• Members of the Kinchela Boys Home Aboriginal Corporation (Peter Solness)Source: Peter Solness
A decade on since the National Apology to the Stolen Generations, the pain suffered by those forcibly removed still lingers. But many survivors are taking control of their lives and tackling the enduring effects of trauma head on.
The Point
22 Mar 2018 - 8:19 AM  UPDATED 22 Mar 2018 - 12:40 PM

At just eight years old, Michael Welsh was snatched from his mother's arms and forcibly removed from his family by welfare officers in the central west of New South Wales. 

It was the early 1960s - a time when government policy enforced the removal of Indigenous children from their families. 

Michael and his brother Barry were taken to the notorious Kinchela Boys Home, in Kempsey on the state's mid-north coast, hundreds of kilometres away from their home. 

"They stripped us of our clothes, shaved our hair off us, burnt our clothes in front of us, and gave us clothes that all had numbers written on them," he told NITV. 

Michael was known as number thirty-six. 

"We weren't allowed to call each other by our name. And that was the beginning of the journey in that place which was a place of slavery, bashings, sexual abuse and starvation to make us do what they needed us to do," he remembers.  

Michael says he's one of the lucky ones.

He and his brother Barry spent five years at the boys' home, before they were taken into the care of their uncles and aunts - but they still weren't allowed to meet their mother. 

"It took another two and half years before we journeyed around for our life until we met with my mother and that was the time when the 1967 Referendum come in and things had changed a bit in Aboriginal law," he says. 

Florence Onus and her five siblings suffered similar removal. She and her sisters were split in two, the eldest were sent to the Catholic Church and the youngest three, including Florence, were placed in a foster home. 

Florence is the fourth generation of women in her family to be stolen. 

"My mother as a child was sent to an Aboriginal reserve or a mission, which I refer to as detention centres as a child, she was then separated from her mother, and her grandmother, and when she grew up and became a mother herself her five children were forcibly removed from her," Florence tells NITV. 

“My grandmother and my mother were both trained and sent out as domestic servants on properties,” she recalls. “They weren’t allowed to speak their native language or practice cultural ceremonies.”

“And then I became part of the Stolen Generations when I was removed from my family to be raised in a white foster home.”

As a result of their removal, both Michael and Florence battled with substance abuse, identity loss and mental breakdowns - all a product of unresolved trauma. 

"You don't understand what is happening and you try to mask a lot of that through drinking alcohol, taking drugs and so I was on that self-destructive path as a teenager" says Florence. 

Michael was suicidal. 

"I was gonna shoot myself, I put the gun in my mouth and I didn't do it - I'm here but I tucked the gun away and dived into the river... I was gonna drown myself," he says. 

Journey to healing

But they managed to navigate through their pain and eventually turn their lives around - both beginning their healing journey. 

"The turning point for me was when Mum tried to take her life I had just turned 21 - and that was a real shock," Florence says. 

“It wasn’t until I started doing my own research and had access to policies that I truly realised that my mother was suffering from the impacts of intergenerational trauma," she says. 

Fighting back tears, Michael says the future of his grandchildren made him realise things needed to change. 

"When I talk about my grandchildren I also see the fear - if I don't get this right, they're gonna suffer the same pain and it's time for that to stop," he says. 

“I’m not the only one who feels this pain, I’ve got eight children and they all feel the same,” he says.

“We do not want this hate to go to our children or to our grandchildren and great grandchildren.” “Our children need to be connected to this healing process too. Our journey’s almost over, our children’s journeys are only just beginning.”

Now, through the work of the Healing Foundation, they dedicate their lives to helping others to ensure intergenerational trauma is no longer passed on. 

"I'm working with a group of local people and we've established a healing centre in Townsville," says Florence.

"We work mostly with volunteers. We've gathered the evidence, however we need to need to be able to consolidate the work that we've started and we can only do that if we receive adequate funding." 

Healing centres are beginning to emerge across the country, since the Healing Foundation was established, and Florence says this is because many survivors want a culturally safe space to be able to access and receive healing. 

"Most of the funding that has been channelled through to the NGO sector are run by the institutions and the churches that caused the trauma from the beginning, so why would we go back to our perpetrators and ask them or expect them to heal us?" she says. 

Consequently, many survivors do not access much of the non-government organisations, emotional and social well-being programs, or government programs. 

"So there is definitely a lot of support for grass-roots, community-controlled, culturally safe, culturally appropriate healing centres," Florence says. 

As a Birri-Gubba and Kairi/Bidjara woman, it was important for Florence to return home to begin to heal. 

Florence is also the chair of the Healing Foundation's Stolen Generations Reference Committee who guided the work of the Stolen Generations ensuring their programs meet the unique healing needs of survivors and their families. 

"We have the capacity to deliver healing to our people." 

Michael, a Wailman man from Coonamble, also sits on this committee. 

Since 2009, he's been a member of the Kinchela Boys Home Aboriginal Corporation, a community-controlled organisation supporting sustainable healing programs that address the legacy of abuse experienced by survivors and their families. 

"At some stage the pain was just getting too much for me and I heard about the Kinchela Boys Home Aboriginal Corporation that was being run in Sydney, so I wanted to find out more about it," Michael says. 

Still fearful of what he might see or who he might see, Michael persevered through the pain. 

"I couldn't hold the pain back any longer, I needed to search," he says.  

The corporation has been in operation since 2001 and has reunited the Kinchela Boys through their painful memories but also their quest for justice, acknowledgement and healing. 

Today, KBHAC works with partner organisations to identify major issues of health and well-being for its members arising from removal and institutionalisation. 

"As the Kinchela Boys Home Aboriginal Corporation we meet every year so they can start on a journey of understanding of what they have or what they suffer from," Michael says.  

“When we get together as a group of brothers who’ve gone through that place, it feels good. The fear that was there is not there anymore.”

Healing needs to be in hands of community 

Established in 2010, the Healing Foundation partners with communities around the country addressing the ongoing trauma caused by actions of forced removal. 

It was set up in the wake of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008 and was just one a few recommendations that has been implemented since the landmark Bringing Them Home report. 

Now, a decade on, CEO Richard Weston says the Foundation's work is more crucial than ever. 

"Trauma is a huge problem, intergenerational trauma in particular has played out in our communities," he tells NITV. "It's at the root of all of these social and health problems that we face and we need to tackle it on a national basis."

Mr Weston says survivors like Florence and Michael are taking control of their own healing. 

"And we just need to recognise this isn't about us playing the victim this is about us acknowledging the past, telling it truthfully and understanding what that impact is." 

In the past decade, the Foundation has seen more than 70 per cent of Stolen Generations members participate in projects reporting an improved ability to care for their grief and nearly 80 per cent reporting an increased sense of belonging and connection to culture. 

But Florence Onus says their funding is inadequate. 

"The $25.5million that they were initially given over a four-year period is just a drop in the ocean for what the healing needs are around the country," she says. 

Last year, the Foundation presented a report to the Federal Government calling for a number of recommendations including a national redress scheme, a needs analysis of the Stolen Generations population, and a national approach to dealing with intergenerational trauma. 

Florence says healing needs to be in the hands of the community. 

"We know what is needed to heal our people and only we can do it," she says. 

While Michael and Florence are doing the best they can to help ease the pain of their families and communities, they just hope the government listens to their solutions. 

"This is our pain, and we are the only ones who know how to fix this pain," says Michael.

Watch The Point, 8.30pm Thursday nights on NITV, channel 34.

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