Throughout history, the theory behind a policy and the way that policy realistically affects people are always two very different things. When the Australian government was attempting to protect the Indigenous community by removing their children from their care to be assimilated into white Australian culture, they neglected to take the consequences of their actions into consideration. As a result, there have been major repercussions on not only the 'stolen generation' themselves, but also their own natural families who had to grieve the loss of a child, their adoptive families who took many of them in and also their own children.
Protectionism and assimilation
When British settlers arrived in Australia, the Aboriginal race was thriving. After being dispossessed from their land which they had originally inhabited, engaging in violent conflict with the British and being exposed to new diseases for which they had not developed any immunity; it did not take long for their numbers to decline. While the government later decided to make an attempt to assist the Aboriginal people with their policy of protectionism, misinterpretation of Indigenous culture meant that they were hindered instead. An example of this is how many were placed in reserves or missions, with the belief that it was giving them a place to live and food to eat. This was despite the fact that these people had competently lived off the land for tens of thousands of years. See image 1
Aboriginal culture has always place a strong emphasis on the land and on family. Ironically, after taking away their bond with the land, the government also made the decision that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children should be removed from their homes and assimilated into white Australian culture. This meant that they would have to relinquish their own traditional culture and adopt the customs, values and attitudes prevalent in white Australia. Many people thought that the best way for this to be done was by removing the children at a young age from their homes, before they were able to become too settled in the ways of their Indigenous society.
Although Aboriginal children were removed, it was particularly the children with a part European ancestry who were targeted. It was believed that these children would be easier to integrate into white mainstream society than the Aboriginal children. While the policy was implemented under the guise of being in the best interests of the Indigenous children, it was also an attempt to hasten the phasing out the Aboriginal race by encouraging Indigenous people to marry Caucasians.
The 'Stolen Generation'
The 'stolen generation' is a term which refers to the number of Indigenous Australian children who were mostly forcibly and often deceptively removed from their families, between 1900 and the 1970s. It is thought that 10 000 Aboriginal children were removed from their families in New South Wales alone, in the 20th century. They were either placed with white families, church missions, Aboriginal homes, or sometimes even in corrective institutions. They usually received little education and had to work long hours, sometimes in exchange for meals and board only. Contact with their biological families and traditional culture was discouraged, if not prevented and they were not allowed to speak their native languages or practise native traditions. Some even were victims of sexual abuse.
In 1995 a formal national enquiry called 'The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families' was conducted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC). Less than two years later, the official report was released. It was titled Bringing Them Home - Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families and it included testimony from 535 Indigenous Australians and submissions of evidence from an additional 600, all of which were from every state and territory in Australia. The report found what was done to the 'stolen generation' was racially discriminatory and an act of genocide. See video
Yet, even during the 1950s, not much was known about the 'stolen generations' among white Australians. The inquiry indicated that those who were aware, such as officials and parents of adopted children, had received a biased view which involved the children being voluntarily surrendered after being shunned by their own clan for having white fathers, or being unable to be looked after by their mother or family who did not have the resources to adequately care for them. As a result, most white Australians generally did not negatively perceive assimilation of the Indigenous children. This was owing to the fact that they genuinely believed that they were giving the children a better life, and in some cases, they did. While the assimilation of indigenous children has since had severe repercussions and much negative publicity, there are a number of Aboriginal people who are grateful for the kindness that they were shown by their adoptive parents. Even though many parents were ignorant and simply misinformed about the adoption of the 'stolen generation,' at least they gave an Aboriginal child a home and a family which they may not have had, if they had not volunteered to adopt.
However, the inquiry also exposed that a number of children were forcibly removed without their parents' consent; although not a violation of Australian law at the time, it was a violation of human rights and of international law. The ways in which the child was removed varied greatly. Sometimes it was achieved by deception whereby the parent would be tricked into letting their child go with the authorities. Sometimes brutal force was used to remove the child from his or her mother's arms. It was also not uncommon for many Aboriginal mothers to be forced to sign a form giving consent for her child to be taken by the authorities, without understanding the full implications of the document which they had signed.
Most of these children who were removed were found to be between the ages of two and four, although there were reports of newborn infants being taken from their mother while she was still at the hospital. The justification for a child to be removed was also very vague. Between 1915 and 1939, a reserve manager or police officer could remove a child on the grounds of anything from moral or spiritual welfare to the belief that it was considered 'necessary.' See image 2
A number of families tried to find their children after they were taken, however in an attempt to keep the child distanced from their family and cultural roots, most parents were reported to have been intentionally misled by the authorities. Many families were given false locations for their children and were falsely told that children were dead. For the same reason, children were also lied to and often told that their parents had died or that they were unwanted. In a further attempt to sever any bonds with their former life, children were usually separated from any siblings that may have also been taken. Since records were not often maintained, there were many of the 'stolen generation' who died not knowing that they had any biological siblings.
The experiences of the children of the 'stolen generation' depended greatly on where they were sent. Their destination was largely dependent on their skin colour. Lighter-skinned children were adopted or fostered out to white-Australian homes or non-Indigenous institutions. Many other children were sent to church homes which included Boystown and Marella. Government institutions such as Kinchela Boys' Home and Cootamundra Girls' Home also took in children who were taken from their families. By the late 1930s, the number of children being removed placed pressure on the need for more institutions to be established. Without enough funds to do this, Indigenous children who were deemed 'uncontrollable' became the responsibility of the Child Welfare Department and were usually sent a State corrective institution, such as Parramatta Girls' Home or Mount Penang.
While some 'stolen children' have fond memories of their adoptive parents or their times in church missions, a greater number of them suffered a sharply contrast experience. Those who were sent to State institutions were particularly affected by harsh and severe conditions, especially those who were sent to Kinchela Boys' Home on the New South Wales' Mid North Coast. In an enquiry in 1935, it was found that the treatment of many boys at Kinchela was often to the point of extreme cruelty. Reports show that a stockwhip was often used on the boys, that they were often tied up and even starved, all as methods of 'discipline' which were imposed by the superintendents. Aside from physical abuse many of the children, both at Kinchela and other places, were subjected to sexual abuse and consequently felt humiliated and ashamed. See image 3
In an attempt to completely sever connections with the Indigenous community the children were not allowed to speak native languages nor perform rituals and traditions. Instead, their education, if they received any at all, was from teachers who were not even qualified. It usually involved reading the Bible or learning patriotic stories of British heroes. Like most institutions for the Indigenous children, rather than focus on education, the ability to work in labouring or domestic jobs was considered more important. Kinchela required the boys to work long hours on the reserve's dairy and vegetable farms. They were later sent at around 14 years of age to work for little money or sometimes even just food and board, as rural labourers on nearby properties. In a similar way, girls at Cootamundra were often trained as domestic servants and later sent to work for white families. Girls of the 'stolen generation' were particularly socialised to view Aboriginal people, particularly Aboriginal men, as inferior. Cootamundra, like many other institutions for girls, encouraged them to 'act like white people' with the hope that they would marry a white Australian man and that their Aboriginal heritage would subsequently diminish.
During the time when Indigenous children were being taken from their homes, it was a commonly held belief that the government was doing what was in the 'best interest' of the children. However, the children of the 'stolen generation' have since grown into adults and Australian society has continued to see the tragic repercussions. Many of them feel that without ever having had the chance to know their family and their cultural heritage, they have lost a part of their identity. Some Aboriginal people who have tried to return to their Aboriginal communities felt that they did not fit in, because they were unfamiliar with Aboriginal society. However, many also felt that they were not accepted in white society either. This has resulted in much of the 'stolen generation' suffering mental and emotional damage which in turn, has led to higher rates of depression, crime, violence, abuse of alcohol and drugs and also suicide. It is also common for many of them to have an inability to trust people, particularly officials and authorities, as well as to have feelings of low self esteem and insecurity. It is not just the 'stolen generation' who are affected. Many indigenous Australians who were removed from their homes at a young age and were without a model for parenthood are now having difficulty in raising their own children.
Recognising that the 'stolen generation' was faced with a number of problems, in the 1980s an Aboriginal organisation called Link-Up was established. Its aim was to assist those Indigenous Australians who had been removed, to meet their family again and to work through issues that they may have suffered.
In recent times, the issue of the 'stolen generation' has become a hotly-debated topic, with a number of studies and reports being published. Recent statistics support the general notion that the Aboriginal people who were removed as children were not only no better off than those who continued to grow up in their Aboriginal communities, but in fact were less likely to have completed high school and three times more likely to have a police record. It is reports such as these that have sparked a national debate and generated much media attention.
In 1992, the first formal acknowledgment of the 'stolen generation' and the ignorance and prejudice behind the policy was offered by the Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating. This led the way for the 1995 formal enquiry. However, it was quickly followed by controversy when the Howard government replaced the Keating government. Later, the Howard government expressed their regret for the occurrences.
In 2000, the Aboriginal Affairs Minister, John Herron, was forced to apologise to those who were offended by his report to parliament which questioned whether it was even a 'stolen generation' at all. He made his claim based on the grounds that the findings suggested that only ten percent of Indigenous children were removed and that this did not constitute an entire generation.