The Stolen Generations (also Stolen generation and Stolen children) is a term used to describe those children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were removed from their families by the Australian and State government agencies and church missions, under acts of their respective parliaments. The removals occurred in the period between approximately 1869 and 1969, although, in some places, children were still being taken in the 1970s.
The extent of the removal of children, and the reasoning behind their removal, are contested. Documentary evidence, such as newspaper articles and reports to parliamentary committees, suggest a range of rationales. Motivations evident include child protection, beliefs that given their catastrophic population decline post white contact that black people would "die out" , fears of miscegenation and a desire to attain white racial purity.
Terms such as "stolen" were used in the context of taking children from their families - the Hon P. McGarry, a member of the Parliament of New South Wales, objected to the Aborigines Protection Amending Act 1915 which enabled the Aborigines' Protection Board to remove Aboriginal children from their parents without having to establish that they were in any way neglected or mistreated; McGarry described the policy as "steal[ing] the child away from its parents".. In 1923, in the Adelaide Sun an article stated "The word 'stole' may sound a bit far-fetched but by the time we have told the story of the heart-broken Aboriginal mother we are sure the word will not be considered out of place.
Indigenous Australians in most jurisdictions were "protected", effectively being wards of the State. The protection was done through each jurisdictions' Aboriginal Protection Board, in Victorian and Western Australia these boards were also responsible for applying what were known as Half-caste acts.
More recent usage was Peter Read's 1981 publication of The Stolen Generations: The Removal of Aboriginal children in New South Wales 1883 to 1969. The 1997 publication of Bringing Them Home - Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. brought broader awareness of the "Stolen Generations."
The acceptance of the term in Australia as illustrated by the 13 February 2008 formal apology to the Stolen Generations, led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and passed by both houses of the Parliament of Australia. Previously apologies had been offered by State and Territory governments in the period 1997-2001.
There however remains opposition to acceptance of the validity of the term "Stolen Generations". This was illustrated by the former Prime Minister John Howard refusing to apologise and the then Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, John Herron controversially disputing the usage in April 2000. Others who dispute the validity of the term include: Peter Howson, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1971-72, Keith Windschuttle and Andrew Bolt Others argue against these critics, responding to Windschuttle and Bolt in particular.
Other 19th- and early 20th-century contemporaneous documents indicate that the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their parents related to different beliefs: that given the catastrophic population decline of Aboriginal people post white contact that they would "die out", that the 'full-blood' tribal Aboriginal population would be unable to sustain itself, and was doomed to inevitable extinction. Ideas of eugenics and fears of miscegenation with a desire to maintain white racial purity were related to the ideology that mankind could be divided into a civilisational hierarchy. This supposed that the civilisation of northern Europeans was superior to that of Aborigines, based on comparative technological advancement. Some adherents to these beliefs considered any proliferation of mixed-descent children (labelled 'half-castes', 'crossbreeds', 'quadroons' and 'octoroons') to be a threat to the nature and stability of the prevailing civilisation, or to a perceived racial or civilisational "heritage". For example, in the 1930s, the Northern Territory Protector of Natives, Dr. Cecil Cook, perceived the continuing rise in numbers of "half-caste" children as a problem. His proposed solution was:
Generally by the fifth and invariably by the sixth generation, all native characteristics of the Australian Aborigine are eradicated. The problem of our half-castes will quickly be eliminated by the complete disappearance of the black race, and the swift submergence of their progeny in the white.
Eliminate the full-blood and permit the white admixture to half-castes and eventually the race will become white.
The child removal legislation resulted in widespread removal of children from their parents and exercise of sundry guardianship powers by Aboriginal protectors over Aborigines up to the age of 16 or 21. Policemen or other agents of the state (such as 'Aboriginal Protection Officers') were given the power to locate and transfer babies and children of mixed descent from their mothers or families or communities into institutions. In these Australian states and territories, half-caste institutions (both government and missionary) were established in the early decades of the 20th century for the reception of these separated children. Examples of such institutions include Moore River Native Settlement in Western Australia, Doomadgee Aboriginal Mission in Queensland, Ebenezer Mission in Victoria and Wellington Valley Mission in New South Wales.
According to the Bringing Them Home Report, at least 100,000 children were removed from their parents, and the figure may be substantially higher (the report notes that formal records of removals were very poorly kept). It stated:
Nationally we can conclude with confidence that between one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities in the period from approximately 1910 until 1970. In certain regions and in certain periods the figure was undoubtedly much greater than one in ten. In that time not one family has escaped the effects of forcible removal (confirmed by representatives of the Queensland and WA Governments in evidence to the Inquiry). Most families have been affected, in one or more generations, by the forcible removal of one or more children.
The report closely examined the distinctions between "forcible removal", "removal under threat or duress", "official deception", "uninformed voluntary release", and "voluntary release". The evidence indicated that in a large number of cases children were brutally and forcibly removed from their parent or parents, possibly even from the hospital shortly after their birth. Aboriginal Protection Officers often made the judgement on removal. In some cases, families were required to sign legal documents to relinquish care to the state, though this process was subverted in a number of instances. In Western Australia, the Aborigines Act 1905 removed the legal guardianship of Aboriginal parents and made their children all legal wards of the state, so no parental permission was required.
In 1915, in New South Wales, the Aborigines Protection Amending Act 1915 gave the Aborigines' Protection Board authority to remove Aboriginal children "without having to establish in court that they were neglected"; it was alleged by Professor Peter Read that Board members sometimes wrote simply "For being Aboriginal" as the explanation when recording a removal, however the number of files bearing such a comment appear to be on the order of either one or two with two others bearing only the word "Aboriginal". At the time, some members of Parliament objected to the amendment; one member stated it enabled the board to "steal the child away from its parents", and at least two members argued that the amendment would result in children being subjected to unpaid labour tantamount to "slavery".
In 1911, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in South Australia, William Garnet South, reportedly "lobbied for the power to remove Aboriginal children without a court hearing because the courts sometimes refused to accept that the children were neglected or destitute". South argued that "all children of mixed descent should be treated as neglected". His lobbying reportedly played a part in the enactment of the Aborigines Act 1911; this made him the legal guardian of every Aboriginal child in South Australia, including so-called "half-castes".
The Bringing Them Home report also identified instances of official misrepresentation and deception, such as when caring and able parents were incorrectly described by Aboriginal Protection Officers as not being able to properly provide for their children, or when parents were told by government officials that their children had died, even though this was not the case. One first hand account referring to events in 1935 stated:
I was at the post office with my Mum and Auntie [and cousin]. They put us in the police ute and said they were taking us to Broome. They put the mums in there as well. But when we'd gone [about ten miles (16 km)] they stopped, and threw the mothers out of the car. We jumped on our mothers' backs, crying, trying not to be left behind. But the policemen pulled us off and threw us back in the car. They pushed the mothers away and drove off, while our mothers were chasing the car, running and crying after us. We were screaming in the back of that car. When we got to Broome they put me and my cousin in the Broome lock-up. We were only ten years old. We were in the lock-up for two days waiting for the boat to Perth.
The report discovered that removed children were, in most cases, placed into institutional facilities operated by religious or charitable organisations, although a significant number, particularly females, were "fostered" out. Children taken to such places were frequently punished if caught speaking local indigenous languages, and the intention was specifically to prevent them being socialised in Aboriginal cultures, and raise the boys as agricultural labourers and the girls as domestic servants. Many Europeans at the time worked in similar occupations.
A common aspect of the removals was the failure by these institutions to keep records of the actual parentage of the child, or such details as the date or place of birth. As is stated in the report:
... the physical infrastructure of missions, government institutions and children's homes was often very poor and resources were insufficient to improve them or to keep the children adequately clothed, fed and sheltered.
The report said that among the 502 inquiry witnesses, 17% of female witnesses and 7.7% of male witnesses reported experiencing a sexual assault while in an institution, at work, or with a foster or adoptive family.
By around the age of 18 the children were released from government control and where it was available were sometimes allowed to view their government file. According to the testimony of one Aboriginal person:
I was requested to attend at the Sunshine Welfare Offices, where they formerly discharged me from State wardship. It took the Senior Welfare Officer a mere 20 minutes to come clean, and tell me everything that my heart had always wanted to know...that I was of 'Aboriginal descent', that I had a Natural mother, father, three brothers and a sister, who were alive...He placed in front of me 368 pages of my file, together with letters, photos and birthday cards. He informed me that my surname would change back to my Mother's maiden name of Angus.
The Bringing Them Home report condemned the policy of disconnecting children from their "cultural heritage". Said one witness to the commission:
I've got everything that could be reasonably expected: a good home environment, education, stuff like that, but that's all material stuff. It's all the non-material stuff that I didn't have — the lineage... You know, you've just come out of nowhere; there you are.
On the other hand, some Aboriginal people do not condemn the government’s past actions, as they see that part of their intention was to offer opportunities for education and an eventual job. According to the testimony of one Aboriginal person:
I guess the government didn't mean it as something bad but our mothers weren't treated as people having feelings...Who can imagine what a mother went through? But you have to learn to forgive.
I was put in a mission dormitory when I was eight, nine. I cried for two nights, then I was right with the rest of those kids. We weren't stolen; our family was there. It was a good system. Or a better system than now. At least my generation learnt to read and write properly."
Some conservative journalists, such as Andrew Bolt, consider the Stolen Generations is a "preposterous and obscene" myth or "theory" and "propaganda" and that there was actually no policy in any state or territory at any time for the systematic removal of "half-caste" Aboriginal children. Professor of politics at La Trobe University, Robert Manne, has responded that Bolt's failure to address the wealth of documentary and anecdotal evidence demonstrating the existence of the Stolen Generations amounts to a clear case of historical denialism. Bolt argues that a key issue of the debate over the existence of a "Stolen Generations" is the identification of particular persons as having been 'stolen' and further that it would require that it be substantiated that children had been 'stolen' in such numbers as to justify inferring the existence of a policy to do so, as opposed to such cases being aberrations. He and other sceptics of the existence of such a child removal policy would require that the circumstances of the removal of such children be subjected to the standard of scrutiny found in a court of law or a similar investigatory standard, and that it be shown that they were 'stolen' and not abandoned, given up or removed for legitimate reasons. Many documents in state archives detail the policies and events that come under the term "Stolen Generation".
In April 2000, controversy stirred when the then Aboriginal Affairs Minister in the conservative Howard Government, John Herron, tabled a report in the Australian Parliament that questioned whether or not there had been a "Stolen Generation", on the semantic distinction that as "only 10% of Aboriginal children" had been removed, they did not constitute an entire "generation". The report received media attention and there were protests. Dr Herron apologised for the "understandable offence taken by some people" as a result of his comments, although he refused to alter the report as it had been tabled, and in particular the figure of 10%.
Robert Manne argues that the expressed views of government bureaucrats, such as A.O. Neville, to merge the Aboriginal race into the white population by means of "breeding out the colour", and therefore eventually resulting in the former being "forgotten", bore strong similarities to the views of the Nazis in 1930s Germany. Manne points out that, though the term 'genocide' had not yet entered the English language, the policies of Neville and others were termed by some contemporaries as the 'die out' or 'breed out' policy, giving an indication of their proposed intent. Nevertheless, he also states that it is now "generally acknowledged" by academics that the authors of the Bringing Them Home report were wrong to argue that Australian authorities had committed genocide by removing indigenous children from their families, because assimilation has never been regarded in law as equivalent to genocide.
Conservative Australian historian Keith Windschuttle contends that no genocide has ever taken place in Australia. He concedes there were "obnoxious" attempts to "breed out" Aboriginality in Western Australia and the Northern Territory but says those policies concentrated on intermarriage, not child removal, and were undercut by the ineptitude of the bureaucrats involved. In 2008 it was announced that the second volume of Windschuttle's work The Fabrication of Australian History, would be published, which will address the issue of the removal of Aboriginal children.
Paul Bartrop, co-author of The Dictionary of Genocide with US scholar Samuel Totten, rejects the use of the word genocide to describe Australian colonial history in general, but says the use of the term can be "sustained relatively easily" when describing the Stolen Generations. Dr Bartrop, who wrote the entry in the dictionary entitled "Australia, Genocide in:", said he used the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, as cited by Ronald Wilson in his 1997 Bringing Them Home report, as the benchmark for the use of the term genocide.
Historian Inga Clendinnen suggests that the term genocide rests on the question of intentionality. "There's not much doubt, with great murderous performances that were typically called genocide, that they were deliberate and intentional," she argues. "Beyond that, it always gets very murky."
In early 1995 Rob Riley of the Aboriginal Legal Service published Telling Our Story which brought to the public attention the effect of past government policies that saw thousands of Aboriginal children removed from their families and reared in missions, orphanages, reserves and white foster homes.
The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families commenced in May 1995, presided over by Sir Ronald Wilson, the president of the (Australian) Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, and Mick Dodson, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC). During the ensuing 17 months, the Inquiry visited every state and Territory in Australia, heard testimony from 535 Aboriginal Australians, and received submissions of evidence from over 600 more. In April 1997 the official Bringing Them Home Report was released.
Between the commissioning of the National Inquiry and the release of the final report in 1997, the conservative government of John Howard had replaced the Keating government. The report proved to be a considerable embarrassment for the Howard administration, as it recommended that the Australian Government formally apologise to the affected families, a proposal actively rejected by Howard, on the grounds that a formal admission of wrongdoing would lead to massive compensation litigation. Howard was quoted as saying "Australians of this generation should not be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies. As a result Commissioner Dodson resigned from the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, saying in a newspaper column that "I despair for my country and regret the ignorance of political leaders who do not appreciate what is required to achieve reconciliation for us as a nation."
As a result of the report, formal apologies were tabled and passed in the state parliaments of Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales, and also in the parliament of the Northern Territory. On 26 May 1998 the first "National Sorry Day" was held, and reconciliation events were held nationally, and attended by over a million people. As public pressure continued to increase, Howard drafted a motion of "deep and sincere regret over the removal of Aboriginal children from their parents" which was passed by the federal parliament in August 1999. Howard went on to say that the Stolen Generation represented "...the most blemished chapter in the history of this country."
In July 2000, the issue of the Stolen Generation came before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva who heavily criticised the Howard government for its manner of attempting to resolve the issues related to the Stolen Generation. Australia was also the target of a formal censure by the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Global media attention turned again to the Stolen Generations issue during the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics. A large "Aboriginal tent city" was established on the grounds of Sydney University to bring attention to Aboriginal issues in general. The Aboriginal athlete Cathy Freeman (who was chosen to light the Olympic Flame and went on to win the gold medal for the 400 metre sprint) disclosed in interviews that her own grandmother was a victim of forced removal. The internationally successful rock group Midnight Oil obtained worldwide media interest when they performed at the Olympic closing ceremony wearing black sweatsuits with the word "SORRY" emblazoned across them.
Prior to the Sydney Olympics a mockumentary called The Games was broadcast on ABC TV. In the episode shown on 3 July 2000 the actor John Howard made a recording "for international release" of an apology to the Stolen Generation, ostensibly on behalf of the Australian people.
On December 11, 2007, the newly installed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that an apology would be made to Indigenous Australians, the wording of which would be decided in consultation with Aboriginal leaders. On January 27, 2008, Rudd announced that the apology would be made on or soon after the first day of parliament in Canberra, on February 12. The date was later set to February 13, when it was ultimately issued.
The announcement of an apology by the new Labor prime minister led to a split reaction from the Liberal Party whose leader Brendan Nelson initially said that an apology would risk encouraging a "culture of guilt" in Australia. However, other senior Liberals expressed support for an apology, e.g., Malcolm Turnbull, Peter Costello, Bill Heffernan and former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser. Former Liberal minister Judi Moylan said: "I think as a nation we owe an apology. We shouldn't be thinking about it as an individual apology — it's an apology that is coming from the nation state because it was governments that did these things. Nelson himself later declared he supported the apology. Following a party meeting, the Liberal Party as a whole expressed its support for an apology, which thereby achieved bipartisan consensus. Brendan Nelson stated: "I, on behalf of the Coalition, of the alternative government of Australia, are [sic] providing in-principle support for the offer of an apology to the forcibly removed generations of Aboriginal children. Tony Abbott defended John Howard's rebuttal of the apology and was "absolutely right" to defend his record:
When we were in government we could decide whether an apology happened or not, but in opposition all we could decide was an attitude to an apology which was ultimately in the hands of others. My own view was if an apology was going to happen anyway why not make the most of the situation and at the very least not rain on the parade.
Lyn Austin, chairwoman of Stolen Generations Victoria, stated her view on why she believed an apology was necessary, recalling her experiences as a stolen child:
I thought I was being taken just for a few days. I can recall seeing my mother standing on the side of the road with her head in her hands, crying, and me in the black FJ Holden wondering why she was so upset. A few hundred words can't fix this all but it's an important start and it's a beginning. [...] I see myself as that little girl, crying myself to sleep at night, crying and wishing I could go home to my family. Everything's gone, the loss of your culture, the loss of your family, all these things have a big impact.
The text of the apology did not make reference to compensation to Aboriginal people as a whole or to members of the Stolen Generations specifically.
Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
We reflect on their past mistreatment.
We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations - this blemished chapter in our nation's history.
The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.
We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.
We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.
For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.
We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.
For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.
We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.
A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.
A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.
A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.
A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.
A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.
Rudd followed the apology with a 20-minute speech to the house about the need for the apology, which was widely applauded among both Indigenous Australians and the non-indigenous general public.
People watching Nelson's reply speech protested nationwide. Thousands of people who had gathered in Canberra and Melbourne turned their backs on the screens displaying Nelson giving his speech; in Perth people booed and jeered until the screen was eventually switched off; those watching in Parliament House's Great Hall began a slow clap, finally turning their backs, with similar scenes and walk-outs in Sydney and elsewhere.
The apology is not expected to have any legal impact on claims for compensation.
Trevorrow did not have long to celebrate his victory in the courts. He died in Victoria on 20 June, 2008, at the age of 51, less than a year after the court decision.
The West Australian newspaper reported Trevorrow's story as follows: Mr Trevorrow was separated from his mother in December 1957 after he was admitted to Adelaide's Children's Hospital with gastroenteritis. More than six months later, his mother wrote to the state's Aboriginal Protection Board, which had fostered him out, asking when she could have her son back. "I am writing to ask if you would let me know how Bruce is and how long before I can have him back home," she wrote in July 1958. "I have not forgot I got a baby in there". The Court was told the board lied to her, writing her son was "making good progress" and that the doctors still needed him for treatment.}}
Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun newspaper stated:
As Gray ruled: "Mrs Angas may have been well-intentioned . . . but was well aware, or ought to have been aware, that the removal of the plaintiff from his family, and his placement with the Davies family, was undertaken in circumstances that were understood to be without legal authority, beyond power and contrary to authoritative legal advice."(See Bringing them Home, Appendix 6 for a listing and interpretation of South Australian acts regarding 'Aborigines' and Bringing them home education module: South Australia laws regarding relevant South Australian law and policy.)
That illegality, said Gray, was why Bruce Trevorrow deserved a payout.
The picture the judge paints over many pages is compelling: South Australia never had any laws – or policies – authorising anyone to steal Aboriginal children for racist reasons.