• Survivors of the Stolen Generations say their unity has helped their healing. (NITV News)
Two decades after the Bringing Them Home report was released, victims and families believe Australia has not made enough progress to help the Stolen Generations and affected communities.
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25 May - 5:24 PM 

May 26 marks 20 years since the release of a damning report into the historical forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families.

Following a national inquiry, the Bringing Them Home report marked a pivotal moment in addressing the issues surrounding the Stolen Generations.

For countless survivors of the Stolen Generations, reliving the experience remains traumatic decades later.

Michael Welsh was eight years old when he and his six brothers and sisters were taken from their family as they waited for a train. One sibling was just six months old.

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Years of abuse

Now known to those around him as Uncle Michael, the Wailwan man tells SBS World News of being sent to the infamous Kinchela Boys Home, on the New South Wales mid-north coast.

"What happened to us in the place was something that I…I get emotional when I think about this,” Uncle Michael said.

“They abused us sexually and physically and mentally, and they starved us and flogged us into submission of 'we weren't black, we were white.'

“We were no longer to use our names, we were numbers. I was 36, and my brother was number 17."

Uncle Michael Welsh remained at the centre for five years between 1960 and 1965, before being released to live with relatives. But he was not allowed to reunite with his mother until he was 17, and he suffered through alcoholism and drug addiction as a result.

A shared trauma

Former Senator Aden Ridgeway, now a board member of the Healing Foundation, explains Mr Welsh's case mirrors thousands of others. That includes Mr Ridgeway's own father's story.

"I don't have any memories of the normal things that other families might take for granted - Dad being around, and being tucked into bed, or going out and kicking the ball or going fishing,” he told SBS World News.

“These things are absent. And, if anything, I think that his own experiences probably prevented him being able to fully understand and appreciate what was happening to him when he was in an institution.

“If anything, people grow up with different world views through those experiences. Some have resentment, anger, and others have the inability to form lasting relationships within family."

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Bringing Them Home

The forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children primarily happened between 1905 and 1969. The children of those times are referred to as the Stolen Generations.

In 1995, the Keating Government established a national inquiry. Indigenous communities were concerned general ignorance about the Stolen Generations was hindering the recognition and rehabilitation of victims and their families.

The 680-page Bringing Them Home report was tabled to federal parliament on May 26, 1997.

University of Melbourne Professor Sarah Maddison explains that, of its 54 recommendations, only a limited number have been implemented.

"The key recommendation from the Bringing Them Home report was, of course, for the federal government to apologise to members of the Stolen Generations for previous government policies of child removal that affected many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families,” Professor Maddison said.

“The other key recommendations related to making reparations, not necessarily in the form of financial payment -- reparations can take a range of forms.

“The idea of reparations is to recognise that a harm has been done that needs to be repaired in some way. But there was certainly an indication in the recommendations that there should be some form of compensation."

Saying sorry

The Prime Minister at the time of its release, John Howard, rejected the report. He also emphatically refused to apologise.

States and territories apologised; the first being South and Western Australia a day after the report’s release, the last being the Northern Territory in 2001.

But a federal apology was not issued until February 2008, by the next Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.

Yanyuwa woman and Northern Territory Senator Malarndirri McCarthy says the federal apology was crucial but ultimately insufficient.

"That was significant in our country when so many people gathered on the lawns of Parliament House to hear the Prime Minister of the day say the words,” Senator McCarthy said.

“But what was really critical from that point forward was action. And for many, many hundreds of First Nations people, that action still took way too long. We still lost so many elders, people who were very much a part of the Stolen Generations.

“Their descendants are perhaps left with the sense that this unfinished business will perhaps forever remain unfinished business. The length of time is destroying any hope for a better future for the First Peoples of this country."

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Remote communities still suffering

Senator McCarthy says she has not seen things in Central Australia so bad in her political career. She believes that is as result of the "work for the dole" welfare program.

"People are hungry, people have given up on the system, people have walked away from the many hoops that they have to jump through, in particular at Centrelink,” she said.

“People waiting from two hours to five hours in remote out stations and communities, where there are no mobile phone coverages, they realise that they really are at the bottom of the pile.

“Governments, and all political leaders, have to shake this and say no - First Nations people must be a clear priority."

To coincide with the anniversary this week, the Healing Foundation issued a fresh report to the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader. It shows most of the original recommendations were not implemented.

Aden Ridgeway explains that it also calls for a scheme to consider compensation.

"There are four key recommendations, and, really, it's an opportunity to provide a national framework to have a conversation with government to look at a collaborative approach to coming up with solutions,” he said.

“I think, working with the members of the stolen generations, it's their voice that we're trying to capture."

A way forward

Twenty years later, elders claim government agencies are still removing children from their homes and not letting their communities raise them.

Michael Welsh, remembering his own life-changing moment all those years ago, says it is the Indigenous people's pain and they need to be allowed to "fix it".

"At Central Station, Platform One, we were separated there from our other brothers and sisters,” Uncle Michael recalled.

“That was the ending of a life and the beginning of a trauma. How I've survived it, I've got no idea. It's just in the hands of the Creator."

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Professor Maddison agrees, adding a more compassionate and understanding approach is crucial.

“There is still a need to make that right; there is still a need both for financial reparations and compensation where that's appropriate,” she said.

“But (there is also a need) for more serious government policy attention on the ways in which trauma play out in families. And I think if we took that seriously, government policies would not look like an interventionist approach.”

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