GINA Andrews was eight years old and sitting on her grandfather’s lap at his Sydney home when she pointed at a sepia photograph of her mother as a child.
“Mum was with a boy and I asked my grandfather who it was and he said ‘That’s your uncle’,” she recalls. “And I said ‘I don’t have an uncle’, and he told me to go home and ask my mum about it.’
Ms Andrews learned that the smiling boy in the photo was John Richard Gowlland, nicknamed Ricky, her mother’s younger brother.
Born with an intellectual disability after his mother had a virus in pregnancy, he was institutionalised at the age of five at Watt Street Mental Hospital, where he remained until about 14, when he moved to a facility on Peat Island on the Hawkesbury River.
“In a contemporary setting, he would have stayed at home and probably would have some work engagement and lived a full life in the community,” says Ms Andrews, who shared guardianship of Ricky with her mother and visited him often before he died in 2012.
“But [back then] he was a part of the generation of families that were institutionalised, and by that I mean the whole family went through the process of someone being put in an institution and losing that family member and a natural relationship connection.”
Ricky’s story forms a part of Ms Andrews’ PhD that examines a cohort of 12 children with intellectual disability who were admitted to the Watt Street facility and Stockton Centre between 1952 and 2010. The PhD examines the impact of institutionalisation and changes in law and policy throughout the course of the children’s life.
Ms Andrews will be in Newcastle from April 13 to 16 and wishes to interview people who worked at the Watt Street or Stockton facility, such as hospital superintendents, mental retardation nurses and domestic staff.
She underlines that most of the institution workers should be applauded for having the “best of intentions” for those in care in difficult circumstances.
Ms Andrews’ PhD is driven by the professional and personal: as a senior policy officer for the Royal Commission into Institutional responses to Child Sexual Abuse, she felt the “weight of appalling consequence of poor social policy and human carnage”.
From a human perspective, she seeks to understand her family’s story and “try and heal a part of it.”
She hopes her PhD will raise awareness of the human consequences of social policy interventions.
“The irony is, we are closing ... large residential centres and institutions under the NDIS but how will their residents fare?” she says. “It is an experiment and we don’t know what the intended, unintended and unanticipated outcomes are.”
For details email firstname.lastname@example.org.