to this child was in the best interests of this child, and that's the catch phrase. Whatever it was that I did for that child, it was supposedly in its best interests. Now you can't tell me it's in the best interests of a child to be separated from its sibling because no one will take two kids. That's not the way it goes, that's not our Australian way, so the children grow up separate and apart. I'm getting letters now six years after I've left the bench from all over Australia telling me how their children have been taken away and how they're in separate homes. And not just separate homes, they're in - hundreds and hundreds of kilometres apart.

Isn't it supposed to be DOCS', the Department of Community Services, job to look after the welfare of the child during its wardship?... Why do you think a solicitor would do a better job?

Mmm... Because it would look after them. I, I've had a foster child, Mary was a foster child. The district officer visits whenever. District officers at the moment, and for a while it's been the same, they don't have the time. They just don't have the time to look, look after foster kids. They're, they don't have the time to make enough visits on kids who've, who've been notified as being possibly abused. That's why we've got the deaths that we have.

Would solicitors be in a better position to do it?

Of course, it's their client and they've got the trust of their kid, and if the little, it's a littlie who is unable to give instructions - well, these solicitors are mature, family, nearly always family people themselves, they would know in an instant if their client's needs were being met and what was happening was in the best interests of their client. And it would take the burden off the district officer.

Who would pay them?

Oh they can work that out, I don't care, I don't care who pays them, whether it's the Commission, whether it's DOCS. You know, always we get back to money. What price the life of a baby? What, what price? It's going to save them hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep them out of jail in the long term, we're building more jails, and yet by spending that amount of money in the first five years, they wouldn't have to build their jails. And with fostering, let me tell you, I would not allow parents to come back every six months, every year and make application to take their child back. Let the child get on with its life. If the parents can't get their act together, well so be it, but when foster parents love and care for a child, unreservedly and at their own expense, financially, emotionally, physically, look after a child for three, four years, to then have that child taken away and returned to maybe something that is going to work out with a mum whose prior drug history is frightening. What are you doing to that child? What are you doing? You know, they're not chattels these kids. They're people. They're not owned by a mother, they're not owned by a father. You never own your child. You do the best. You make a life commitment. If you can't make that life commitment then let somebody who can make it for your child.

So what chance would you give to a parent that had failed as a parent to pull themselves together? How would you provide for that?

Well, let's go back, let's go back to when that mother found she was pregnant. For nine months she's housed exclusively that baby. She has housed it herself. What has she done in that nine months? Maybe nothing. Maybe she's just continued shooting up heroin. Maybe she's alcoholic. When that baby is born, it could be high, it could be addicted, it could be fitting. Comes to court crying, "I want my baby, I want my baby". What's this woman done? What does she think she's produced? A cabbage patch doll? She's produced a little human being. She's already had over nine months opportunity to do the right thing, now she needs help to get off the drugs. Give her that help. Plug in as much as you can, support to give her that help to do it. But in the meantime, put that baby into a long term foster placement because it will take at least 12 months for that mum to get her act together. If at the end of that 12 months you review the situation and that baby's thriving and mum has done nothing, then in my view those foster parents would be able to adopt that child with an open adoption, which would mean the mother could always visit and she wouldn't be totally cut off, nor the father. But if at the end of 12 months she is showing that she really is trying, well then when she makes it, and she's kept up the access so that the baby has got some bonding, some attachment, and she's had a say in the child's medical conditions and all that's happening in the baby's life. She's shown an interest, she wants to mother this baby, well, then she should have every opportunity.

You cared passionately about all of these things during the whole of the period that you were a magistrate.

I still do.

And you spoke out about them and you went to the media which wasn't what was the normal form. What were the consequences for you of your outspokenness. Were you in trouble?

Yes, yes, I was. I was in trouble from the Chief Magistrate because he was a very reserved person and really did not think this was the role of magistrates. Well, the children's jurisdiction needed someone to speak on their behalf, someone to champion their cause. Other magistrates were quite proud of me, I know the juvenile magistrates were. Other magistrates thought, well, this is what happens when you bring someone from outside. They don't understand that you don't make noises like this, and I could take that or leave it. I mean they didn't pay for my breakfast and I didn't socialise with them, so I can promise you that it didn't matter two tinker's cusses to me. All that mattered to me were my kids.

What sort of things did the chief magistrate say to you to admonish you?

[Laughs] He was terribly polite about it but very stern. I don't want to see your face on TV, I don't want to read your name in the paper. I can understand that but I couldn't stop. My cause was too great, I couldn't stop just because other magistrates didn't do it.

He didn't really have any sanctions either that he could impose on you for...

No, no, so a couple of outspoken magistrates said to me, "Why do you go? You don't have to". Maybe I was just a very well brought up child, I don't know, but when he sent out the cry to go in, well, I went.

Were you worried at all - I mean did you feel yourself affected, you know, being told off, you'd, you'd always been the good girl at home, and now you were rebelling against authority and stepping outside the line?

Oh, this was a bigger cause. This was a cause biggerer than the chief magistrate or me, bigger than both of us. This was kids. This, this was - you've got to realise, I'm an Australian to the marrow of my bones, to the marrow of my bones, and these were Australian kids. It mattered not that they'd come from another country, this is now their home, they're making it their home, and we had to make it right for them because, you know, if you don't have strong families, you don't have strong communities and if you don't have strong communities we don't have a strong Australia.

When you did the Sixty Minutes interview and you were asked why did you do the work which was obviously taking its toll on you as you've said at the time and was using up, you know, a lot of you, and you were asked why do it? And you said because I love it, I love it. And yet later you did resign. What had happened apart from frustration - it was obvious there even while you were saying you loved it. Could you explain that?

Well, everything had deteriorated. Economic rationalisation, they were closing down all the alternatives. Closing down group homes, closing everything down for money, for economic rationalisation which was Mr Greiner's catch cry. You tell a two year old, "Darling you can't go home with Mummy and Daddy today because of economic rationalisation". They don't understand it and frankly neither do I. I don't understand it. So I became more frustrated and I believed - and I still do and I think I am - I'm doing more off the bench than I could do on it. I was so restricted on the bench. And what I felt was very unfair but I guess it was a way of keeping me quiet - I didn't have to retire, I wasn't old enough and I would have done it for just my fares, they wouldn't have had to have paid me - I said that I would love to go on circuit and appear as a juvenile magistrate in country courts because it's very difficult for country magistrates to deal with the local kids, especially if that magistrate is living in that area. Whereas I could fly in, deal with the problem, see what the problems were, assist to overcome them maybe with the city fathers, with a few suggestions and fly out again. But there was no budget for that. No budget, my eye. So do you know what happens now? Country councils invite me to go up and advise them. Oh look, I'll continue till the day I can't get any more breath into my smoke-ridden lungs, although I've given up smoking 12 years ago. As long as I've got breath in my body I'll go on being a thorn.

What does Hope For The Children do? How does that operate and what is your part in it now?

Hope For The Children. We have, as I said, mothers, volunteers. They are trained by our co-ordinator and they go into homes where mum, for whatever reason, is not coping. She may be a married mum with post-natal depression which hasn't been diagnosed. She may be a mum with a first baby who just won't settle. And what is happening in our community now is mum is no longer just round the corner. Mum could be interstate, she could be overseas, she could be working. She's not on the end of the phone to help with that baby. So she goes in - now we don't go in to do housework. We go in to mother the mothers. Sit down, have a cup of tea or coffee, and say, "What and how can I help?" Usually the mother says, "Can I sleep?" And so she says, "Yes". And so then this volunteer deals with that baby, gets to know that baby. Maybe the woman can give a day a week, maybe it's a day a fortnight, maybe it's three days a week, it just varies. Some women can give an afternoon a month and they are asked to take women, mothers with young children to medical appointments, to dental appointments, whatever, appointments that they otherwise wouldn't be able to keep because they have got these little ones and it's all too hard. And a lot of mothers will put off their own needs because it just becomes too difficult and they're too tired and they become quite ill.

How many women do you have doing this?

Hundreds. We now, we started when I was there, started we had one at Sutherland, and we now have Sutherland, St George, Inner City, Armidale. I'm going to Adelaide in a couple of weeks, we're opening in Adelaide, Victoria, Noosa.

And what's your role?

I'm the patron.

But what does that mean you do?

Means I go around and I speak about Hope. It is, it was started by Rotary, funded, and we look for some Rotary funding within the area but we also need of course funds, although the women are all volunteers, we do have to pay a co-ordinator and an office and stationery. So it costs sixty thousand a year to run a network but some places - now in Newcastle, they really want us up there. We already have accommodation waiting for us, we've just got to move in and get a co-ordinator, and we'll be in Newcastle. There's a real need.

And this intense teaching role that you've also seen the value of, or wanted to have for the family that caused you to resign, is that there in the Hope system as well?


Via these women?

Via these women and they show these mums how to settle the baby and if they don't, can't, can't themselves settle the baby, then they take the mum to maybe the children's hospital or to an area health sister and say, "These are the problems, now what do you suggest?" Now, some babies have a reflux problem, and the mum's never heard of a reflux problem, she doesn't know that you need a Taylor [Frazer] chair, she doesn't know how to feed, all because her own mum's not around.

Who do you - have you worked with in this work with children? Who are some of the people that have been keen in making things happen for children outside the system?

Hope, you mean.

Yes, and, and I was thinking about your relationship with Father Chris Murphy and some of the other things...?

Chris Riley.

Chris Riley, sorry, Father Chris Riley.

Yes. Right, okay. With Father Chris Riley because he, he knows how I am because I, when I sat at Minda, and I'm going back now to '88, he'd just left Boys' Town and he set up in Marrickville and if I couldn't get accommodation for a young boy, I'd ring him, and I'd say, "Help, I've got a kid, who's been living in the garbage bins, clothing bins, I need accommodation for a week". He'd say, "I'll be there in five minutes". He never let me down. He used to sleep on the floor so that there would be a bed for that kid, and then of course he just developed and developed till now he's got these farms going and we worked together a lot. We both have the same philosophy and that is that every child is the responsibility of everybody and both of us live by that. We both do. Different denomination, different sexes, but we both live by it. That's my involvement with him, and Centre Care at various places such as Forbes - oh a lot of country towns - that I'm involved with. And I've got a lovely invitation from the kids in Forbes to receive their debutantes, from the kids themselves, and they've written their names down. Please will you come? Of course I will and I'll love it. And they've got no money to fly me up there, I'll use my Frequent Flyers, and - but it'll be beautiful.

What are some of the other links you've got into this network of care for kids now?

Just everywhere. I mean people invite me to Darwin, went to Darwin for the Reconciliation Charter to be prepared by 350 Aboriginal kids with 150 white kids from all over Australia. Very proud to be part of that, very proud. And unfortunately they had one last year and - down at Geelong - but I couldn't make it, I would love to have been part of that.

Since you've left the bench you've also developed a bit of a media career.

Yes, a bit chequered. Yes, yeah I was on Midday, I loved that.

So what's been the nature of that? Tell us about that chequered career, you know, how it came about, and how it developed and...

Well when I came off the bench - and of course it was big news everywhere - I was pretty hot property. People were ringing up, they wanted me on this show and they wanted me on that and then I became a regular on the Midday Show and that was great. But then that finished. I hope I didn't put the kybosh on it, but it finished, folded up. Geoff Harvey kept calling me the wicked witch from the west, and I loved, I loved the crew, I loved, you know, Tracey and - oh all of them, I loved working there. My favourite media though is, is radio and I was on radio for five days a week but then my voice wasn't right for that, and so I was after, I don't know, a month or five weeks, taken over by a professional person who'd done radio for many years and then I shared a spot with her on Wednesdays. And then...

That was on 2GB?

That was on 2GB, yep, but unfortunately I never really lost being in control, like magistrates are, and it just became a bit one-sided, so I don't work there any more. So that was a bit chequered but I love radio, I really love radio. I love reaching those people out there. You don't know who you're reaching but you know people are listening and you hope that you're interesting enough that they will go on listening. [INTERRUPTION] I do a lot of interviews on radio. Western Australia particularly, South Australia do a lot there.

And you've done a little bit of print journalism too, haven't you? What form does that take?

Well, we wrote two books and they're - the first book, the name had already, was already there, it had been canned about, in about '88, when a little girl, dear little girl, whose mum was very young and was showing signs that she needed time for herself to grow up really. She'd had no chance. She'd been brought out here at 14 for an arranged marriage that never occurred and she'd given birth to this little girl before she was 16, so she needed time to grow up, and I took this little darling into my chambers and explained to her that I had a magic wand in my bottom drawer and explained that there was a lovely mummy and daddy who had a swimming pool, who would love her to go and live with them for a little while, and that if she really thought she'd miss Mum, that I could go back into court and talk to Mum and we'd make arrangements. This little girl's eyes never left my face, and I thought this is, this is great but I better wind this up because I've got her attention now and she's not, she's only, not four yet and her concentration will go. So I said, "Darling, is there anything you want to ask me?" She said, "Yes". And I said, "What do you want to ask me?" And she said, "Where did you get those tracks on your face?" So that was the name of the first book, 'Those Tracks On My Face'. And I thought, "God, what a good title for a book". And so the producer of Sixty Minutes, Cliff Neville and I wrote that, and that was a great success. That, each chapter was a day on the bench and people liked reading about that. And then...

Why did you collaborate for it?


Why? Why didn't you write it yourself?

Because if I write, it's, it's like a composition, you know that you write at school. It's stilted, it's - and Cliff and I know each other so well, he, he could write as I speak, because people didn't know the set up and they've said to me, "Oh as I read the book it's you talking", but it wasn't really. It was me talking me, but Cliff was able to put it like that. And then the second book, a friend who I hadn't seen for many years, rang me up and said, "Look I've been away researching and all the research I've done confirms what you've been saying about the first three to five years, can we have lunch?" So we did and she gave me pages and pages of thousands of dollars worth of research and I said, "Oh this is so interesting, so fascinating". She said, "It's yours". I said, "Oh God", she said, "It's yours, do something with it". So I gave it to Cliff and we wrote the second book.

And the point of the second book is?

[Laughs] It was to show, it's become the bible for some places. To show that it is those first years that you've got to plug in to the moment your baby's born if you want to have a confident child that's going to be able to love and accept love, and I said to be confident. All, all the qualities that you want in a child you've got to put those in in the first three years so that when you separate at five, say, going to school, that baby knows that you're going to be there when they come home, or somebody's going to be there who can brush down their wounded egos or listen to the good things, and they go out of your home representing you and they know that.

[end of tape]

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