A Conversation with Dee Michell

Dee Michell is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Criminology & Gender Studies at the University of Adelaide in South Australia. Dee’s research interests pivot around the themes of lived experience, marginalisation and transformation, and she publishes in the areas of Child Welfare Systems, Equity & Diversity, and Feminist Theology.

This book draws on archival, oral history and public policy sources to tell a history of foster care in Australia from the nineteenth century to the present day. It is, primarily, a social history which places the voices of people directly touched by foster care at the centre of the story, but also within the wider social and political debates which have shaped foster care across more than a century. The book confronts foster care’s difficult past―death and abuse of foster children, family separation, and a general public apathy towards these issues―but it also acknowledges the resilience of people who have survived a childhood in foster care, and the challenges faced by those who have worked hard to provide good foster homes and to make child welfare systems better. These are themes which the book examines from an Australian perspective, but which often resonate with foster care globally.

“The ethos of the work is epitomised in the authors’ avowed view that they ‘have been trusted with people’s stories’, with the aim ‘to represent them fairly and with dignity’ (1). The result is a nuanced and deeply sensitive history which, while examining numerous tragic case studies and identifying many shortcomings of the system, retains its objectivity, dealing with some myths (such as the supposed venality of many foster-carers), and apportioning credit where it is due… The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia should be required reading for everyone involved in the field of child welfare, for the salutary lessons it provides from both the past and, lamentably, the present.”

It’s a great pleasure to welcome Dee to the blog to answers some questions about her new academic book The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia. My favourite chapter is ‘Writing to Heal – The Emergence of Foster Care in Literature’.

Tell us of your journey as a writer.

I’m a lifelong and enthusiastic reader. One of my foster mother’s many complaints about me was that I “always had my nose stuck in a book” and I did. I probably got the idea of being a writer from my reading, but I was in my 20s before I articulated that, and 43 before I had a piece of writing published. In the intervening years I kept a journal, spasmodically. I’m embarrassed to think what’s in my old journals!

The impetus for getting published in 2000 was wanting a scholarship to do a PhD. I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to give it a go without that push, but I sure was happy when my article came out! From then I was published regularly, but it took me years to identify as a ‘writer’ and longer to fully appreciate that as an academic I get paid to write.

What made you choose to write about care experience?

It felt important to ‘come out’ finally as a former foster kid. I’d begun to do so at university; Women’s Studies encouraged women to voice their lived experience and by the time I’d finished my first degree I was feeling entitled to push back against stigma, even as stigma wanted me to continue hiding.

For the second piece of writing I had published in 2001 I talked about my experience as a foster kid. In 2000, I moved house, shifted away from the inner city where I’d lived for decades, and my eldest daughter left home. The disorientation of a new location and grief of separation from my daughter was compounded by old feelings of abandonment and I wrote about that in a reflection on the place of religion and spirituality in my life. I followed that up with another piece in 2002 which was a theological commentary on the metaphor of Mother for God. I’d gotten a bit mad that feminist theologians were banging on about how wonderful the divine Mother is since mothers are so wonderful and there was I with one mother who’d abandoned me, and another who was emotionally and verbally abusive. Anger has often motivated pieces of writing I notice!

I wrote a few other articles on my experience but, from 2013 for 3 years, I worked on a large research project on the history of foster care in Australia with Nell Musgrove at the Australian Catholic University. Ours is the first such history. We did the research because we’d noticed how most conversation about the ‘care’ system in Australia was focused on what’s now called residential care—orphanages, children’s homes, group homes. Foster care was neglected.

Working on this project moved me from thinking about foster care as a personal experience to seeing it in the historical context of a lack of welfare provision, a desire to break up rather than preserve non-conforming families, and an almost careless disregard for the emotional wellbeing of children snatched from family and thrust into the homes of strangers.

For the project we interviewed former foster kids as well as current and former foster carers. We plunged into the archives to investigate old policies and practices and befriend people who’d been in foster care when the system was first implemented. We measured how much media attention foster care received compared to residential care, and we read autobiographical and fictional stories about foster care.

Our book is the culmination of this research. It’s a disturbing story about the past and present of foster care, about social stratification and stigma, and about how the daily struggle to survive can lead individuals and governments to defer action on tough issues, like the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out of home care, and the under-representation of Care Leavers at university.

Orphans, those in foster care or children’s homes, often feel they are stereotyped by their past. How aware of this were you whilst creating your characters?

We were very conscious of the need to tell the hard stories of children being brutalised in foster care and ill prepared for life outside the system as young adults. But we also wanted to remark on the achievements of former foster children, against the odds and despite their lives being scarred by profound struggles and loss. I hope we’ve done this.

What is the meaning of the title?

The first part of the title—The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia—reflects our findings that since the institutionalisation of foster care here from the 1870s, there has been change but much has remained the same. For example, children still die in foster care, children are still separated from siblings and moved multiple times, and children in foster care are still subject to stigma and the careism of low expectations.

The second part of the title—Just like a Family?—reflects our questioning about how like a family foster care really is or can be. How many families reject and eject children whose behaviour they don’t like? How many families put children into respite care so the parents can have a break? How many families turf their children out the moment they turn 18, or even 21?

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

Currently I’m as obsessed as a wasp around a barbecue with telling different stories of people who’ve been in care, a variety of stories, not the same old devastating one of poor outcomes—and shame on the state for that—but ones about where Care Leavers make positive contributions to their communities. It might be keeping their own family intact and raising children who go on to university. Or it might be becoming Prime Minister of Australia and we have examples of that. I tell some of these stories through my blog, Real Life Super Heroes, and I’ll probably write up research articles while I’m figuring out how to create a book.

What #diverse characters do you think are missing from literature?

Something I’ve noticed while doing my blog is that many people who’ve been in out of home care have gone on to become activists and have created significant change in their communities. The Charles Perkins Centre for health research at the University of Sydney, the national Lowitja Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research and the Don Dunstan Foundation for social justice are all named after Care Leavers in recognition of their considerable contributions. I’d like to have more characters in literature like these great Australians.

If you could recommend one #diverse book for your readers, what would it be?

Sally Morgan’s My Place is an Australian classic. Published in 1987, the book tells the story of three generations of Aboriginal Australian women. Sally, her mother Gladys and grandmother Daisy. Both Gladys and Daisy were members of the Stolen Generation.

Sally grew up not knowing that Daisy was born on a cattle station and was the ‘property’ of the station owners. Nor did she know about her mother growing up in Parkerville Children’s home. The older women had internalised the shame of being Aboriginal and sought to protect Sally from that shame.

My Place had a profound and enduring impact on me; I can still remember where I was when I read it.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Anne of Anne of Green Gables. Of all the ‘orphan’ stories I would have read as a kid, Anne’s resonated the most. I was no doubt inspired by it to (eventually) go to university and to write.

What one piece of advice would you give young people leaving the care system today?

You have a wealth of lived experience you can call on to make valuable contributions to your community as an adult, and as many CEP already are and have done for decades. Work out how you’d like to live your life, find some mentors (in books, online, in person), and go for it, knowing you’re as capable as anyone.

Follow Dee on Twitter: @DrDeeMichell

(1) Jacqueline Z Wilson (2019), Australian Historical Studies, 50(1), 135-136.

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