The Stolen Generations (also known as Stolen children) were the children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were removed from their families by the Australian Federal and State government agencies and church missions, under acts of their respective parliaments. The removals occurred in the period between approximately 1909 and 1969, although in some places children were still being taken until the 1970s. These removals were carried out under acts of their respective parliaments, and the children removed were sent either to institutions or adopted by non-Indigenous families.
Children taken by State and Territory authorities were often not permitted to have visits from their parents or families, such was the extent to which the separation from family, community and culture was enforced.
Nearly every Aboriginal family and community was affected by these policies of forcible removal – those taken away, the parents, sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts, and the communities themselves.
The exact number of children removed is unknown, and disputed within a large range. The Bringing Them Home Report is often quoted as saying that "at least 100,000" children were removed from their parents, but this figure is arrived at by multiplying the Aboriginal population in 1994 (303,000), by the report's maximum estimate of "one in three". This is not something done in the actual report which stated "between one in three and one in ten" which referred only to children. The real figures are difficult to establish, given differing populations over a long period of time, different policies at different times in different states, and incomplete records. Australian historian Robert Manne suggests "approximately 20,000 to 25,000" were removed between 1910 and 1970, based on the Australian Bureau of Statistics report of 1994.
Why were children removed?
Throughout the early 1900s, the Australian public was led to believe that Aboriginal children were disadvantaged and at risk in their own communities, and that they would receive a better education, a more loving family, and a more civilised upbringing in adopted white families or in government institutions.
The reality was that Aboriginal children were being removed in order to be exposed to ‘Anglo values’ and ‘work habits’ with a view to them being employed by colonial settlers, and to stop their parents, families and communities from passing on their culture, language and identity to them. The children who were targetted for removal by the authorities of the time, in almost all cases, had one parent that was 'white' and one that was Aboriginal. The objective behind the removal of these children then was often one of racial assimilation.
The Aboriginal Protection Boards at the time believed that by separating these mixed race children from their families, community, land and culture, assimilation into white Australian society would be all the more effective, with the mixed descent Aboriginal population in time merging with the non-Indigenous population.
The children removed and then placed in institutions or with new foster families so often received a lower standard of education, and sometimes no education at all, when compared with the standard of education available to white Australian children.
In Western Australia, for example, once removed, children were often placed in dormitories, trained as farm labourers and domestic servants, and by the age of 14 were sent out to work.
The social impacts of forced removal have been measured and found to be quite severe. Although the stated aim of the "resocialisation" programme was to improve the integration of Aboriginal people into modern society, a study conducted in Melbourne and cited in the official report found that there was no tangible improvement in the social position of "removed" Aborigines as compared to "non-removed", particularly in the areas of employment and post-secondary education.
Most notably, the study indicated that removed Aboriginal people were actually less likely to have completed a secondary education, three times as likely to have acquired a police record and were twice as likely to use illicit drugs. The only notable advantage "removed" Aboriginal people possessed was a higher average income, which the report noted was most likely due to the increased urbanisation of removed individuals, and hence greater access to welfare payments than for Aboriginal people living in remote communities.
On the other hand, "removed" children were often those deemed "at risk" in the first place. Less doubtful is the negative social & psychological impact of being separated from their families and extended families, an implication now generally recognised, but not well understood by authorities at the time
Experiences of the children
Experiences of the children taken from their families varied widely.
Some coped with the trauma of losing their families, and flourished, despite the prevailing sense and knowledge of their loss of and separation from their birth families, communities, land and culture.
However, once removed, so many children were encouraged to abandon and deny their own Aboriginal heritage and language in favour of western values and norms, and the English language.
For many other children, who were placed with unsatisfactory foster parents or in institutions, as adults they continue to struggle to overcome their experiences of trauma, loss, isolation, and often, abuse.
The Bringing them home Report and the Stolen Generations Testimonies website both feature the first hand stories of adults, who as children were forcibly removed from their families and communities. They tell their own stories of loss and separation from their families, communities, culture and land, social isolation, deplorable living conditions, neglect, and physical, mental and sexual abuse. The institutions to where the children were taken were tasked with preparing 'part-Aboriginal' children to take their place in a society that treated non-white people as second-class.
The forcible removal of Aboriginal children irrevocably broke parental links; severing cultural connection to family and country. Research undertaken for the Bringing them home Report found that the Stolen Generations are disadvantaged in the following ways:
- They are more likely to come to the attention of the police as they grow into adolescence
- They are more likely to suffer low self-esteem, depression and mental illness
- They are more vulnerable to physical, emotional and sexual abuse
- They had been almost always taught to reject their Aboriginality and Aboriginal culture
- They are unable to retain links with their land
- They cannot take a role in the cultural and spiritual life of their former communities
- They are unlikely to be able to establish their right to native title
As a measure of remedy, the emergence of the Link Up services across the country now mean that increasingly, Stolen Generations members are able to receive assistance and support when seeking to be reunited with their families. The journey that Stolen Generations survivors embark on when looking to trace their family members as adults can be fraught with a range of varied and mixed emotions. Even when the opportunity to become reunited with one's family arises, it is incredibly difficult to shift the deep and understandable sense of resentment that is felt by many Stolen Generations survivors and their families. For many, the question 'how could the policies of forcible removal ever have been justified in light of the trauma and loss they caused?' has still yet to be answered.
Few Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families have escaped the impacts of the forcible removal of children. The end result is a deep sorrow in the psyche or spirit for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals, families and communities throughout Australia.