Explainer: the Stolen Generations

One of the darkest events of our nation's history is the forced removal of thousands of Indigenous children from their families.

NITV takes a look at the Stolen Generations, the impact of the removal policies and the fight for an apology, healing and compensation. This explainer draws heavily on the Bringing Them Home Report, which provides a more detailed account of the Stolen Generations including personal testimonies.


 

The above image is a photograph from Cootamundra Girls Home which ran in NSW from 1911-1968.

Who are the Stolen Generations?
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The Stolen Generations are the generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were taken from their families and communities across the states and territories of Australia, as a result of government policies.

The majority of the Stolen Generations were forcibly removed between 1869 (the establishment of the Victorian Board for the Protection of Aborigines) and 1969 (when the NSW Aboriginal Welfare Board was abolished), however removals occurred before and after this time period.

Many of these children were fostered out or adopted by white families, or brought up in orphanages, homes or other institutions run by governments, churches and welfare bodies.

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Terminology
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The use of the term ‘stolen’ to refer to the policy of removing Aboriginal children may originate as early as 1915. Patrick McGarry, a member of the Parliament of NSW objected to the Aborigines Protection Amending Act 1915 describing the policy of removing children from their parents without having to establish a cause as giving the Board the power `to steal the child away from its parents.'

The phrase ‘Stolen Generations’ was first coined by Peter Read, Professor of History at the Australian National University in a paper ‘The Stolen Generations: The removal of Aboriginal children in New South Wales 1883 to 1969’ published in 1981.

“When I wrote ‘The Stolen Generations’ in 1981, child separation was scarcely talked about” Professor Read said in an introduction to the updated paper.

Use of the term ‘Stolen Generations’ grew over 1980s and in the lead up to the 1997 ‘Bringing Them Home Report’, as awareness about the removal policies continued to grow.

There are some critics of the use of the term ‘Stolen Generations’, including Keith Windschuttle and Andrew Bolt. The ‘Stolen Generations debate’ over the acceptable terminology for the policies of removal form part of the ongoing public debate on Australia’s history.

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The Policies
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Removal

The removal of Aboriginal children from their families was an official government policy in Australia until 1969, and in some states it continued on into the 1970s. However, the practice had begun in the earliest days of European settlement, when children were used as guides, servants and farm labour. The first 'native institution' at Parramatta was set up in 1814 to 'civilise' Aboriginal children.

As the laws regarding Indigenous people were different in each State, they had different policies for separating children from their parents and Aboriginal Protection Boards or Government Departments which oversaw these policies and the institutions involved.

Some of the policies that were adopted by various states included orders that children over 14 must go to work or be moved into homes and other children were removed simply for 'being Aboriginal' or because they were of mixed descent.

As many Indigenous people were segregated from white society on controlled missions, if families refused to move when they were ordered to, the Protection Board would threaten to remove their children. Children who were labelled neglected by authorities (earlier by a court order and later simply through the station manager) or orphaned were also removed.

Some of the reasons given for removal in NSW include:

  • 'being Aboriginal'
  • 'being 14 years'
  • 'at risk of immorality'
  • 'neglected'
  • 'to get her away from surroundings of Aboriginal station/Removal from idle reserve life'
  • 'Orphan'
  • 'to send to service'

The children who were taken were often sent to institutions far from their homes. Maps of the institutions in each state are available through the 'Tracing the History' section of the Bringing Them Home Report.

Assimilation

A policy of assimilation was also used in an attempt to integrate Aboriginal people (particularly those of mixed heritage) into Australian society. Many children who were forcibly removed were not told that they were Aboriginal or were told to reject their Aboriginal heritage and forced to adopt white culture. In some cases their names were changed and they were forbidden to speak their traditional languages. 

The policy of assimilation was based on the assumption of white superiority. It suggested that Indigenous people should be allowed to “die out” (the dying/doomed race theory) through a process of natural elimination, or they should be assimilated into the white community.

Assimilation was first adopted as a policy in 1937 by the first Commonwealth and State Conference on ‘native welfare’. In 1951, the third conference affirmed that assimilation was the aim of ‘native welfare’ measures.

Treatment and Abuse
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Many of the children who were removed as part of the Stolen Generations understandably suffered from psychological and emotional trauma as a result of their experiences.

Children were not only separated from their parents but many were later separated from their brothers and sisters who were also taken. As it was not uncommon for children to move through multiple homes or foster families this compounded the separation and made it more difficult for families to be reunited.

Children who were removed often had little or no contact with their families and in some cases parents were prevented from visiting institutions and letters were destroyed or censored further limiting contact. In some cases children were told their parents or siblings were dead or that they were given up voluntarily when this was not the case.

"In an attempt to force `white ways' upon the children and to ensure they did not return to `the camp' on their release, Aboriginality was denigrated and Aboriginal people were held in open contempt" - The Bringing Them Home Report

Many members of the Stolen Generations were not permitted to use their traditional languages or participate in any kind of cultural activity, leading to a loss of traditional knowledge and cultural identity.

The living conditions in homes and institutions were often harsh, with limited resources, strict routines and arbitrary punishments.

The funding per capita for some Western Australian Aboriginal settlements and homes was less than the funding per capita for the state's prisons.

Children living in homes or institutions were particularly vulnerable to sexual assault, abuse and exploitation. Of 502 members of the Stolen Generations interviewed in the Bringing Them Home Report, 1 in 10 reported being sexually abused, either in homes or on work placements arranged by the Board.

Many children received little formal education in homes and institutions and were sent into employment on stations as farm hands or for domestic work at a young age. Many of these children also failed to receive basic wages for their employment.

To read more about the abuse that took place in homes and foster families read about 'Children's Experiences' in the Bringing Them Home Report and the 'Stolen Generations Testimonies'.

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Fight for justice and compensation
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The members of the Stolen Generations have had a long and difficult fight for justice and recognition of the impact that their treatment has had on their lives.

Apologies

One of the key recommendations of the 'Bringing Them Home Report' was that all Australian Parliaments 'officially acknowledge the responsibility of their predecessors for the laws, policies and practices of forcible removal'.

While most States were quick to issue formal apologies for their involvement, the wording of the Federal Government statement given by John Howard that expressed 'deep and sincere regret' for the injustices suffered left many people frustrated. Ongoing lobbying and awareness led to a formal apology on behalf of the Australian Government being issued by Kevin Rudd in 2008. 

Churches and other welfare institutions also issued apologies for their involvement after the release of the Bringing Them Home Report.

Compensation

Another key recommendation was that monetary compensation should be provided to those who were forcibly removed.

After a few cases failed to gain compensation through the State Courts, the Human Rights Commission and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre held the Moving Forward Conference in 2001. The aim was to explore ways of providing reparations to Indigenous people forcibly removed from their families.

In 2002, the first member of the Stolen Generations was awarded compensation in the NSW Victims Compensation Tribunal for the sexual assault and injuries she suffered after authorities removed her from her family. Bruce Trevorrow was the first member of the Stolen Generations to successfully sue a State Government for compensation in 2007 as a result of his removal from his family as a baby.

Several States have since set up Stolen Generations compensation schemes including Tasmania (2006), South Australia (2015) and New South Wales (2016). Other states have issued small ex-gratia payments to victims.

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Ongoing Removals

The Bringing Them Home Report also made note of the high rate of contemporary separations of Indigenous children from their parents.

Attention was again drawn to this issue when the number of Indigenous children in "out of home care" increased by more than 1000 between June 2013 and June 2014 according to the Productivity Commission. Groups such as Grandmothers Against Removal continue to protest against the removal of children and argue for Indigenous control of Indigenous child welfare.

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Healing
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Healing programs have been made available in an attempt to mend some of the wounds inflicted by the treatment and abuse suffered by members of the Stolen Generations and the inter-generational trauma that affects their children and grandchildren.

"Just ‘cause we’re not walking around on crutches or with bandages or plasters on our arms and legs, doesn’t mean we’re not hurting."

"It never goes away. Just ‘cause we’re not walking around on crutches or with bandages or plasters on our arms and legs, doesn’t mean we’re not hurting. Just ‘cause you can’t see it doesn’t mean ... I suspect I’ll carry these sorts of wounds ‘till the day I die." (Confidential Evidence 580, Queensland. Bringing Them Home Report)

Link Ups

Link Up Services were established between 1980 and 2001 in all states and territories to help reunite families separated by the policies that caused the Stolen Generations. Many of these services also offer counseling and social, emotional and wellbeing services for members of the

Bringing Them Home

In 1995, the Human Rights Commission was ordered to begin a National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families.

The inquiry collected over 500 individual testimonies from members of the Stolen Generation as well as submissions from Indigenous organisations and other groups.

"The experience of the Shoah Foundation and of this Inquiry is that giving testimony, while extraordinarily painful for most, is often the beginning of the healing process."

The final report contained many excerpts from these testimonies alongside the findings of the inquiry.

The Bringing Them Home Oral History Project, which ran from 1998 to 2002, also served to collect and preserve the stories of Indigenous people and others, such as missionaries, police and administrators involved in or affected by the process of child removals, so that this history could be accessed by future generations.

Healing Foundation

The year after Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations, the Australian Government committed $26.6 million for the establishment of a Healing Foundation to address trauma and healing in the wider indigenous community, with a focus on the Stolen Generations.

The Healing Foundation supports many different types of healing projects including link-up services, survivor's groups, documentary projects on the Stolen Generations, cultural and leadership programs and the Indigenous Veterans’ Centre.

Timeline
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1814 – The 'Native Institution' was set up at Parramatta to 'improve' and 'civilise' Aboriginal students through instruction in reading, writing and religion, training in manual labour for the boys and useful needlework for the girls.

1869 - The Victorian Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines was established by the Aboriginal Protection Act of 1869.

1883 - The Aborigines Protection Board was established in NSW to manage reserves and control the lives of the estimated 9,000 Aboriginal people in NSW at that time.

1886 – The Western Australian Aborigines Protection Board began operation.

1897 – The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act was introduced in Queensland giving the Chief Protector appointed by the Government extraordinary powers over Aboriginal affairs.

1898 – The WA Aborigines Protection Board was abolished and all Aboriginal affairs were dealt with through the Aborigines Department. Under the Aborigines Act (WA) passed in 1905, the Chief Protector became the legal guardian of every Aboriginal and ‘half-caste’ child under 16 years old.

1909 - The Aborigines Protection Act (NSW) gave the Aborigines Protection Board legal sanction to `to assume full control and custody of the child of any aborigine' if a court found the child to be neglected. It also allowed the Board to apprentice Aboriginal children aged between 14 and 18 years.

1911 - The Aborigines Act (SA) was introduced giving the Chief Protector wide-ranging powers to remove Indigenous people to and from reserves.

The Northern Territory Aboriginals Ordinance (Cth) gave the Chief Protector the power to assume ‘the care, custody or control of any Aboriginal or half caste if in his opinion it is necessary or desirable in the interests of the Aboriginal or half caste for him to do so’. 

1915 - An amendment to the Aborigines Protection Act (NSW) gave the Board the power to remove any child without parental consent and without a court order as to neglect.

1935 - The Infants Welfare Act (Tas) was used to remove Indigenous children on Cape Barren Island from their families and the head teacher on the Island was given the same powers and responsibilities as a police constable.

1951 - The third Commonwealth and State Conference on ‘native welfare’ was held and assimilation was affirmed as the aim of ‘native welfare’ measures. It was first adopted as a policy in 1937 by the first Conference. 

1969 – The Aborigines Welfare Board in New South Wales was abolished. By 1969, all states had repealed the legislation allowing for the removal of Aboriginal children under the policy of ‘protection’. 

1980 – Link Up NSW was first established to reunite families separated by the policies. Between 1984 and 2001 all the other states and territories established link-up services.

1983 - The placement of Indigenous children with Indigenous families whenever adoption or fostering occurred was incorporated into NT welfare legislation, with all other states adopting this placement principle by 2006. 

1994 - The Going Home Conference occured in Darwin and brought together over 600 Aboriginal people who were removed as children to discuss the common goals of access to archives, compensation, rights to land and social justice.

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1997 – The 'Bringing Them Home Report' was released by the Australian Human Rights Commission, to report on the findings of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families to the Commonwealth Government.

The parliaments and governments of Victoria, Tasmania, ACT, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia all issued statements recognising and publicly apologising to the Stolen Generations.

1998 - The first National Sorry Day was held on 26 May 1998, one year after the release of the  Bringing them Home Report, as an opportunity for the Australian public to offer an apology to and commemorate the Stolen Generations. A range of community activities took place across Australia and almost 25,000 people recorded their feelings, apologies and signatures in Sorry Books.

1999 - The Federal Parliament passed a motion of ‘deep and sincere regret over the removal of Aboriginal children from their parents’, however Prime Minister John Howard refused to make a formal apology.

2004 - The Commonwealth Government established a memorial to the Stolen Generations at Reconciliation Place in Canberra.

2006 - The first Stolen Generations compensation scheme in Australia was set up in Tasmania by the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal Children Act 2006 (Tas).

2008 - Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered an apology to the members of the Stolen Generations, on behalf of the Australian Parliament. The Apology acknowledged the past mistreatment of Indigenous peoples and recognised the grief, suffering and loss inflicted on the Stolen Generations. 

2009 - The Australian Government committed $26.6 million for the establishment of a Healing Foundation to address trauma and healing in the wider indigenous community, with a focus on the Stolen Generations.