tions, local authorities could get away with murder literally. And the Australian colonies were the most notorious. The report shows how the following common law rights were routinely violated with regard to Indigenous people: deprivation of liberty (by removing Indigenous people to reserves and missions and by detaining children and confining them in institutions); abolition of parental rights (by making the children wards or by assuming custody and control); abuses of power (in the removal process) and breach of guardianship obligations (on the part of Protectors, Protection Boards and other “carers”).
Moreover, a host of special legislation was devised to provide legal cover for the atrocities committed against Indigenous people. For example, a Welfare Ordinance was introduced in the Northern Territory in 1953. Its purported objective was to “subject all Aboriginal people to the same welfare legislation as non-Indigenous people. Accordingly, it made no mention of race, referring instead to wards. A ward was any person who by reason of his manner of living, his inability to manage his own affairs, his standard of social habit and behaviour, his personal associations, stands in need of special care.”
These “wards” had no rights whatsoever; they were completely in the power of the Director of Welfare. But when there were protests from non-Indigenous Territorians who feared the Ordinance might be applied to them, the wording was changed to make it clear that only Indigenous children were to be targeted. This was simply done, still managing to avoid any reference to race people with voting rights could not be made wards. Before the 1967 referendum, this excluded few apart from Aborigines.
Australia voluntarily pledged itself to certain standards of conduct under the banner of international human rights the UN Charter of 1945, the UN Resolution of 1946 declaring genocide to be a crime against humanity, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and so on. At this time “assimilation” was in its infancy, and it was to continue for several more decades, despite the fact that the policy itself, and practices such as the forcible removal of children, were both generally and specifically outlawed under the various declarations Australia had signed (see also the discussion of genocide below).
Lets turn now to the treatment of Indigenous children and how it fits with the ideas of the time about the raising and treatment of children.
In our society, the family is held up as the foundation of all that is worthwhile it is where we are supposed to be nurtured, loved and prepared for life in the wider world. This is not a new idea. Millions of words were written from the 1880s to the 1970s about the damage children suffer when removed from their parents, in particular the mother, and about the problems institutionalised care causes for child development.
In 1951 the United Nations released a report based on studies of maternal deprivation and its effects. The report stressed that the focus of child welfare services should be on assisting families to keep their children with them. This thinking underpins a lot of child welfare policy-making this century.
In 1955 the Australian High Court unequivocally confirmed the rights of parents to keep their children except in the most extraordinary circumstances.
“It must be conceded at once that in the ordinary case the mothers moral right to insist that her child shall remain her child is too deeply grounded in human feeling to be set aside by reason only of an opinion formed by other people that a change of relationship is likely to turn out for the greater benefit of the child.”
Yet during all these years, in the name of “assimilation” into white society, Indigenous children were deliberately stolen from their families, then systematically lied to in order to keep them out of their families. They were prevented from having any contact with their families by the suppression of letters, being moved to inaccessible places, having their files destroyed, even having their names and birthdates falsified. By and large, these things did not happen to white children who were removed from their families. And indeed, the trend with regard to white children was to return them to their families wherever possible, to arrange fostering if not at the same time as the pace of removal of Indigenous children was increasing.
“Unlike white children who came into the states control, far greater care was taken to ensure that [Aboriginal children] never saw their parents or families again. They were often given new names, and the greater distances involved in rural areas made it easier to prevent parents and children on separate missions from tracing each other.”
Many of the officials who oversaw and implemented the removal of the children tried to justify their actions with the racist claim that family bonds among Indigenous people were not as strong or as important as among whites.
“I would not hesitate for one moment to separate any half-caste from its Aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic her momentary grief might be at the time. They soon forget their offspring.”
Yet if this was the case, why did government departments go to such extraordinary lengths to make it difficult for parents to find out where their children were?
“They changed our names, they changed our religion, they changed our date of birth…Thats why today, a lot of them dont know who they are, where theyre from. Weve got to watch today that brothers arent marrying sisters; because of the Government. Children were taken from interstate and they were just put everywhere.”
“When I finally met [my mother] through an interpreter she said that because my name had been changed she had heard about the other children but shed never heard about me. And…every morning as the sun came up the whole family would wail. They did that for 32 years until they saw me again.”
Parents and other relatives tried desperately to find or maintain contact with the children, meeting with obstacles and threats at every turn.
Murrays mother was initially allowed to visit her children (under supervision) at the Townsville State Childrens Orphanage. But the visits were stopped because they had “destabilising effects”:
“That didnt deter my mother. She used to come to the school ground to visit us over the fence. The authorities found out…They had to send us to a place where she couldnt get to us. To send us anywhere on mainland Queensland she would have just followed so they sent us to…Palm Island Aboriginal Settlement…I wasnt to see my mother again for ten nightmare years.”
Pauls mother never gave up looking for her son.
“She wrote many letters to the State Welfare Authorities, pleading with them to give her son back…All these letters were shelved. The State Welfare Department treated my mother like dirt, as if she never existed. The department rejected and scoffed at all my Mothers cries and pleas for help.”
Records were destroyed, often deliberately. For example, in the Northern Territory, personal files were “culled back to only 200 records in the 1970s due to concerns their contents would embarrass the government”. And even today, it remains extraordinarily difficult to gain access to the remaining records.
The first Annual Report of the newly-established Ministry for Aboriginal Affairs in 1968 expressed concern about the illegal removal of children in Victoria, citing “unauthorised fostering arrangements” and informal separations where children were taken and their names changed to prevent their parents finding them. Government reports by this time recognised that Indigenous children were best left in their own communities, yet despite all this, the number of Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed continued to rise, from 220 in 1973 to 350 in 1976.
Economic rationalists like Howard and Herron, of course, see “benefits” only in material terms. They seem incapable of understanding the trauma of separation and the deprivation of things most Australians take for granted.
“Ive often thought, as old as I am, that it would have been nice to have known a father and mother, to know parents even for a little while, just to have had the opportunity of having a mother tuck you into bed and give you a good-night kiss but it was never to be.”
Another stolen child, Penny, reports that three of her siblings are under psychiatric care, and one of them, Trevor, has been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and sometimes gets suicidal. Yet because he has had a job for most of his life and owns a house and car,
“People…look at [Trevor] and say, Hes achieved the great Australian dream. And they dont look behind that…They look at us and say, Well, assimilation worked with those buggers. They see our lives as a success.”
Some submissions to the inquiry acknowledged the “love and care provided by non-Indigenous adoptive families (and foster families to a much lesser extent)” or recorded “appreciation for a high standard of education.
Access to education is the most frequently-cited “benefit” that stolen children are supposed to have enjoyed. Yet more often than not, their educational aspirations were denigrated and opportunities denied.
“I wanted to be a nurse, only to be told that I was nothing but an immoral black lubra, and I was only fit to work on cattle and sheep properties…I [got] that perfect 100% in my exams at the end of each year…only to be knocked back…Our education was really to train us to be domestics and to take orders.”
“I was the best in my class, I came first in all the subjects…[At a