It has been 21 years since the launch of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, and 17 years since the release of the inquiry’s final report –now commonly known as the Bringing Them Home report– which concluded with the troubling finding that a generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders “endured gross violations of their human rights. These violations continue to affect Indigenous people’s daily lives. They were an act of genocide, aimed at wiping out Indigenous families, communities, and cultures”.
Incredibly, the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families continues to this day.
In February, in the wake of another dismal report card on the federal government’s Closing the Gap initiative, Indigenous academic Larissa Behrendt wrote an article for Guardian Australia pointing to the fact that this harmful practice continued to be ignored and neglected despite the government’s own statistics showing a marked increase in Indigenous children in out-of-home care.
In addition to a 70.4 per cent increase in Indigenous kids being removed from their home between 2007 and 2015, Berhendt also noted that fewer and fewer of those kids are being placed with extended family or even within their own Indigenous community, counter to the placement principles legislated by the government and contrary to Article 20 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child (United Nation 1989).
Padraic Gibson, a researcher at University of Technology Sydney, has also been vocal about this issue (and here), as has Rev. Djiniyini Gondarra in the top end, who in 2013 wrote to the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory informing him that up to 60 Indigenous children were being taken away every month by child protection services.
The Bringing Them Home (BTH) report described the traumatic effects of the forced removal of Indigenous kids between 1910 and 1970. The Inquiry heard that Indigenous children stolen by the state frequently experienced unnecessarily hard conditions and limited education opportunities, that physical abuse was common, that many of the girls and boys were sexually abused by their custodians. All of this brutality underscored the undue loss of their heritage.
The report also found that the consequences of these experiences was varied and lasting. Substance abuse, entrenched unemployment, poor health, mental illness, higher rates of incarceration and lateral violence were the symptoms of the grief and despair endured in later life by survivors of the Stolen Generations.
My grandmother and her sisters were taken from Burnt Bridge and interned at the Aboriginal Girls Training Home at Cootamundra. The persistent effects that had on my Nan manifested in peculiar ways. She woke and obsessively cleaned where ever she was in the hours before daybreak. She did this until the day she died. She was also obsessive about her own family’s personal appearance. Aunty Marion recalled the conditions for the ABC following the National Apology in 2008, “It was shocking in there… we were made to get out at 6 o’clock in the morning and scrub the cement in summer or winter. They told us it was to take the savage out of us.”
The Board also tried to take two of my Nan’s brothers to the notorious Kinchela Boy’s Home. They were saved by their Dad, William Henry Holten, who like many other Indigenous parents hid his boys in the bush whenever he heard a rumour of the Board’s impending arrival.
That my great grandfather had served the Commonwealth in battle against the Japanese at Milne Bay, New Guinea in 1943 did not matter to the Aboriginal Welfare Board. It wasn’t until 1956 –13 years after his honourable discharge from the army– that William Henry Holten was afforded an approximation of the rights of White Australians in the form of a Certificate of Exemption.
The certificate, commonly referred to as a ‘Dog Tag’ even by those granted exemption themselves, released the identified person from the constraints of the provisions of the Aborigines Protection Act (1943). New privileges bestowed upon them included the right to drink alcohol, the right to leave the state, the right to receive a pension (my grandfather was denied a war pension or government benefits of any kind until 1956) and, importantly, if not explicitly, the agency to retrieve stolen children and potentially shelter your family against future intervention by the Board.
Exempted status was not without it’s drawbacks however. Board recognition carried with it a ban on re-entering, even for brief visits, the Aboriginal reserves, or missions, such as the one at Burnt Bridge which William Henry Holten had lived on. This produced a ‘knock-on’ effect of estranging exempted peoples from their extended family support structures. The certificate also had to be carried like a passport on the person of the grantee at all times and produced upon request by any authority of the state.
The trauma suffered by survivors of Australia’s inhumane assimilation policies over the breadth of the last century continues to resonate through generations of Indigenous families. It is astounding and unforgivable that forced removal of Indigenous children from their families is ongoing. It also makes a complete farce of all government efforts to address systemic Indigenous disadvantage.
Now a genuine intervention is required. Without it the same devastating symptoms that have afflicted First Nations peoples right up to the present will continue undiminished deep into the new century.
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