Like all previous Aussie Mavericks, Barbara Holborow fought for the people. However, as an advocate for the rights of children, she stands alone.
It was the children who got to her. Always the children. The little boy who had every bone in his body broken, because the 2-year-old had walked in front of the television while the grand final was on. The baby who was murdered by her parents a day after they were reluctantly given custody. The drug-addicted mother who kept having children, although she knew they would be taken away. A female doctor would be able to assist the mother with birth control, she’d said to her, but the woman liked being pregnant, so that was that. It was the children who inspired her, who were always, until the end, her top priority.
When children’s advocate and child magistrate Barbara Holborow died, there was a condolence motion for her in the NSW Parliament. It read that she “had the heart and clarity to see what is wrong with the world and articulate that, and the courage and determination to make [her] vision a reality.” While she did that, she rubbed a lot of powerful people the wrong way. But she didn’t care. “As long as I’ve got breath in my body, I’ll go on being a thorn,” she said. And that makes Barbara Holborow a brilliant candidate for Australian Maverick number eight.
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- Aussie mavericks: Geoff Mullen – The man who stood against conscription
- Aussie mavericks: Juanita Nielsen – The martyred heiress of justice
- Aussie mavericks: Vida Goldstein – Women and children first
If you believe that negative childhood experiences are great in motivating people to do good when they are adults, Barbara Holborow’s youth was perfect. She was born in 1930, the child of parents who had already lost two babies and weren’t expecting another one. When Barbara arrived, they treated her like “the most precious little object” in their lives, which meant that they sat on her and didn’t let her out of their sights. She made a mental note not to do that with her own children, but was grateful for the love. “There was so much love poured on me that I’ve had enough love to hand out to other kids forever. There are very, very few kids that I’ve ever come across that I can’t put my arms around.”
At 13, she was diagnosed with diabetes and was for the first time confronted with the guilt children can feel towards their parents. “I’d made both the people, who I loved most in all the world, cry. I’d let them down. But I responded almost immediately to insulin.” Later on, when she started working with children as a solicitor, she recognised it in them too: “[children] never dob their parents in. They’re so loyal. More loyal to parents than parents are to them.”
Barbara’s mother took her out of school when she was 15. She went to business college, learnt shorthand and typing and started working as a secretary for a solicitor who had just returned from the war. After a few years, she got married and had a son, who died because of Barbara’s diabetes. They put her in a hospital for unmarried mothers whose children had just been taken away. She felt fortunate: “At least I knew where my baby was”. Again, it was an experience she would take with her in her job as a magistrate later on. After the birth of her daughter and the subsequent divorce from her husband, Barbara went back to work and back to school. First evening classes to get her high school certificate, then law at university. She was the only woman in her class and the only one to graduate at age 39.
The office she opened in Glebe took a while to earn its keep, because this was the very early 1970s and Glebe was still a neighbourhood full of poor people, who paid in cake or a pound of peas. To pay the rent she moonlighted as a bookie’s runner for a while, until she became more and more involved in family court cases and kids in trouble. Holborow realised that children needed representation and weren’t getting it. It would become her first campaign: to give children free legal aid, independent of their parents. She started harassing politicians, talking to the media and knocking on whatever door she could find. “The whole system was wrong. They came in like sausages, had a stamp put on their papers, and out they went … no one was talking to them.”
The local chapter of a bikie gang heard about it and gave hundreds of stuffed toys. They cared more about the children than the politicians did. “I just want a government who is sincere when they say they care about our kids… They don’t give a tinker’s cuss.”
So Holborow decided to put her money where her mouth was. In 1975, when she was doing pro bono work for the first women’s refuge in Australia, she met Jacob. He was an Aboriginal boy of about nine months, mute through neglect, who treated her like his koala mother from the moment he saw her. When Jacob needed a place to bunk for a while, Holborow volunteered. The child stayed and was the first of nine foster children. Although the local Aboriginal community was doubtful about a white woman raising a black child, it worked out well. Holborow told of a 5-year-old Jacob playing with a white friend who had only recently moved into the street. “My daddy said you can’t come into our house anymore”, the girl said, “because you are black.”
“Your daddy’s mad,” Jacob apparently answered. “I’m an Aborigine. I’m supposed to be black.” That was the moment Holborow realised that racism can be un-learnt. Professionally, Holborow took on another crusade at the same time. Throughout her experience as a solicitor, she had realised that it was not a good idea to deal with all children’s cases in the same court, reasoning that there is a difference between an attempted murder case or a teen drug pusher, and a 3-month-old baby with cigarette burns. She started advocating a special care court, for cases of neglect, not criminal behaviour.
In 1982 she was appointed to the children’s court bench. The first woman in such a court, an outsider, an activist to boot: her future colleagues went on strike to protest, but Holborow thought this was finally her big chance to bring about real change and took it in her stride. From day one she started making small, but significant adjustments. Family members got a waiting room, so they didn’t have to stand outside while a case went on. She started to talk to children and parents directly instead of through their solicitors, and told police offers that they weren’t allowed to wear their uniforms in court. She also instigated research, to find out not only what to do when something went wrong, but also how to prevent it. And, of course, she kept in touch with the media, telling them what she was doing and why. One day she got a phone call from the Minister, who asked her “Barb, what can I do to shut you up?”, which is where the care court and free legal aid came about. After a few weeks, the local chapter of a bikie gang heard about it and gave hundreds of stuffed toys. They cared more about the children than the politicians did. “I just want a government who is sincere when they say they care about our kids,” said Holborow. “They don’t give a tinker’s cuss.”
Also on The Big Smoke
- Aussie mavericks: Fred Maynard – Our first Aboriginal activist
- Aussie mavericks: Jack Mundey – Defender of the working class
- Aussie mavericks: Faith Bandler – Trailblazer for Indigenous rights
For the next ten years, Holborow worked tirelessly as a children’s advocate. As a magistrate, she handled dozens of cases a day, she raised her children and tried to speak to as many influential people as possible during her spare time. She loved the work, but felt her frustration growing. One day, it all fell apart, when she had to make children wards of the state because the Department didn’t want to invest time and money to help the parents cope. Holborow got angry and walked off the bench…then she really got going. Free to say what she wanted, she started travelling the length and breath of the country, talking at schools and universities, pressuring politicians, doing media. She became a patron for Hope for the Children Foundation, a charity where mothers mothered mothers who couldn’t mother, if you get my drift. She also advocated for the Mirabel Foundation, that takes care of abandoned children, and spoke to thousands of children through Step to the Future, a foundation that aimed to inspire kids by confronting them with interesting adults. Holborow went to Darwin, to help 350 Aboriginal and 150 white children write the Reconciliation Charter. She worked together with Father Chris Riley and gave talks to people in detention centres. Throughout all of it, she was passionate about a better future for children. “Always, we get back to money,” Holborow felt. For all the talks about ‘economic rationalisation’ and budget cuts. “What price the life of a baby? What, what price?”
The last of Holborow’s legacies was a special jail for first-time offenders between the ages of 18 and 25. She started advocating for that when she heard stories of rape and abuse and ramped up the pressure when one of her charges died in an adult jail. She got her way in the early 2000s. We know from the pictures inside Don Dale that not all is well for incarcerated children. We also know that over 24 children a year die from abuse or neglect, most of them babies. Without people like Barbara Holborow, it might be even worse. She is proof that one person saying “no” can mean “yes” for thousands. So hail to Aussie Maverick number eight: Barbara Holborow.