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Whatman Home abuse: Public apology still sought

Whatman Children’s Home was opened in 1925 on land given to the Salvation Army. A community-based child care facility was opened in 1977, and in 1985 the orphanage was closed. The main building was demolished shortly afterwards. PHOTO/FILE

‘Whatman had a considerable effect on how I felt about myself’

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Tears streamed down Janet Lowe’s face as she spoke of the injustices she had experienced as a child at Whatman Home in Masterton.

“I felt there that I didn’t matter to anybody,” she told the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care on Thursday.

She is still hopeful that the Salvation Army will make a public apology to be made at an event that victims could attend.

Lowe and her brother were admitted to Whatman Home in 1958.

She estimated about 75 other children lived there at the time.

She was 10, and she stayed there for about 2½ years.

Janet Lowe.

“Whatman looked and felt like an institution,” she said.

“It was a vast concrete structure divided into three main sections and was built like a large hospital.”

In the girl’s downstairs bathroom, there was no bath – just a foot bath, one toilet, and three hand basins.

On Wednesday nights, the children stripped off in the locker rooms and stood in a line waiting to go in the upstairs bath, which was in the middle of the room.

“There were no doors for younger children. A member of the staff would wash us two at a time. We would get in and out quickly.

“There was no privacy, and I was very uncomfortable when my body changed, having to wait with the younger kids. If one was at the back of the line, the water was most likely cold and dirty.”

They had no toothpaste or toothbrush but instead had a saucer of salt to clean their teeth.

Lowe told the Royal Commission about two staff at Whatman Home who were abusive to her emotionally and physically.

“I was very afraid of Mrs Irvine as she was unpredictable, and I was never sure how to act.

“If I did something wrong like putting a crease in the wrong place or making some other mistake, Mrs Irvine would hit me around the face and head or pinch me on the back or arms.

“She also threw things at me.

“She called me a stupid girl, told me I had an ugly face and was no good.

“When I cried, as I always did, she would call me sook-a-baby.

“She would tell me to stop crying and hit me some more.”

One time, Lowe was hit in the head so hard that she couldn’t straighten her neck.

“It was very sore, and I couldn’t sleep properly on it.

“When I went back to the laundry with my neck crooked … she pulled my neck round, which hurt unbearably.”

Another beating resulted in a loss of hearing in one ear.

Later in life, Lowe found out she had lost 30 per cent of her hearing in her left ear because of nerve damage.

Nothing was done when Lowe told supervisors of the incidents.

Another staff member would call Lowe useless and hit her.

“As well as the physical and emotional abuse … my main sense of Whatman was one of neglect,” Lowe said on Thursday.

“I had varicose on my feet which were excruciatingly sore in the winter, but nothing was done.

“I had boils and had to have sulphur and molasses, but kept going to school even though I couldn’t sit down properly.”

Lowe was not sexually abused at Whatman Home, but she remembered children talking about incidents they had experienced.

After her time at Whatman Home, Lowe was abused in foster care in Wairarapa.

“I think the way I was treated at Whatman had a considerable effect on how I felt about myself after leaving, and the way I responded to situations which arose in foster care.”

At the age of about 14, Lowe was raped and sexually abused by a foster parent.

“He used to say to me that this is what all fathers do with their daughters, but if you talk about it, people might not understand, and you will be sent back to Whatman.

“I was very afraid of this.”

In July 1962, Lowe went into the care of the Masterton Child Welfare Family Home

A report provided by a psychologist to the Department of Social Welfare said Lowe was suffering “some deep-seated psychological difficulties”.

Despite this, she did not receive counselling or mental health help from the department.

A staffer at the Masterton Child Welfare Family Home told Lowe to “get on” with her life and forget what had happened.

“I think the abuse and neglect that I suffered at Whatman and afterwards affected all aspects of my life,” Lowe said.

“I feel that when I went to Whatman, I lost my home, my toys, books, and other belongings, my school, and my friends.

“My first memories of being hit, and of being afraid, not liked, and not cared for, come from Whatman.

“I did not feel that I mattered at all to anyone there.”

This resulted in suicidal ideation which Lowe still feels today.

In 2000, Lowe settled a claim against the Department of Social Welfare which included payments of $27,500 and an apology.

In 2001, Lowe raised her claims against the Salvation Army.

Correspondence from the Salvation Army’s lawyer stated that Lowe’s claims against the body had been investigated and that people were “generally outraged” by them.

“Allegations such as children being made to queue for baths or being neglected, ignored, or not being allowed to participate in activities at school are all resoundingly refuted,” the correspondence said.

“At the end of the day, Whatman Home was an orphanage with between 60 and 70 children in the late 1950s-early 1960s.

“Life was quite different then compared to now. None of us should lose sight of this fact.”

On Thursday, Lowe told the Royal Commission that she felt bullied by this response and that it “made me mad”.

“Had they had any conscience or intent of putting things right, they would not have written that.

“They did abuse, they knew they’d abused, and they covered it up, and I want that out. I want it out in the open.”

Lowe later formed the Salvation Army Abuse Survivors group and told media that the group wanted a “public acknowledgement that the abuse happened and for the Salvation Army to say it’s sorry”.

She made an official complaint to police about her abuse at Whatman Home in 2003.

In 2005, a meeting was held between Lowe and the Salvation Army which apologised for the abuse she had suffered.

At that time, they believed a public apology was “completely inappropriate”.

She was paid $37,500, plus a $1500 contribution towards treatment for her hearing loss.

The Salvation Army has since made a public apology on national radio and also issued a press release, but victims were not advised of the apology in advance.

Lowe is waiting for a public apology to be made by the Salvation Army at a public event organised specifically for the purpose.

Yesterday was the last day that survivors of abuse in the care of faith-based institutions gave evidence to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care about their experience of seeking redress.

Statement from Salvation Army

The Salvation Army is deeply sorry for the abuse inflicted on vulnerable children who were housed in Salvation Army children’s homes.

As these historical crimes have come to light – as people have courageously told their stories – we have had a policy of listening, saying sorry and making appropriate redress for their suffering. We have endeavoured to pursue a survivor-focused approach in our responses to people.

The Salvation Army has a zero-tolerance policy for any offending of this sort. We are committed to doing our utmost to ensure the protection of all those in our care, including children, young people and vulnerable people.

We are working with the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care to better understand the adequacy of our redress procedures in helping survivors.

Anyone who has experienced abuse through their connection with The Salvation Army can complain to The Salvation Army or, if a criminal matter, direct to the police. People can also contact the Royal Commission on 0800 222 727 and speak confidentially.

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