sis for government action right up to the 1970s. The difference between “merging” and “assimilation” was largely one of degree: an intensification and extension of control over the Indigenous population. Though couched in seemingly high-minded phrases about enabling mixed descent Aborigines to “take their place in the white community on an equal footing with the whites” and “improving their lot”, the authorities began from the implicit notion that there was nothing of value in Aboriginal culture. Aboriginality was to be destroyed by removing “half-caste” children from their communities, their language and their cultural heritage. Assimilation was not a sharp break from what had gone before, simply a refinement.
Moreover, the practices which occurred under assimilation were racist through and through. To return to Millicents story: the reason given for taking the children was that “the authorities decided us kids could pass as whitefellas”. But at the notorious Sister Kates Home in Western Australia where Millicent spent her childhood, she got a very different message:
“They said it was very degrading to belong to an Aboriginal family and that I should be ashamed of myself, I was inferior to whitefellas. They tried to make us act like white kids, but at the same time we had to give up our seat for a whitefella because an Aboriginal never sits down when a white person is present.”
All States had child welfare legislation which allowed children black or white to be taken from their parents if the children were deemed to be “neglected”, “uncontrollable” or “destitute”. Prior to 1937, however, most States preferred to use the protectionist legislation when taking Indigenous children, because that way they didnt have to justify anything before a court. The authority of the Chief Protector or the Board was sufficient.
But even after 1940, when child welfare legislation was used instead, “proof of neglect” could easily be dispensed with. In many cases, “Aboriginality” was sufficient “proof”, and the poverty in which Aborigines were forced to live made them targets because it could be argued the children were “destitute”. Girls who ran away from situations of sexual abuse or got pregnant were labelled “uncontrollable”. The separations were carried out with extreme brutality, traumatising the children and their parents for life.
“Early one morning in 1952 the manager from Burnt Bridge Mission came to our home with a policeman. I could hear him saying to Mum, I am taking the two girls and placing them in Cootamundra Home. My father was saying, What right have you? The manager said he can do what he likes, they said my father had a bad character (I presume they said this as my father associated with Aboriginal people). They would not let us kiss our father goodbye, I will never forget the sad look on his face…That was the last time I saw my father, he died within two years after…Next morning we were in court. I remember the judge saying, These girls dont look neglected to me. The manager was saying all sorts of things. He wanted us placed in Cootamundra Home. So we were sent away…”
Children were routinely taken from their mothers at birth. Her consent was sometimes waived, sometimes forced from her with threats, or she was simply told the child died.
“My mother told us that the eldest daughter was a twin…And in those days, if Aboriginals had twins or triplets, theyd take the babies away. Mum swore black and blue that boy [the twin] was alive. But they told her that he had died. I only found out a couple of years ago that boy, the nursing sister took him. A lot of babies were not recorded.”
Often, too, the parents and children were tricked:
“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…But when wed gone [about ten miles] 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 policeman 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…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.”
Children who were left temporarily in “homes” or even hospitals simply disappeared.
“A mother [single teenager] had a child in a home, and went out to provide some sort of basis for rearing the child…when the mother came back, they told her that the child had died. And 25 years later we have a request from a person to find his mother…(she) now has gone through the grieving of the person dying and now coming to terms with his resurrection.”
Siblings who were stolen were often placed separately, or even when placed together, their identities and kinship were not revealed. The inquiry gives the example of one witness who, in a seeming act of gratuitous cruelty, was “introduced to his brother on the day that brother was departing the institution for a foster placement.” At a conference following the release of the report in Melbourne in 1997, an Aboriginal speaker recalled how he, along with an older boy, was summoned one day to the office of the institution in Ballarat where the two of them had lived for several years, introduced to an Aboriginal woman and told she was their mother.
And you didnt have to be stolen to experience the effects of the practice:
“Every morning our people would crush charcoal and mix that with animal fat and smother that all over us, so that when the police came they could only see black children…We were told always to be on the alert and, if white people came, to run into the bush or run and stand behind the trees as stiff as a poker…and hide…And if the Aboriginal group was taken unawares, they would stuff us into flour bags and pretend we werent there. We were told…if we sneezed…wed be taken off and away from the area…During the raids on the camps it was not unusual for people to be shot …in the arm or the leg. You can understand the terror that we lived in…”
The pace of removals increased through the 1950s and 1960s. Despite the difficulty in establishing precise numbers (partly because of lack or falsification of documentation, partly because many removals were illegal even under the various racist laws in operation) the inquiry concluded that between 1910 and 1970, between one in three and one in ten children were forcibly removed, and “[I]n that time not one Indigenous family has escaped the effects…”.
One of the most heart-rending aspects of the report is reading about the Indigenous parents who blamed themselves for the loss of their children. The NSW branch of Link-Up (an organisation which works to reunite separated families) reported to the inquiry:
“…we found that Aboriginal women were unwilling and unable to speak about the immense pain, grief and anguish that losing their children had caused them…We see that they judge themselves harshly, never forgiving themselves for losing their children no matter that they were part of ongoing systematic removal of Aboriginal children…They were made to feel failures; unworthy of loving and caring for their own children; they were denied participation in the future of their community.”
The accounts of those who observed this pain show clearly how the lives of the parents, and the wider Indigenous community, were shattered.
“I remember my Aunty, it was her daughter that got taken. She used to carry these letters around with her. They were reference letters from the whitefellas in town…[saying that] she was a good, respectable woman…She judged herself and she felt the community judged her for letting the welfare get her child…She carried those letters with her, folded up, as proof, until the day she died.”
Such accounts also show how the practice of stealing their children is at the root of many problems experienced by Indigenous people today, particularly substance abuse.
“My parents were continually trying to get us back. Eventually they gave up and started drinking. They separated. My father ended up in jail. He died before my mother. On her death bed she called his name and all us kids. She died with a broken heart.”
Non-Indigenous families who adopted children were also lied to told that mothers who were searching for their child were dead, or had refused to take responsibility for them. Some of these families told the inquiry they are wracked with guilt and regret that they were unknowingly complicit in such barbarism.
“We would never have deprived any mother of her child, or any child of its mother…The doctor told me how this childs mother was very young [she was actually 20]…plus the baby was never wanted right from the start. If this was true, why did she take her poor frail baby home…? He would not feed. She took him back [to the hospital] and it was the last she saw of him. She said they would not give him back…”
“In 1960 my wife and I applied to adopt an Aboriginal baby, after reading in the newspapers that these babies were remaining in institutionalised care…Later that year we were offered a baby who had been cared for since birth in a Church run Babies Home…We were told, and truly believed, that his mother was dead and his father unknown…”
Despite the love of his adoptive family, this child, Ken, grew up feeling isolated and alienated, subjected to constant racism, and several times attempted suicide.
“…When Ken was eighteen he found his natural family, three sisters and a brother. His mother wa