A case study of the impact of administrative frameworks on a group of intellectual disabled children admitted to an Australian mental hospital in 1952

Dr Gina Andrews Zucker1

1Centre for Disability Research and Policy, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia

This case study involves a cohort of 13 of the 86 children who were admitted to Newcastle Mental Hospital, NSW, Australia in 1952 due to their intellectual disability. The study examines the lived impact of Australian Commonwealth and NSW State administrative frameworks (i.e. laws and policies).

The study is a mixed methods qualitative research design informed by a social constructivist world view. Data sources included: government laws and policies; the children’s government archival records; 50 semi-structured interviews with stakeholders; and historians accounts. A systematic literature review of first-person accounts of institutionalisation is included.

Data analysis and findings, identified:

  • Commonwealth and State administrative frameworks set the course of the cohort’s lives in institutional settings. This regimented institutional existence was, and remains, at odds with the goals of international human rights instruments such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and domestic policies such as de-institutionalisation and personalised care.
  • Two key administrative interventions had a lifelong positive impact on the cohort.
  • The cohort experienced health issues throughout their lives.
  • Positive relationships with family, staff and peers played a vital role in the cohort’s lives.
  • Experiences of institutional abuse were identified.

The study’s findings include two conclusions. First, whilst institutional settings remain, such as those in which several members of the cohort are living today, the full implementation of human rights policies and programs will remain problematic. Second, Australia’s federalist system can both help and hinder the realisation of these rights for Australians with intellectual disabilities.


Gina is a career public servant with expertise in mental-health, disability, criminal justice, child-protection and social policy.

In 2020, Gina graduated with a PhD from University of Sydney that examined the lived experience of administrative changes on a group of children admitted to Newcastle Mental Hospital, NSW, Australia in 1952.