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Bringing them Home - Chapter 11

Part 3 Consequences of Removal

Chapter 11 The Effects

The Effects

Why me; why was I taken? It's like a hole in your heart that can never heal.

Confidential evidence 162, Victoria.

Actually what you see in a lot of us is the shell, and I believe as an Aboriginal person that everything is inside of me to heal me if I know how to use it, if I know how to maintain it, if I know how to bring out and use it. But sometimes the past is just too hard to look at.

Confidential evidence 284, South Australia.

Evidence to the Inquiry presented many common features of the removal and separation practices. Children could be taken at any age. Many were taken within days of their birth (especially for adoption) and many others in early infancy. In other cases, the limited resources available dictated that the authorities wait until children were closer to school age and less demanding of staff time and skill. Most children were institutionalised more typically with other Indigenous children and with primarily non-Indigenous staff. Where fostering or adoption took place, the family was non-Indigenous in the great majority of cases.

Because the objective was to absorb the children into white society, Aboriginality was not positively affirmed. Many children experienced contempt and denigration of their Aboriginality and that of their parents or denial of their Aboriginality. In line with the common objective, many children were told either that their families had rejected them or that their families were dead. Most often family members were unable to keep in touch with the child. This cut the child off from his or her roots and meant the child was at the mercy of institution staff or foster parents. Many were exploited and abused. Few who gave evidence to the Inquiry had been happy and secure. Those few had become closely attached to institution staff or found loving and supportive adoptive families.

In this Part we detail the evidence and the research findings relating to the effects of these experiences. The Inquiry was told that the effects damage the children who were forcibly removed, their parents and siblings and their communities. Subsequent generations continue to suffer the effects of parents and grandparents having been forcibly removed, institutionalised, denied contact with their Aboriginality and in some cases traumatised and abused.

It is difficult to capture the complexity of the effects for each individual. Each individual will react differently, even to similar traumas. For the majority of witnesses to the Inquiry, the effects have been multiple and profoundly disabling. An evaluation of the following material should take into account the ongoing impacts and their compounding effects causing a cycle of damage from which it is difficult to escape unaided. Psychological and emotional damage renders many people less able to learn social skills and survival skills. Their ability to operate successfully in the world is impaired causing low educational achievement, unemployment and consequent poverty. These in turn cause their own emotional distress leading some to perpetrate violence, self-harm, substance abuse or anti-social behaviour.

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Garadjari baby - a fortnight old

Courtesy Battye Library BA 368/8 3/7A




I've often thought, as old as I am, that it would have been lovely to have known a father and a 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.

Confidential evidence 65, Tasmania: child fostered at 2 months in 1936.

It never goes away. Just `cause we're not walking around on crutches or with bandages or plasters on our legs and arms, doesn't mean we're not hurting. Just `cause you can't see it doesn't mean ... I suspect I'll carry these sorts of wounds `til the day I die. I'd just like it to be not quite as intense, that's all.

Confidential evidence 580, Queensland.


Eric's story is told by his psychiatrist.

Eric was removed from parental care in 1957 when he was aged one.

[All of his mother's children were eventually removed: one younger sister went to live with her grandmother; the other sister and a brother were fostered and later adopted. Eric and his older brother Kevin were placed in an orphanage in South Australia.]

Eric recalls being in an institution from the age of two and a half to six before he and Kevin were placed in the care of foster parents who Eric stayed with until the age of 11. Apparently he was then transferred to the care of an uncle and aunt. Kevin in the meantime had become `out of control', and Eric and Kevin had been separated, with Kevin being sent to a boys' home while Eric remained in the care of his foster mother.

When Eric was sent to his uncle and aunt he stayed with them until about the age of 13 or 15 when he recalls running away because `there was too much alcohol and violence'. He ran back to Adelaide and refused to return to the care of his uncle and aunt. He was then placed in a further foster placement which he remembers as being slightly better for the next 3-4 years, but left there at the age of 17.

At 17, Eric became a street kid and once again he met up with his brother Kevin. Not surprisingly, Eric felt very attached to his brother Kevin because it was the only family contact available to him at that time. He tells me that Kevin was mixing with criminals in Adelaide and that in 1972 Kevin just disappeared. Eric never saw him again, but Eric then returned to stay with his foster parents for a while at the age of 18 or 19. He then recalls becoming an itinerant for a few years ... When he returned to South Australia, he was told that Kevin had died in the custody of police in Castlemaine whilst an inmate of the prison there.

Eric is brought easily to tears as he recalls the events in his life. In his own words, the most significant pain for him has been the loss of family and the separation from his own kin and his culture. When speaking of members of his family he feels a great emotional pain, that in fact he doesn't believe that there is anyone left close to him, he feels as if he has been deprived of contact with his mother and his siblings by the separation at a young age, and he feels acutely the pain of his brother's death in custody. The cumulative effects of these events for him are that he feels a great difficulty trusting anyone. He finds that when he turns to his own people their contact is unreliable. Whilst at some levels supportive, he doesn't feel able to trust the ongoing contact. His brothers have no long term training to be part of a family so that from time to time, out of their own aching, they will contact Eric, but they do not maintain contact. Eric finds these renewed contacts and separations from time to time painful because in a sense they give him a window of what was available to him in the form of family support and what has been taken from him. In some ways he yearns to be closer to his family and in other ways he feels that whatever contact he has, always ends up being painful for him.

He tells me that he feels constantly afraid with a sense of fear residing in his chest, that he is usually anxious and very jumpy and uptight. He feels angry with his own race, at the hurt that they have done to him, he feels that particularly the members of his own tribe exposed him to a life of alcohol, drugs and violence which has quickly turned against him.

He says looking within himself that he's a kind-hearted person, that it's not him to be angry or violent, but he certainly recalls a period of time in his life when it was the only behaviour that he felt able to use to protect himself ... He feels that throughout his life he has had no anchor, no resting place, no relationship he could rely on or trust, and consequently he has shut people out of his life for the bigger proportion of his life. He tells me that the level of rejection he has experienced hurts immensely. In fact, he says, `it tears me apart'. He tries very hard not to think about too much from the past because it hurts too much, but he finds all the anger and the hurt, the humiliation, the beatings, the rejection of the past, from time to time boil up in him and overflow, expressing itself in verbal abuse of [de facto] and in violent outbursts.

Eric often relates feelings of fear. He remembers from his childhood, feelings of intense fear. He has related to me incidents from his foster mother who he was with from the age of 6-11. He specifies particular details of physical cruelty and physical assault as well as emotional deprivation and punishment that would, in this age, be perceived as cruel in the extreme. Eric describes to me that, throughout his childhood, he would wet himself and that he had a problem with bed wetting, but he also would receive punishment for these problems. He lived in fear of his foster mother. When he was taken away from her and brought again before the welfare authorities he was too afraid to tell them what had happened to him. At that stage, he and his brother Kevin were separated and Eric found that separation extremely painful because he was too frightened to be left alone with that foster mother.

One of the effects that Eric identifies in himself is that, because of the violence in his past, when he himself becomes angry or confused, he feels the anger, the rage and the violence welling up within him. He tells me `I could have done myself in years ago, but something kept me going'.

In the light of the research findings, Eric's experiences of separation were both highly traumatic for him and also occurred at an age when he would have been most vulnerable to serious disturbance. For Eric too the separation involved a disruption to his cultural and racial identity.

It is apparent to me that a fundamental diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is fitting. Eric's symptomatology is obviously severe and chronic. In addition, it is clear that he deals with many deep emotional wounds that do not clearly fit [this] diagnostic classification. His deep sense of loss and abandonment, his sense of alienation, and his gross sense of betrayal and mistrust are normal responses to a tragic life cycle. Having said this, it is also apparent that he deals from time to time with Major Depressive Episodes.

Confidential submission 64, Victoria.


The effects of separation from the primary carer

  • It has been argued that early loss of a mother or prolonged separation from her before age 11 is conducive to subsequent depression, choice of an inappropriate partner, and difficulties in parenting the next generation. Anti-social activity, violence, depression and suicide have also been suggested as likely results of the severe disruption of affectional bonds (Australian Association of Infant Mental Health submission 699 page 3 citing Bowlby 1988 page 174; supported by Dr Nick Kowalenko, Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW, evidence 740).


The quality of an individual's future social relationships is profoundly affected by a baby's first experiences (Wolkind and Rutter 1984 page 34). As early as 1951, John Bowlby identified infant separation from the primary carer and institutionalisation as causally connected to a variety of psychiatric disorders in adulthood ranging from anxiety and depression to psychopathic personality (Bowlby 1951, Wolkind and Rutter 1984 page 34). The reason for this seems to be that the primary carer was not replaced by a person with whom the child could form a loving attachment. (This is not to deny that sometimes the infant's primary care-giver poses risks to the child and must be replaced.)

... there is a substantial body of evidence to show that discordant or disruptive family relationships in early life, and a marked lack of parental affection, are both associated with a substantially increased likelihood of both emotional disturbance and personality disorders in adult life (Wolkind and Rutter 1984 page 38).

The biological `purpose' of an infant's instinct to form an attachment is `to provide emotional security and social autonomy'. The relationship between an infant and his or her primary carer has been described as `a secure base (a) from which to explore and learn about the world and (b) to which the infant can retreat when "danger" in the form of novelty, fatigue, illness or other distress threatens (Australian Association of Infant Mental Health submission 699 page 2).

The strong and healthy bond that a child develops towards family in early years is the foundation for future relationships with others, and for physical, social and psychological development. When a child has a strong and healthy attachment to family, both trust in others and reliance on self can develop.

Most families provide growing children with stories of their past that help children gain a sense of self, belonging and a sense of history.

Attachment helps the child to:

  • achieve full intellectual potential
  • attain cultural identity
  • sort out perceptions
  • know the importance of family
  • think logically
  • develop a conscience
  • become self reliant
  • cope with stress and frustration
  • handle fear and worry
  • develop future relationships (Swan 1988 page 4)

The evidence establishes that attachment occurs in infancy and that disruption to the process of attachment at this stage of development is most damaging. Between one-half and two-thirds of children forcibly removed were removed in infancy (before the age of five years). The following table summarises the available information on age of removal among clients surveyed by the Aboriginal Legal Service of WA and among witnesses to the Inquiry.

Age at removal

  • <

    Age at removal

    ALSWA clients*

    Inquiry witnesses


    < 1 year

    na   83 22.4%  
    1 - < 2 years     28 7.5%  
    0 - < 2 years 57 11.8%      
    2 - 5 years 137 28.4% 97 26.1%  
    6 - 10 years 147 30.4% 86 23.2%  
    11 - 15 years 33 6.8% 34 9.2%  
    Not recorded

    109 22.6% 43 11.6%  

    483 100% 371 100%  

* Submission 127 page 44.

Skills and learning

Separation can affect a range of skills. Some developmental stages regress only temporarily while others can be permanently depressed. Dr Nick Kowalenko, Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital, summarised some of the research in evidence to the Inquiry.

In the last 30 or 40 years there has been a lot of work in the psychological and psychiatric spheres particularly in looking at what we call attachment theory. The issues of bonding between parents and their children have been a lot more closely examined originally from observing the separation of infants and younger children from their parents when they were hospitalised. Observations were made about how deleterious even those kind of quite minor infringements on the day-to-day ongoing contact that sustained children's capacity for security and which also allowed them to feel safe enough to explore the world.

What was observed just in the hospital setting was that children would start off yearning very much for their parents. They would protest and they would demand to have the nurses contact their parents or whatever. Eventually they would reach a state where they would just be bereft and not move and become very still and not explore their environment. So one of the responses of kids who may not talk about it is that they cease their exploration of their environment. It greatly impacts on their new learning, their psychological development, their sense of trust ... They learn that the world from an emotional point of view may be quite unreliable ... They will often be disrupted in terms of their previous level of skills. So if they had been toilet trained they might lose that skill for a while. Those kinds of impacts is a sort of snapshot compared to the kind of film that Aboriginal dispossession probably represents (evidence 740).

Psychotherapist Sue Wasterval and her colleagues from the Victorian Koori Kids Mental Health Network told the Inquiry that learning difficulties experienced by many Indigenous children at school may be attributable to resistance to being taught (ie to authority figures) and/or to developmental delays of cognition and language (submission 766 page 7).

When a severe disturbance occurs in the organization of attachment behaviour, it is likely to lead to learning difficulties, poor ego integration and serious control battles with the care giving adults (submission 766 page 6).

When the infant's attachment must be transferred to a large number of ever-changing adults on the staff of an institution or because of multiple foster placements, the objective of attachment behaviour is defeated. `It is not the separation as such that causes persistent psychiatric disturbance. Rather, the poor outcomes arise because the separation leads to poorer quality child care, because it sets in motion a train of other adverse experiences, or because the separation itself stems from a pattern of chronic psychosocial adversity' (Wolkind and Rutter 1984 page 46).

While this may explain, in part, the diversity of `outcomes' or long-term effects reported to the Inquiry by people who had experienced separation, the act of separation and its immediate aftermath were frequently traumatic for Indigenous children. Subsequent `carers' rarely responded appropriately to trauma reactions and grief felt for the loss of family.

Unresolved trauma and grief has its own severe consequences. There is an association between bereavement in childhood and later psychiatric disorder (Wolkind and Rutter 1984 page 47). The circumstances and consequences of bereavement render the child vulnerable to stresses, perhaps damaging the child's self-esteem and self-efficacy and often resulting in depression in adolescence and adulthood. The bereavement experienced by many forcibly removed Indigenous children was traumatic and later they were often told they had been rejected or that family members were dead (typically neither was true). They could be punished for expressions of attachment or grief.

I remember when my sister come down and visited me and I was reaching out. There was no-one there. I was just reaching out and I could see her standing there and I couldn't tell her that I'd been raped. And I never told anyone for years and years. And I've had this all inside me for years and years and years. I've been sexually abused, harassed, and then finally raped, y'know, and I've never had anyone to talk to about it ... nobody, no father, no mother, no-one. We had no-one to guide us. I felt so isolated, alienated. And I just had no-one. That's why I hit the booze. None of that family bonding, nurturing - nothing. We had nothing.

Confidential evidence 248, South Australia: woman removed as a baby in the 1940s to Colebrook; raped at 15 years in a work placement organised by Colebrook.

Disrupted parenting in infancy or early childhood renders the person less secure and more vulnerable to adolescent and adult psychological and emotional disturbances. International expert on trauma, Professor Beverley Raphael, advised the Inquiry that due to the trauma they had experienced many separated children would be likely to have difficulties in relationships because their feelings would be numbed (evidence 658). A number of witnesses spoke of this effect on them and of their inability to trust others.

There's still a lot of unresolved issues within me. One of the biggest ones is I cannot really love anyone no more. I'm sick of being hurt. Every time I used to get close to anyone they were just taken away from me. The other fact is, if I did meet someone, I don't want to have children, cos I'm frightened the welfare system would come back and take my children. Confidential evidence 528, New South Wales: man removed at 8 years in the 1970s; suffered sexual abuse in both the orphanage and foster homes organised by the church.

It's wrecking our relationship and the thing is that I just don't trust anybody half the time in my life because I don't know whether they're going to be there one minute or gone the next.

Confidential evidence 379, South Australia: woman fostered at 9 years in the 1970s.

I've always been sorta on the outerside of things. I've always had my guard up, always been suspicious and things like that, I guess.

Confidential evidence 168, South Australia: man removed to a boys' home at 6 years in the 1950s.

The consequences can be extremely severe. Bowlby concluded that `childhood loss of mother is likely to lead a person to become excessively prone to develop psychiatric symptoms and to do so especially when current personal relationships go wrong' (1988 page 174).

The youngest member of our family, Jill, was perhaps more traumatised through all this process because she grew up from the age of 9 months being institutionalised the whole time. She actually had some major trauma illnesses and trauma manifestations of institutional life evident in her life and yet nobody knew the root of it, or the cause of it, let alone knew the remedy to it. [The cottage mother] used a lot of mental cruelty on Jill - I mean, through cutting all of her hair off at one time to exert authority and to bring submission and fear into you ... making the kids look ugly and dress like boys. She did that to the younger children - well Jill in particular because she was younger and more impressionable. Jill died because of those policies in law. She committed suicide. She was 34 and death was the better thing.

Confidential evidence 265, Victoria.


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The Governor Sir Charles and Lady Gairdner with Abbot Gomez

inspecting the children of St. Joseph's Orphanage, New Norcia, WA

Courtesy Battye Library 74244P



I remember all we children being herded up, like a mob of cattle, and feeling the humiliation of being graded by the colour of our skins for the government records.

Confidential submission 332, Queensland: woman removed in the 1950s to Cootamundra Girls' Home.


The effects of institutionalisation

We had been brought up on the surrogate mother of the institution and that whole lifestyle, which did not prepare us at all for any type of family life or life whereby in the future we would be surviving or fending for ourselves; and then the survival skills that we needed in order to survive in the mainstream community, because those survival skills are certainly not skills that you learn in a major institution. And the whole family value system wasn't there and then the practice that comes with that wasn't there and put in place.

Confidential evidence 265, Victoria: four Victorian sisters who were taken into care from their father and grandmother in a brief period of parental marriage difficulties during the early 1960s.

The use of institutions for Indigenous children varied somewhat across Australia. Yet even where foster care was preferred, Indigenous children often spent time in institutions before being fostered. In Western Australia 85% of the 438 clients surveyed by the Aborignal Legal Service had spent at least part of their childhood in a mission following removal. Seventy-five (15.5%) had spent time in a government institution. Only 2.8% had been in foster care and only 3.5% had been adopted (submission 127 pages 46-49). The following table details the placement experiences of witnesses to the Inquiry for whom the information could be retrieved.

Institutional and other placements Inquiry witnesses

Placement types

Number %
Indigenous children's institution(s) 94 25.5
Mixed children's institution(s) 71 19.2
Indigenous & mixed children's institutions 30 8.1
Foster care 28 7.6
Adoption 27 7.3
Institution followed by foster/adoption 89 24.1
Foster/adoption followed by institution 15 4.1
Other, not recorded 15 4.1
Total 369 100.0

Child and adolescent psychiatrist, Dr Brent Waters, has interviewed a number of Koori adults who were removed and institutionalised as children in New South Wales in the 1940s.

There was an active discouragement of any kind of personal attachments between the children themselves to some extent, and particularly between the children and carers, and of course there was a turnover of staff as well. There was no positive affirmation of Aboriginal identity nor indeed personal identity (submission 532 page 2).

The 1940s were `the days of the hygiene movement' when the focus was on `discipline and hygiene': `whether you were clean, whether you had clean habits and whether you adhered to the program'. There was no interest in `noticing individuality, individual feelings and individual needs among children'. If an infant's expressions of his or her feelings are not responded to by carers, the child will not experience validation of those feelings as they develop. The result will be suppression of feelings and the child loses `the desire to feel and to communicate feelings and expressions to other people' (Dr Brent Waters evidence 532).

The effects of institutionalisation can be noticed immediately.

Studies of infants who have been institutionalised ... have shown them to be different in many ways from babies reared in a family environment. General impairment in their relationships to others and weakness of emotional attachment have been identified as major abnormalities in their development and behaviour ... The children's behaviour did not indicate the normal development of a sense of self (Australian Association of Infant Mental Health submission 699 pages 3-4).

Akhurst reviewed the English literature on the effects of `long stay' care in 1972. Major findings included,

  • in almost every aspect - health, physique, educational progress and a wide range of social conditions - these children as a group were at a disadvantage compared with the general child population,

  • a very high level of emotional disorder was present, especially `conduct disorders',

  • the level of maladjustment was three times that of a comparable group not in care and affected at least 15-20% of the children in institutional care,

  • the group in institutional care was more likely to suffer severe reading disability and `retardation' of other language skills, and

  • failure to learn the art of living with other people, making fewer new friends on leaving care.

The effects of institutionalisation have been found to persist into adolescence.

Early studies of children who experienced institutional care in the first 3 years of their life displayed `profound deficits in intellectual and social development'. Follow up studies of these children during adolescence revealed serious cognitive, affective, and social deficits, including disturbances in ability to form relationships, lack of anxiety or guilt over anti-social behaviour, poor impulse control, and delinquency (Bloom-Feshbach 1988 page 6).

Dr Ian Anderson of the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service pointed out that all adolescents indulge in risk-taking but that institutionalised children will do so `to a much greater extent ... because they have not been able to develop a sense of self-worth' (evidence 261). The truth of this, he suggested, is borne out in the death rates of young Aboriginal men.

The effects of forcible removal and institutionalisation persist into adulthood, appearing indeed to be life long.

... the individuals I have seen lack a sense of personal identity, personal worth and trust in others. Many have formed multiple unstable relationships, are extremely susceptible to depression, and use drugs and alcohol as a way of masking their personal pain. They see themselves as so worthless that they are easily exploited, laying themselves open to be recruited into prostitution and other forms of victimisation (Dr Brent Waters submission 532 page 2).

My feelings throughout life, of hurt, pain and neglection began as far back as I can remember ... I was taken from my family ... along with my biological brother, he also was with me through everything, if it wasn't for him, I probably would not been alive today to be able to write about my past.

Confidential submission 126, Victoria: NSW man taken to a babies' home in Melbourne at about 12 months in 1971.

Rutter and his colleagues researched the adult experiences of girls who had been institutionalised in childhood in London and found that,

[They] were much more likely than other women to experience serious difficulties in rearing their own children. An appreciable minority could not cope for one reason or another and had to give up the care of their children to other people. At the same time, the outcome proved to be quite heterogeneous, with some women functioning very well (1990 page 137).

The women who functioned well in spite of their disadvantageous upbringing were most likely those who enjoyed the `emotional support of a nondeviant spouse with whom [they] had a close, confiding, harmonious relationship'. Unfortunately, however, few of the women reared in institutions were able to find such a relationship. The women who functioned worst were those who had experienced `marked disruptions in parenting during the first 2 years of life' and `the outcome was particularly bad for girls who spent almost all of their childhood years in an institution' (Rutter et al 1990 pages 137-138).

Michael Constable noted the experiences of Victorian Koori women who had been institutionalised as girls.

[Some have] stayed in abusive relationships simply because of this sort of learned helplessness: you learn that you've got no control over your life because big authorities have said, `You're going to this institution and you're going to live this very regimented life'. You're not able to use your own judgment or initiative. You can't protest. You can't move the authorities. So in a sense some people are trapped in problems that they should be able to solve if they had confidence and belief in themselves (evidence 263).

For boys in particular a common response is delinquency. Dr Elizabeth Sommerlad surveyed Aboriginal Legal Services during the 1970s.

Officers attached to the services in Sydney, Melbourne and Darwin maintained that a large majority of clients seeking legal aid for criminal offences have a history of institutionalisation, repeated fosterings or adoption by white families ... their assertion is a reflection of the perception aboriginal officers have of the deleterious effects of removal from the support of the aboriginal community (1977 page 168).

She concluded that feelings of alienation from `white' culture and lack of identity with Aboriginal culture underlie the high incidence of criminal offending among this group (1976 page 161).

It did lead to a career in crime in which, to me, well, it wasn't the crime that turned me on, even though I was successful at it. It was getting back at society. It was kicking `em, y'know? It wasn't the crime, it was the fact that, well, I'm going to pay back now for 20 odd years. Now, I served something like 5 years in the prisons, not because I wanted to be a criminal, but because I didn't know where I was, I didn't know who I belonged to.

Confidential evidence 354, South Australia: man fostered at 2 years in the 1950s; placed in a reformatory at 14.

The Australian Law Reform Commission drew on Dr Sommerlad's work in a 1982 research paper for its Aboriginal customary law reference.

It is not possible to state with certainty that the very high rates of Aboriginal juveniles in corrective institutions and of Aborigines in prisons is a direct result of their having been placed in substitute care as children, but that there is a link between them has often been asserted and seems undeniable. In Victoria, analysis of the clients seeking assistance from the Aboriginal Legal Service for criminal charges has shown that 90% of this group have been in placement - whether fostered, institutionalised or adopted. In New South Wales, the comparable figure is 90-95% with most placements having been in white families (page 6).

Three years earlier another researcher noted that,

There are between 50 - 60 Aboriginal male and female juveniles entering our detention centres every year. That rate has been steady over the past four years. One in every three Aboriginal youth who enters detention as a result of delinquent behaviour is a white family adoption or foster-care breakdown. A further third of the Aboriginal juvenile offending population has a significant history of rearing in Children's Institutions (Palamara 1979 pages unnumbered).

A number of witnesses to the Inquiry had experienced periods of detention throughout their lives.

And every time you come back in it doesn't bother you because you're used to it and you see the same faces. It's like you never left, you know, in the end.

Confidential evidence 204, Victoria: prisoner telling of a life spent in institutions since his removal at 5 years to a children's home.

I reckon all my troubles started when I was living in them homes. That's when I first started stealing because you wasn't allowed to have anything and if I wanted something the only way I could get it is get it off someone else, get me brother or sister to buy it or just take it. We were sort of denied everything we wanted, just got what we was given and just be satisfied with that. I felt second-rate. I didn't feel like I got the love I was supposed to get; like a kid's supposed to get at that age, because they're more vulnerable at that age. They just follow people that seem to look more after them. That's why I got in with the wrong crowd, I suppose. They seemed to care more.

Confidential evidence 146, Victoria: a young father relating how he began stealing when he and his three siblings were in a family group home where all the other children were non-Koori and where he and his Koori brother and sisters received markedly less favourable treatment.

They grew up to mix up with other troubled children in Tardon and didn't know how to mix with us their mother and family, they only knew how to mix with other boys that they grew up with and these boys were into stealing, so my sons went with them, they couldn't do without the crowd that they grew up with. I couldn't tell them anything at this stage cause they felt that coloured people were nothing and that is when they went on the wrong road.

One of my sons was put into jail for four years and the other one died before he could reach the age of 21 years. It hasn't done my sons any good, the Welfare making them wards of the State and taking them away from me, they would have been better off with me their mother.

Confidential submission 338, Victoria: Western Australian mother speaking of two sons taken in the 1950s.

Helen Siggers, a former nursing sister who is now Director of the Aboriginal education centre at Monash University in Victoria, was in a position to compare Aboriginal bridging course students who had been removed with those who had not (evidence 140). She had dealt with 80 students, ten of whom had been removed as children. She observed that those not removed were `together as people', `knew about their culture', had `strong self-esteem' and `positive [intimate] relationships [of some duration]'. On the other hand, those who had been removed had experienced `years of self-destructive behaviour', an `intensity of addictions', `cardiac problems, diabetes and psychological problems', `gaol sentences' and a tendency to move `from one partner to another'. With respect to their progress in the bridging program, those not removed `accelerated in their learning' whereas those removed `were held back because they were still dealing with all the emotional stuff'. Those who were not removed were more likely to complete their planned university degrees.

Michael Constable, a community health nurse in Ballarat, also observed a `higher relationship turnover'. He told the Inquiry that he observed the stolen generations, on reaching adulthood, to be `chronically depressed' (evidence 263).

The effects of abuses and denigration

In institutions and in foster care and adoptive families, the forcibly removed children's Aboriginality was typically either hidden and denied or denigrated. Their labour was often exploited. They were exposed to substandard living conditions and a poor and truncated education. They were vulnerable to brutality and abuse. Many experienced repeated sexual abuse.

The social environment for all Indigenous Australians and the physical environment for many remain unacceptable. It is pervaded by racial intolerance and a failure to deliver adequate or appropriate basic services from housing and infrastructure to education and hospital care. Ill-health, poverty and unemployment are worse than third world levels. The 1991 NSW Aboriginal Mental Health Report (Swan and Fagan 1991) identified the factors increasing the vulnerability of the Aboriginal community to mental ill-health.

  • [I]nstitutional and public racism and discrimination

  • the continuing lack of opportunities in education and employment

  • poverty and its consequences including stress and environments of normative heavy drinking

  • inter-cultural differences in norms and expectations

  • problems associated with long family separations and the issues associated with family reunion

  • poor physical environments

  • high levels of chronic illness and high rates of premature death (Swan and Fagan 1991 page 12).

This makes it almost impossible to pinpoint family separations as the sole cause of some of the emotional issues by which Indigenous people are now troubled (Professor Ernest Hunter evidence 61, Michael Constable evidence 263). However, childhood removal is a very significant cause both in its distinctive horror and in its capacity to break down resilience and render its victims perpetually vulnerable. Evidence to the Inquiry establishes clearly that the childhood experience of forcible removal and institutionalisation or multiple fostering makes those people much more likely to suffer emotional distress than others in the Indigenous community.

The psychiatric report concerning one witness to the Inquiry illustrates the persistence of vulnerability.

She told me of her mother's death very shortly after she was born, and how when her father came to collect her from the hospital a few days later, she had already been removed as per the Indigenous Family Separation Policy. She was brought up in Colebrook Children's Home away from her father and siblings. She remembers him coming to visit her on occasions and being devastated when he had to leave. She also remembers being sexually abused by the wife of the Superintendent at Colebrook, on several occasions, giving rise to a distrust of so-called caregivers, especially females ... While she was still at school, she worked as a housekeeper for a local Minister and alleges that during this time, he regularly and deliberately exposed himself to her. Not having anyone to turn to, this was a confusing and frightening experience. Following leaving school, she was placed in domestic service with a lay minister also associated with the Children's Home. This man raped her but she did not feel able to tell anyone as she felt profoundly ashamed and frightened. She was fifteen years old at the time. After this she was placed at Resthaven Nursing Home, which she believes was a strategy to get rid of her.

Ms S developed problems with depression and alcohol abuse following the death of her father in 1971. Her difficulties were also compounded by her unhappy marital situation, which was characterised by her alcoholic husband's physical and sexual assault of her on a regular basis. [Diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder 1979. Hospitalised for the first time 1985.]

Unfortunately, the effects of ongoing alcohol and substance abuse contributed to frequent short-lived depressive episodes with suicidal ideation. Her substance abuse was the result of the difficulty she experienced coming to terms with the diagnosis of manic-depressive disorder, her significant family problems and the effects of a childhood where she was dislocated from her family of origin, thus leaving her vulnerable to the events which followed (document provided with confidential evidence 248, South Australia).

Sexual Abuse

Many children experienced brutality and abuse in children's homes and foster placements. In the WA Aboriginal Legal Service sample of 483 people who had been forcibly removed, almost two-thirds (62.1%) reported having been physically abused (submission 127 page 50). Children were more likely to have been physically abused on missions (62.8% of those placed on missions) than in foster care (33.8%) or government institutions (30.7%) (submission 127 page 53).

Witnesses to the Inquiry were not specifically asked whether they had experienced physical abuse. Nevertheless, 28% reported that they had suffered physical brutality much more severe, in the Inquiry's estimation, than the typically severe punishments of the day.

Stories of sexual exploitation and abuse were common in evidence to the Inquiry. Nationally at least one in every six (17.5%) witnesses to the Inquiry reported such victimisation. A similar proportion (13.3%) reported sexual abuse to the WA Aboriginal Legal Service: 14.5% of those fostered and 10.9% of those placed on missions (submission 127 pages 51-53).

These vulnerable children had no-one to turn to for protection or comfort. They were rarely believed if they disclosed the abuse.

There are many well recognised psychological impacts of childhood sexual abuse (Finkelhor and Brown 1986). They include confusion about sexual identity and sexual norms, confusion of sex with love and aversion to sex or intimacy. When the child is blamed or is not believed, others can be added including guilt, shame, lowered self-esteem and a sense of being different from others. Wolfe (1990) concluded that the impacts amount to a variant of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. They reported effects including sleep disturbance, irritability and concentration difficulties (associated with hyper arousal), fears, anxiety, depression and guilt (page 216). Repeated victimisation compounds these effects.

People subjected to prolonged, repeated trauma develop an insidious progressive form of post-traumatic stress disorder that invades and erodes the personality. While the victim of a single acute trauma may feel after the event that she is `not herself,' the victim of chronic trauma may feel herself to be changed irrevocably, or she may lose the sense that she has any self at all (Hermann 1992 page 86).

Post-trauma effects can be mitigated for children with a strong self-concept and strong social supports. Few of the witnesses to the Inquiry who reported sexual abuse in childhood were so fortunate. The common psychological impacts have often manifested in isolation, drug or alcohol abuse, criminal involvement, self-mutilation and/or suicide.

There is no doubt that children who have been traumatised become a lot more anxious and fearful of the world and one of the impacts is that they don't explore the world as much. Secondly, a certain amount of abuse over time certainly causes a phenomenon of what we call emotional numbing where, because of the lack of trust in the outside world, children learn to blunt their emotions and in that way restrict their spontaneity and responsiveness. That can become an ingrained pattern that becomes lifelong really and certainly when they then become parents it becomes far more difficult for them to be spontaneous and open and trusting and loving in terms of their own emotional availability and responsiveness to their children (Dr Nick Kowalenko evidence 740).

Oliver (1993, reported by Raphael et al 1996 on page 13) `found that approximately one-third of child victims of abuse grow up to have significant difficulties parenting, or become abusive of their own children. One-third do not have these outcomes but the other third remain vulnerable, and, in the face of social stress there was an increased likelihood of them becoming abusive'.

Other trauma

Separation and institutionalisation can amount to traumas. Almost invariably they were traumatically carried out with force, lies, regimentation and an absence of comfort and affection. All too often they also involved brutality and abuse. Trauma compounded trauma. No counselling was ever provided. These traumas `have impacted particularly in creating high levels of depression and complex PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]'. PTSD `has a lot of somatic symptoms, impact on personality, on impulse control, and often leads to ongoing patterns of abuse' (Professor Beverley Raphael evidence 658).

A representative from the Western Australian Health Department recognised the impacts of the removal policies.

The negative health impact of past laws and practices have resulted in a range of mental health problems associated with the trauma, including grief and severe depression and self-damaging behaviour, including self-mutilation, alcohol and substance abuse and suicide (Marion Kickett evidence).

Trauma experienced in childhood becomes embedded in the personality and physical development of the child. Its effects, while diverse, may properly be described as `chronic'. These children are more likely to `choose' trauma-prone living situations in adulthood and are particularly vulnerable to the ill-effects of later stressors.

Dr Jane McKendrick and her colleagues in Victoria in the mid-1980s surveyed an Aboriginal general medical practice population by interviewing participants twice over a three-year period. One-third of the participants had been separated from their Aboriginal families and communities during childhood. Most of the separations had occurred before the child had reached 10 years of age and lasted until adulthood. Most of the separations were believed by the children to have been on `welfare' grounds (and not because parents were deceased or had voluntarily relinquished them).

These separated people were twice as likely to suffer psychological distress in adulthood than the remainder of the participants: 90% of participants who had been separated were psychologically distressed for most of the three years of the study, compared with 45% of the participants who had been brought up within their Aboriginal families. Depression accounted for nearly 90% of diagnoses. Factors offering protection against the development of depression and other distress included a strong Aboriginal identity, frequent contact with ones Aboriginal extended family and knowledge of Aboriginal culture.

Overall, two-thirds of the Aboriginal participants were found to be significantly psychologically distressed throughout the three years of the study. The contrast with non-Indigenous general practice populations is telling. `The rates of psychological distress in non Aboriginal general practice samples vary from 15 to 30 per cent.

However, in contrast to the situation in this Aboriginal group, most of these disorders amongst the general population are short lived, resolving within one to six months' (Dr Jane McKendrick, Victorian Aboriginal Mental Health Network, submission 310 pages 19 and 23).

I still to this day go through stages of depression. Not that I've ever taken anything for it - except alcohol. I didn't drink for a long time. But when I drink a lot it comes back to me. I end up kind of cracking up.

Confidential evidence 529, New South Wales: woman fostered as a baby in the 1970s.

The Inquiry was told of two South Australian studies which also linked psychiatric disorders and the removal policies.

Clayer and Dwakaran-Brown (1991) conducted a study of mental and behavioural problems in an urban Aboriginal population (n=530). They reported a 35% rate of psychiatric disorder. 31% of the total population studied had been separated from their parents by the age of 14 years. Absence of a father and traditional teachings in the first fourteen years correlated significantly with suicide attempts which were at much higher rates than the general population. Similar problem levels were found in Radford et al's (1991) study in Adelaide with many of those showing high levels of suicidal behaviours having been separated from families and brought up in institutions (Professor Beverley Raphael submission 658).

The Sydney Aboriginal Mental Health Unit advised the Inquiry of its experience with patients presenting with emotional distress.

This tragic experience, across several generations, has resulted in incalculable trauma, depression and major mental health problems for Aboriginal people. Careful history taking during the assessment of most individuals [ie clients] and families identifies separation by one means or another - initially the systematic forced removal of children and now the continuing removal by Community Services or the magistracy for detention of children ... This process has been tantamount to a continuing cultural and spiritual genocide both as an individual and a community experience and we believe that it has been the single most significant factor in emotional and mental health problems which in turn have impacted on physical health (submission 650 pages 4-5).

The Unit identified the risk of `major depressive disorder and use of alcohol and other drugs to ease feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, marginalisation, discrimination and dispossession, leading to breakdown in relationships, domestic violence and abuse' among its clients. The forcible removal policies are seen as the principal cause of these `presenting issues' (submission 650).

I now understand why I find it so very hard to leave my home, to find a job, to be a part of what is out there. I have panic attacks when I have to go anywhere I don't know well and feel safe. Fear consumes me at times and I have to plan my life carefully so that I can lead as `normal' an existence as possible. I blame welfare for this. What I needed to do was to be with my family and my mother, but that opportunity was denied me.

Confidential submission 483, South Australia: woman fostered at 18 months in the 1960s.

One consequence of chronic depression is very poor physical health. Dr Ian Anderson and Professor Beverley Raphael both expanded on this point in evidence.

This also had a multi-dimensional impact in terms of people's health ... including the development and progress towards diseases such as heart disease, hypertension and so on ... it has been argued for some time that there are many social factors implicated in the development of what we call physical illnesses such as heart disease. However, the association between what is often termed social stressors and the development of disease is difficult to prove using the traditional methods of health sciences or epidemiology ... However, there are some health analyses which are very suggestive on, for example, an association between things like how connected you are - what sort of social support you have, how socially connected you are to your own community - and the development of disease processes like high blood pressure [which is] closely linked to heart disease and diabetes (Dr Ian Anderson evidence 261).

Holocaust studies suggested it [trauma] could impact on the functioning of the brain as well as the immune system. There have been recent studies of trauma such as Vietnam veterans' combat experience without damage [ie without physical injury being incurred] showing changes in brain structure and function as a result of the traumatic experience (Professor Beverley Raphael evidence 658).

Victims of traumatic separation are less likely to follow a treatment regime properly.

It's very hard to get people with these sort of depression and anxieties and insecurities and uncertainties about themselves to actually care about being healthy (Michael Constable evidence 263). The result of that sort of [separation] process was one which fragmented the identity of many people in quite a profound way. That has an impact on people's sense of who they are, how you fit into the world and where you're going - what in technical terms people call your sense of coherence. It also destroyed the sense of worth of being Aboriginal and fragmented people's sense of identity, and this is something which happened not just to the people who were taken away but it has also happened to the families who were left behind. Now this whole process in a psychological sense fundamentally impacts on how people look after themselves ... It makes it even more difficult for people who do have physical illness to take complicated treatments over a long period of time ... Individuals may not have the self-esteem or self-worth to actually come in for care in the first instance or for follow-up management (Dr Ian Anderson evidence 261).

Alcohol is the `treatment of choice' for many with acute depression.

If they hadn't used alcohol they probably would have committed suicide ... You can't be here to carry that sort of pain and depression. We're incapable of staying alive with that sort of feeling, and alcohol was a sort of first aid (Michael Constable evidence 263).

The sorts of things that can happen with people who are having flashbacks of traumatic events is that it can cause such psychic pain that the person might start to drink heavily or use other psycho-active substances heavily (Dr Jane McKendrick evidence 310).

Judith Hermann has pointed to evidence that a chemical reaction occurs in the brain at the time of a traumatic event. This helps the victim to survive the event psychologically intact by permitting a degree of dissociation from it. However `traumatized people who cannot spontaneously dissociate may attempt to produce similar numbing effects by using alcohol or narcotics'. Thus `traumatized people run a high risk of compounding their difficulties by developing dependence on alcohol or other drugs' (1992 page 44).

I drank a lot when I was younger, y'know. I still do I guess. I don't drink as much now, but I still do and there's never been anything ... any pleasure in it. I guess I don't know whether it's a hangover from seeing the old man do it ... whether it's because of that or whether it's because of other issues which I just wouldn't, couldn't confront ... I'd have nights where I'd sit down and think about things. There was no answers.

Confidential evidence 168, South Australia: man removed to a boys' home at 6 years in the 1950s.

I tried to look forward. As I say, every time I'd look back as in trying to find out exactly who I was and what my history was, I'd have real bad attacks of Vic. Bitter.

Confidential evidence 156, Victoria: man whose mother had also been removed as a child; he was taken from her at a very young age when she suffered a nervous breakdown and was raised in a children's home.

The following table summarises the findings of the WA Aboriginal Legal Service survey of 483 clients who had been forcibly removed. Caution should be used in interpreting these findings because of the high proportion of participants who did not respond to these questions.

After-effects of forcible removal




No answer


Physical ill-health
Mental problems
Substance abuse

Source: Aboriginal Legal Service of WA submission 127 pages 54-55.


Institutionalised Indigenous children faced a hazard over and above that experienced by institutionalised non-Indigenous children. This was the continual denigration of their own Aboriginality and that of their families.

I didn't know any Aboriginal people at all - none at all. I was placed in a white family and I was just - I was white. I never knew, I never accepted myself to being a black person until - I don't know - I don't know if you ever really do accept yourself as being ... How can you be proud of being Aboriginal after all the humiliation and the anger and the hatred you have? It's unbelievable how much you can hold inside.

Confidential evidence 152, Victoria.

The assimilation policy seemed to demand that the children reject their families. The tactics used to ensure this ranged from continual denigration of Aboriginal people and values to lies about the attitudes of families to the children themselves. Many children were told their parents were dead. Dr Peter Read told the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that,

The most profound effect of institutionalization, which overrides other well-documented effects of institutionalization generally, was the persistent attempt by authorities to force the boys to identify as European ... One was a positive reinforcement of the European model, the other was a negative portrayal of Aboriginality combined with a withholding from the boys of any particular knowledge of their immediate family or of Aborigines generally (quoted in National Report Volume 2 page 76).

The complete separation of the children from any connection, communication or knowledge about their Indigenous heritage has had profound effects on their experience of Aboriginality and their participation in the Aboriginal community as adults.


Warning: The following link may contain images of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons.

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Aboriginal elder showing youth tree carvings, Port Macquarie area, NSW, 1905

Courtesy Bicentennial Copying Project, State Library of New South Wales.




It was forbidden for us to talk in our own language. If we had been able we would have retained it ... we weren't allowed to talk about anything that belonged to our tribal life.

Pring 1990 page 18 quoting Muriel Olsson, removed to Colebook, South Australia, at the age of 5.


The effects of separation from the Indigenous community

I went through an identity crisis. And our identity is where we come from and who we are. And I think, instead of compensation being in the form of large sums of money, I personally would like to see it go into some form of land acquisition for the people who were taken away, if they so wish, to have a place that they can call their own and that they can give to their children. My wife and I are trying to break this cycle, trying our hardest to break this cycle of shattered families. We're going to make sure that we stick together and bring our children up so they know who they are, what they are and where they came from.

Confidential evidence 696, New South Wales: man happily adopted into a non-Indigenous family at 13 months in the 1960s.

Cultural knowledge

One principal effect of the forcible removal policies was the destruction of cultural links. This was of course their declared aim. The children were to be prevented from acquiring the habits and customs of the Aborigines (South Australia's Protector of Aborigines in 1909); the young people will merge into the present civilisation and become worthy citizens (NSW Colonial Secretary in 1915). Culture, language, land and identity were to be stripped from the children in the hope that the traditional law and culture would die by losing their claim on them and sustenance of them.

The culture that we should have had has been taken away. No, it's not that I don't like the people or whatever, it's just that I'd never really mixed with them to understand what it is to be part of the tribal system, which is the big thing ...

Confidential evidence 160, Victoria: removed to an orphanage in the mid-1940s.

... they have been deprived of their right to the songs and the spiritual and cultural heritage that was theirs, and I think there are direct financial consequences of that. I mean, in doing so, they have been removed from the very link which most land rights legislation demands in order for your rights to native title to be recognised. So in effect their removal in that way from their own family and context was also to deprive them of certain legal rights that we later recognised ...

... the cost is not only confined to inheritance losses, the loss of rights from father to son, mother to daughter; they also lost their sense of identity very clearly (Rev. Bernie Clarke, Uniting Church, former Superintendent at Croker Island Mission, evidence 119).

The response of some people `brought up to be white' is to deny their heritage. In turn their descendants are disinherited.

If just one Aboriginal person denies their Aboriginality, by the third generation of descendants from that person, there may be 50 or 60 Aboriginals who up to now were not aware of their heritage (Link-Up (NSW) submission 186 page 165).

Others work to renew their cultural links.

When we left Port Augusta, when they took us away, we could only talk Aboriginal. We only knew one language and when we went down there, well we had to communicate somehow. Anyway, when I come back I couldn't even speak my own language. And that really buggered my identity up. It took me 40 odd years before I became a man in my own people's eyes, through Aboriginal law. Whereas I should've went through that when I was about 12 years of age.

Confidential evidence 179, South Australia: man removed as an `experiment' in assimilation to a Church of England boys' home in the 1950s.

I had to relearn lots of things. I had to relearn humour, ways of sitting, ways of being which were another way totally to what I was actually brought up with. It was like having to re-do me, I suppose. The thing that people were denied in being removed from family was that they were denied being read as Aboriginal people, they were denied being educated in an Aboriginal way.

Confidential evidence 71, New South Wales: woman who lived from 5 months to 16 years in Cootamundra Girls' Home in the 1950s and 1960s.

Indigenous identity

Many witnesses spoke of their strong sense of not belonging either in the Indigenous community or in the non-Indigenous community.

You spend your whole life wondering where you fit. You're not white enough to be white and your skin isn't black enough to be black either, and it really does come down to that.

Confidential evidence 210, Victoria.

I felt like a stranger in Ernabella, a stranger in my father's people. We had no identity with the land, no identity with a certain people. I've decided in the last 10, 11 years to, y'know, I went through the law. I've been learning culture and learning everything that goes with it because I felt, growing up, that I wasn't really a blackfella. You hear whitefellas tell you you're a blackfella. But blackfellas tell you you're a whitefella. So you're caught in a half-caste world.

Confidential evidence 289, South Australia: speaker's father was removed and the speaker grew up in Adelaide.

The policies of separation were often administered in such a way as would directly cause feelings of alienation.

I was taken there because I was `half-caste'. I started thinking, `Why do I deserve to be treated like this?' But as the years went by, I sort of accepted all that. We were treated differently to white and black people. We weren't allowed to go down to see our Aboriginal people, or go into the houses where the white people were. We just had to live around the outside of the house. They made us feel like we weren't allowed to do anything: no freedom of movement, even to think for yourself. They had to tell you what to do, and how to think.

We were locked up in the dormitories, and had to go and ask for anything. We had to go and ask if we could go and see our people. We were more or less like slaves, I think. We didn't think that was wrong. We just thought it was our duty. We did what we were told.

Years later, when we were grown up, our own boss - by this time we were married and having our children - we were having families and still couldn't go up and ask the managers if we could get married. They had to tell you who you had to marry. We didn't know what was their plans for us. We just lived and did what we were told.

I was almost ashamed to be half-caste sometimes. I had no confidence in myself, or how to make up my mind what to do ... When I was growing up I wanted to be a teacher or a nurse. But you couldn't say that because you had to go to school and go out and work in the house, do domestic duties. That's what they said. We lost much of our culture, our language and traditional knowledge, our kinship and our land.

Confidential evidence 821, Western Australia: woman removed to Moola Bulla Station at 5 years in 1944.

This loss of identity has ramifications for individuals' well-being and in turn for the well-being of their families.

The alienation from culture can create an increase in anger and frustration which can also lead to increases in violence and lawlessness, and we're talking here about a profound sense of alienation ... a lack of ego strength, a lack of the capacity to test reality ...

I think there is a connection between people's loss of identity and their experience of lawlessness and being gaoled and then losing that sense of identity within the context of that very big institution and the experience of total alienation from themselves, resulting in death (Lynne Datnow, Victorian Koori Kids Mental Health Network, evidence 135).

... it is our experience that most Aborigines raised within the Tasmanian Aboriginal community are far more secure in where they belong than are those who were raised outside the Aboriginal community. We have seen Aborigines raised outside the community being confused, uncertain and insecure about their belonging. That is not, of course, the case with every displaced child (Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre submission 325).

Anna's story illustrates the inter-generational transfer of the effects of forcible removal. Anna's Koori grandmother was forcibly removed from her family and her mother abandoned her when she was six years old. In time Anna moved in with her uncle and his family and only then, at the age of 16, did she realise her Koori heritage. She sought to identify herself as Koori but her uncle opposed this. She was forced to leave home, joining the airforce after concealing her true age. Anna continues to experience problems relating to her Indigenous identity (confidential evidence 217, Victoria).

Native title

The removal of `Stolen Generations' people from their families has, in the majority of cases, prevented them from acquiring language, culture and the ability to carry out traditional responsibilities and in many cases, has prevented them from establishing their genealogical links.

`Stolen Generations' people are therefore prevented or seriously prejudiced from successfully asserting rights under the LRA [Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth)] or NTA [Native Title Act 1993 (Cth)] (Central Land Council submission 495 pages 2-3).

Separation has broken or disrupted not only the links that Aboriginals have with other Aboriginals, but importantly, the spiritual connection we should have had with our country, our land. It is vital to our healing process that these bonds be re-established or re-affirmed (Link-Up (NSW) submission 186 page 14).

Separation from their families has dramatically affected people's land entitlements as summarised for the Inquiry by the legal firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth (submission 704). In all jurisdictions the ability to bring a native title claim will generally be extinguished by forced removal. The Full Court of the Federal Court considered an analogous situation in the case of Kanak in 1995 and concluded that,

... native title can be enjoyed only by members of an identifiable community who are entitled to enjoy the land under the traditionally based laws and customs, as currently acknowledged and observed, of that community. Individuals may have native title rights that are protected, but these rights are dependent upon the existence of communal native title and are `carved out' of that title. The only persons entitled to claim native title are those who can show biological descent from the indigenous people entitled to enjoy the land under the laws and customs of their own clan or group.

Establishing `biological descent' is the first hurdle for separated people seeking to re-establish their relationship with `their' land. The person must be able to trace his or her family and the family's community of origin must be known. Although a separated person is unlikely to be able to sustain a native title claim independently (and native title claims are collective claims in any event), a person who has been accepted back into his or her community of origin may participate in a claim brought by that community.

It is possible for Aboriginal people who were removed from their traditional families to become a participant in a collective claim by a group or clan of Aboriginals. However, in order for this to happen it would first be necessary for them to be accepted as a member of the Aboriginal community which has collectively maintained the requisite use and spiritual and cultural ties to the land that have allowed the group's native title to survive.

As a matter of practicality, Aboriginal people who have been removed from their families may be accepted back into Aboriginal communities. The issue is one for the Aboriginal clan or group to decide. However, there may be traditional laws and customs which govern the acceptance of people in the community and it is possible they may be refused permission to rejoin a community, or refused recognition as a member of a community, because they have not participated in the traditional and cultural activities of that community for a length of time. If this is the case, the disentitlement to claim as a member of a group would be a direct result of the forced separation of that person from the community as a child (Corrs Chambers Westgarth submission 704 page 27).

Including a person who has yet to be fully reintegrated into the traditional laws relating to the land in a claimant group may jeopardise the land claim under some legislation, for example the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth), although the Inquiry received no evidence that this has occurred. However, once a claim is successful (for example under the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth)), or once traditional lands have been granted (for example under the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 (SA)), it is entirely up to the traditional owners to decide whether they will accept a person taken away in childhood and permit him or her to share in the enjoyment of the land.

Where collective land ownership is vested in an association, the rules of the association usually provide for the acceptance of new members (for example Aboriginal Land Grant (Jervis Bay Territory) Act 1986 (Cth); Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 (NSW)).

Under some legislation a requirement of a period of uninterrupted residence is imposed before the person can become a member of the land-owning group (for example with respect to Framlingham Forest, Victoria, under the Aboriginal Land (Lake Condah and Framlingham Forest) Act 1987 (Cth)).

We can't even claim for that, because we're not living on it. But that's not our fault. The Government took us off our land, so how can we get land rights when this is what the Government has done to us?

Confidential evidence 450, New South Wales: woman removed at 2 years in the 1940s, first to Bomaderry Children's Home, then to Cootamundra Girls' Home; now working to assist former Cootamundra inmates.

I have no legal claim to come back here. I can't speak on the board of management, I'm not a living member out here on this mission. What right have I got to speak out here? And this is the way that a lot of the Aboriginals living on this mission see me - as a blow-in, a blow-through. Yet I've got family that are buried out here on the mission ... and I have no rights. As an Aboriginal I don't have any rights out here.

Confidential evidence 207, Victoria: man whose mother was removed from Lake Tyers as a child; mother buried at Lake Tyers.

Although they may not be able to make land claims based on a traditional connection to the land, some separated people may succeed by proving an `historical association' instead. Queensland (Aboriginal Land Act 1991 section 54 and Torres Strait Islander Land Act 1991 section 51), New South Wales (Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983) and the Northern Territory (Pastoral Land Act 1992 with respect to pastoral excisions for community residential areas) all recognise this as a basis for claim. Thus, a group dispersed from their traditional lands and detained on a mission station may be able to reclaim the mission land on the basis of historical association.

Queensland also permits claims based on a group's need for `economic or cultural viability' (Aboriginal Land Act 1991 section 55, Torres Strait Islander Land Act 1991 section 52). The group's land claim may succeed if it shows the land would assist in restoring, maintaining or enhancing the capacity for self-development and the self-reliance and cultural integrity of the group.

A number of governments have established funds to permit the acquisition of land for Aboriginal groups or communities, regardless of their traditional or historic ties. The primary basis for these land purchases will be cultural or economic need. Such land would also usually be held collectively. The principal fund is the Commonwealth's Indigenous Land Fund established in 1995 for the purchase of land for Indigenous corporations. The New South Wales Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 also established a fund from which land could be purchased for economic or other purposes.


We always lived by ourselves. Not that we thought we were better than any other Koori family. It's just that the white welfare, if they seen a group of Koori families together, they would step in and take their children away never to be seen again.

... never to be seen again

We moved from South Gippsland to East Gippsland. By this time I was about 9 years old. My parents pulled me out of school because the Welfare was taking the Koori kids from school never to be seen again. My parents didn't want this to happen to us. That's why we always lived by ourselves.

My parents made a little mia-mia with bushes and sticks around our heads and our feet at the fire which would burn all night. We all shared the 2 big grey government of Victoria blankets and was a very close family. Our little jobs were to gather whatever we could while our parents were picking [bean and pea picking for a local grower].

We were never allowed to walk down to our camp the same way because our parents didn't want the welfare to find us. That's why we couldn't make a beaten track. Then my parents got paid from picking. They went into Lakes Entrance to get a few groceries and left me, being the oldest, to care for my other brothers and sisters, which I always done. I was like their second mother but big sister. [4 younger siblings aged between 6 months and 7 years.]

The baby started crying so I went and got my uncle to come and watch the kids until I walked in town to look for my parents. The town was about 15 ks so I left the camp and walked through the bush. I wouldn't walk along the main Highway because I was scared someone might murder me or take me away. I got into town just before dark and this Koori woman who I didn't know asked me was I looking for my parents. I said yes. She said they got a ride out to the camp with some people. That's how I missed them because I wasn't walking on the highway.

She said to me what are you going to do now. I said I'm going to walk back to the camp. She said it's getting dark, you can't walk out there now. You better come and stay with us and go back out tomorrow. I said OK. I trusted this Koori woman whom I didn't know. She gave me a meal and a bed.

The next day I thought and knew that my parents would be upset with me for leaving the kids but I knew they would be alright because they were with Mum's brother.

While I was walking through the bush the police and Welfare were going out to the camp which they had found in the bush. I was so upset that I didn't walk along the Highway. That way the Welfare would have seen me.

The next day I knew ...

The next day I knew that the Welfare had taken my brothers and sisters. This lady who I stayed with overnight: her brother came that morning and told her the Welfare had taken the kids to the homes. She called me aside and said, babe it's no good of you going out to the camp today because the Welfare has taken your brothers and sisters away to the homes. I started crying and said to her no I have to go back to the camp to see for myself. She got her brother and sister to take me out there and I just couldn't stop crying. All I could see was our little camp. My baby brother's bottle was laying on the ground. And I could see where my brother and sisters were making mud pies in a Sunshine milk tin that we used for our tea or soup. I didn't know where my parents were.

I was sad crying lost ...

I was sad crying lost didn't know what I was going to do. I wished I had of walked along the Highway so my brothers and sisters would have seen me and told the Welfare just so I would have been with them.

Eventually I found my parents in Lakes Entrance. They were shattered upset crying so they went and got a flagon of wine, which they never ever worried about drink.

They took the kids to Melbourne Allambie Children's Home and bought them back when it was court day.

The Welfare and the Police told my parents that they would have to get a house, furniture, plenty of food in the cupboard and my Dad had to get a job. It was very hard in those days what Welfare put on my parents. Just couldn't happen. People wouldn't let black people have a good home. Or give them anything - not like now.

My parents knew that what the Welfare wanted them to do they couldn't. We just weren't allowed to be up to white man's standards. That's why they knew that they had my brothers and sisters for good. At court my parents knew that was the last time they would see their kids. So they told the court that they didn't want them split up.

The kids was glad to see Mum and Dad at court. They were jumping all over them. Glad to see them. When the Welfare took the kids off Mum and Dad they were holding out their arms trying to stay with Mum and Dad. Everyone was crying sad. Sad. Sad.

After the kids had gone to the home Mum and Dad hit the grog hard as they had done everything in their power and in their hearts to keep us away from the (predators) the Welfare. But they sniffed us out of the bush like dogs.

... they sniffed us out of the bush like dogs.

My parents couldn't handle the trauma of not having the closest warmth loving caring family we were. They separated. My Mum went one way; my Dad went his way.

And I was 9 years of age left to go my way. I didn't know anyone. So I lived with Koori families who took me in. And in return I would look after their kids while they went picking just so I had some sort of family caring. I done this for years. Still not knowing where my brothers and sisters were. I tried hard to find them but couldn't.

The families that took me in I have a lot of respect for them because they tried to mend a 9 year old's broken heart. I love them dearly.

Eventually I got married when I was 21 years old. I thought maybe I could get my brothers and sisters and give them the home that the Welfare said my parents had to do. My husband worked in a sawmill and we had a sawmill house. After about 14 years my [eldest] brother came to live with us. One sister found us through the Salvation Army about 16 years later. Then my brother [the baby] who died last year who was caught up in the System was like a lost street kid and was bashed by the police in Melbourne a couple of years ago ended up with a tumour on the brain and was never the same again. My second sister who I or my family didn't see for 27 years. What could anyone do now to make up for those 27 years of not having their sister a part of their life. A terrible big hole in my heart that will never be filled.

We all are in contact with each other now and we try to make up for all those lost years. But something's missing. Could you put yourself in the situation that we were put through?

Confidential submission 316, New South Wales. These events occurred in 1958.


Warning: The following link may contain images of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons.

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Fair-haired boy, Mt Margaret Mission,

north-eastern Goldfields, WA, 1954-55

Courtesy University of WA Berndt Museum of Anthropolgy.


I often used to ask my foster mother who she was, this old lady who would come to the gate, and the answer I always got was, `She is some silly old black woman'.

Confidential evidence 56, Tasmania: man removed 1930s; his grandmother died before he was able to find her.

I was there for 16 years and I was brainwashed every day of the week. You never go near Blacks. Your people don't want you anyway. They're just dirty. They don't want anything to do with you ... We were playing in the schoolyard and this old black man came to the fence. I could hear him singing out to me and my sister. I said to [my sister], `Don't go. There's a black man'. And we took off. It was two years ago I found out that was my grandfather. He came looking for us. I don't know when I ever stopped being frightened of Aboriginal people. I don't know when I even realised I was Aboriginal. It's been a long hard fight for me.

Confidential evidence 10, Queensland: NSW woman removed 1940s and placed in Cootamundra Girls' Hom


The effects on family and community

The trauma of forcible separation affected the parents and other relatives left behind as well as the children taken. Few of the parents have survived to tell their own stories. Many of those who have feel such guilt and despair that they were unable to come forward. Link-Up (NSW) advised the Inquiry that,

In preparing this submission 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. That pain was so strong that we were unable to find a mother who had healed enough to be able to speak, and to share her experience with us and with the Commission ...

We end up feeling helpless in front of our mother's pain. We see how hurt they have been. 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 ...

Our mothers inevitably say that they didn't want to hurt us. But also we realise that here is where our mothers were hurt most deeply. Here is where they were shamed and humiliated - they were deprived of the opportunity to participate in growing up the next generation. 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 (submission 186 part III pages 30-31).

The evidence clearly establishes that families and whole communities suffered grievously upon the forcible removal of their children.

The interesting thing was that he was such a great provider ... He was a great provider and had a great name and a great reputation. Now, when this intrusion occurred it had a devastating impact upon him and upon all those values that he believed in and that he put in place in his life which included us, and so therefore I think the effect upon Dad was so devastating. And when that destruction occurred, which was the destruction of his own personal private family which included us, it had a very strong devastating effect upon him, so much so that he never ever recovered from the trauma that had occurred ...

Progressively the shattering effect continued in my father's life to the point that he couldn't see the sense in reuniting the family again. He had lost all confidence as a parent and as an adult in having the ability to be able to reunite our family.

Confidential evidence 265, Victoria: woman removed with her sisters from their father and grandmother in the 1960s.

Mum was kidnapped. My grandfather was away working at the time, and he came home and found that his kids had been taken away, and he didn't know nothing about it. Four years later he died of a broken heart. He had a breakdown and was sent to Kew [Psychiatric] Hospital. He was buried in a pauper's grave and on his death certificate he died of malnutrition, ulcers and plus he had bedsores. He was 51.

Confidential evidence 143, Victoria.

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 white fellas in town ... Those letters said she was a good, respectable women ... 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.

Quoted by Link-Up submission 186 on page 21.

Professor Beverley Raphael told the Inquiry,

Part of the reaction to being traumatised, like suddenly having your child torn away from you, is what we call a high level of arousal ... that heightened arousal can stay on a heightened level with physiological responsiveness for the rest of one's life ... so that people are aroused, alert. And one reason they take alcohol and other substances is often to dampen this down and they don't know its cause (evidence 658).

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.

Confidential submission 106, New South Wales: woman removed at 11 months in the late 1950s with her three siblings; children fostered in two separate non-Indigenous families.

The Inquiry is not aware of any research on the effects of forcible removal of a child or children on the parents and other family members. However there is research on the effects of the death of a child and some research on the effects of relinquishing a child for adoption. Speaking at the Third Australian Conference on Adoption in 1982 Margaret van Keppel and Robin Winkler summarised some of this research.

Sanders (1979-80) assessed the intensities of bereavement reactions of people who had experienced three different types of death (spouse, parent and child) and found that those who had experienced the death of a child revealed more intense grief reactions of somatic types and greater guilt with accompanying feelings of despair, than did those bereaved who had experienced the loss of a spouse or parent ... There is consistent evidence indicating that bereavement increases mortality and morbidity ...

There is no evidence contradicting the assumption that relinquishing a child for adoption is an undesirable life event, a life crisis, for the relinquishing mother. [Research evidence shows]: 1 That people respond to crises in specific predictable ways, e.g., shock, anger, depression. 2 That people go through a series of stages over time, attempting to come to terms with an aversive life-event. 3 That people eventually accept or resolve their crises [although there is] extreme variability in peoples' responses to life crises [and ] the difficulty following a crisis may be experienced indefinitely.

[Factors affecting recovery are]: 1 Perceived social support facilitates adjustment ... 2 The opportunity for free expression of feelings facilitates adjustment ... 3 The presence of other life-stressors impedes adjustment ... 4 The ability to find meaning in the outcome facilitates adjustment ... (pages 176-9).

These findings about bereaved and relinquishing parents can be extended approximately to the experience of Indigenous parents whose children were forcibly removed. They have the lowest likelihood of recovering from the trauma of that event. While social supports would usually have been available within the Indigenous community, beyond that there were none. Indigenous families continued to experience profound disadvantages (`other life-stressors ') including exclusion and control, racism and poverty which would have acted as severe stresses compounding their grief and trauma. They could generally find no meaning in the forcible removal.

A Western Australian mother of two boys was working as a nurse and well able to fit her sons out for school. Yet they were made wards of the State in the late 1950s.

It has left me sick, also my son sick too, never to be the same people again that we were before, being separated from one another, it has made our lives to be nothing on this earth. My sons and myself went through a lot of pain and heartbreak. It's a thing that I'll never forget until I die, it will always be in my mind that the Welfare has ruined my thinking and my life. I felt so miserable and sad and very unhappy, that I took to drinking after they took my sons. I thought there was nothing left for me.

Confidential submission 338, Victoria.

I'm not under the influence of alcohol anymore, you know. Because then you used to sort of deal with it more or less in drink and I thought I could solve my problems in a bottle, you know. That's the only way I could deal with my feelings for my kids not living here ... My kids are with me today, but I've lost a lot. I've lost that motherhood with my kids, you know.

Confidential evidence 208, Victoria.

Because `mixed race' children were particularly targeted for forcible removal, non-Indigenous parents and families also lost children.

In some circumstances the non-Aboriginal parent actually believed that they could have done something to stop what happened. In some experiences that I'm aware of, that has led to long-term ill health of that non-Aboriginal parent. In some circumstances it has led to breakdown in those relationships [between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal parent] ... But how do you tell your father that it's okay; that it wasn't their fault; and that his whiteness and maleness in a patriarchal society that should have been enough to protect any person's family did no good because of the nature of the relationship with his partner? (Joanne Selfe, NSW Aboriginal Women's Legal Resource Centre, evidence 739).

Parenting roles, nurturing and socialising responsibilities are widely shared in Indigenous societies: `relatives beyond that of the immediate family have nurturing responsibilities and emotional ties with children as they grow up' (Dr Ian Anderson evidence 263). When the children were taken, many people in addition to the biological parents were bereft of their role and purpose in connection with those children.

Aboriginal life was based on the sharing of all resources for the good of the group. The family unit was not the restricted modern nuclear family but an extended family of sharing and caring. Everybody was related and all relations were important, individual interests were subordinate to the lore. Aboriginal society was an all-inclusive network of reciprocal obligations of giving and receiving, which reinforced the bonds of kinship (Elvie Kelly, Victorian Koori Kids Mental Health Network, submission 758).

When you look at a family tree, every person that is within that family tree is born into a spiritual inheritance. And when that person isn't there, there's a void. There's something missing on that tree. And that person has to be slotted back into his rightful position within the extended family. While that person is missing from the extended family, then that family will continue to grieve and continue to have dysfunctions within it. Until the rightful person comes and takes their spiritual inheritance within that family (Kevin Booter, NSW Aboriginal Mental Health Worker, evidence 527).

The loss of so many of their children has affected the efficacy and morale of many Indigenous communities. Evidence to the Inquiry referred particularly to the way in which the child-rearing function of whole communities was undermined and denied, particularly where all children were required to live in mission dormitories. Psychiatrist Professor Ernest Hunter documented how removal on missions in the Kimberley region of Western Australia undermined the confidence of families and diluted their ability to rear their children.

Parental roles and adult authority were compromised as the responsibility for education and discipline was claimed by Europeans (Hunter 1995 page 379). ... you can say parenting can be undermined absolutely in those instances where a child is physically removed. It can be undermined to a degree in settings where there's sequestration such as dormitorisation, but you could say that parenting is undermined universally in a society where parental roles - particularly Aboriginal paternal roles, male roles - are undervalued generally. [The] mission agenda [was] intrusion into family structure and intrusion into the kind of dynamic relationship between sacred and family roles because you can't undermine one without undermining the other ... I think there's a problem blaming the problems with alcohol and social distress on the removal of kids ... However, it certainly is tied in with the broader process of undermining parenting roles and undermining family structure ... (evidence 61).

Hunter documented how Kimberley Aboriginal parents responded when the government station managers and missionaries relinquished their control over the children with the growth of self-management progressively from the mid-1970s.

It was anticipated that Aboriginal adults would reassert their role in the discipline and control of children ... Aborigines [in Jigalong, for example] ... had relinquished a significant dimension of that function to European mission control, defining it as `whitefellow business'. When it became redefined as `blackfellow business' a conflict arose (1993 page 229).

The anticipated reassertion of parental control did not occur. The adults had experienced discipline as children but not nurturing. It had been a model of discipline reliant on physical chastisement, something unacceptable in traditional child-rearing. With their own methods denigrated and largely lost to them and European methods unacceptable, there seems to have been a discipline vacuum.

That's also impacted on my own life with my kids. I have three children. And it's not as though I don't love my kids. It's just that I expected them to be as strong and independent and to fight for their own self like I had to do. And people misinterpret that as though I don't care about my kids. But that's not true. I do love my kids. But it's not as though the Church provided good role models, either, for a proper family relationship.

Confidential evidence 548, Northern Territory: Western Australian woman removed at 4 years in the 1950s and placed at a north-west Catholic orphanage and then at Beagle Bay Mission.

Hunter and other researchers noted how Europeans devalued the paternal role in particular, in common with most other aspects of the traditional male role. Indigenous men generally lost their purpose in relation to their families and communities. Often their individual responses to that loss took them away from their families: on drinking binges, in hospital following accidents or assaults, in the gaol or lock-up, or prematurely dead.

[This has] a significant impact on child development. For Aboriginal boys, the compromise of traditional and contemporary role models resulting from the father's absence or functional unavailability has a damaging impact on the development of male identity (Hunter 1993 page 231).

Forcible removal affected community life in another way, too. To escape `the welfare' and avoid their children being taken some families exiled themselves from their communities and sometimes hid their Aboriginal identity.

Because forcible and seemingly arbitrary separation was so widespread and because the government used the threat of separation to coerce Aboriginal adults, most Aboriginal people lived with the fear of separation structuring their lives. Some tried to protect their families from separation by continually moving; others called themselves Maori or Indian; others cut off all ties with other Aboriginal people, including family members (Link-Up (NSW) submission 186 part III on page 3).

This almost as effectively removed children from community ties and culture; `social removal and nil contact with Aboriginal people was also achieved by the very real fear of removal and the severance of family ties' (quoted by Link-Up (NSW) submission 186 part III on page 67).

I didn't know anything about my Aboriginality until I was 46 years of age - 12 years after my father died. I felt very offended and hurt that this knowledge was denied me, for whatever reason. For without this knowledge I was not able to put the pathway of my own life into its correct place. When I did find out, for the first time in my life I understood why I had always felt different when I was a young man.

Man whose Aboriginal father lived as a white, quoted by Link-Up (NSW) submission 186 part III on page 65.

My grandfather wanted us to deny our Aboriginality so that we wouldn't be taken away. He used to say that none of his kids would live on a mission. We weren't allowed to say that we were Aboriginal, and we weren't allowed to mix with the Aboriginal people in the country town where we lived ... I didn't find out until Mum passed on that I was related to nearly everyone on the south coast. I even found out that the woman who lived across the street when were growing up was my Aunty. But all those years growing up I hadn't known.

Quoted by Link-Up (NSW) submission 186 part III on page 64.

When a child was forcibly removed that child's entire community lost, often permanently, its chance to perpetuate itself in that child. The Inquiry has concluded that this was a primary objective of forcible removals and is the reason they amount to genocide.

[Children are] core elements of the present and future of the community. The removal of these children creates a sense of death and loss in the community, and the community dies too ... there's a sense of hopelessness that becomes part of the experience for that family, that community... (Lynne Datnow, Victorian Koori Kids Mental Health Network, evidence 135).

There have been similar conclusions in the comparable context of forcible removal to educational institutions of Native American children.

Because the family is the most fundamental economic, education, health-care unit in society and the centre of an individual's emotional life, assaults on Indian families help cause the conditions that characterise those cultures of poverty where large numbers of people feel hopeless, powerless and unworthy (Byler 1977 page 8).

A Congressional Inquiry in 1978 found that the removal of Indian children had a severe effect on Indian tribes, threatening their existence as identifiable cultural entities (US Congress 1978).

`Culture' has been defined as `a set of values and ideas which contains the distinctive way of life of a group of people and which tends to persist through time and is transmitted from generation to generation' (Telling Our Story 1995 page 52).

Culture is the whole complex of relationships, knowledge, languages, social institutions, beliefs, values and ethical rules that bind a people together and give the collective and its individual members a sense of who they are and where they belong. It is usually rooted in a particular place - a past or present homeland. It is introduced to the newly born within the family and subsequently reinforced and developed in the community. In a society that enjoys normal continuity of culture from one generation to another, its children absorb their culture with every breath they take. They learn what is expected of them and they develop a confidence that their words and actions will have meaning and predictable effects in the world around them (Canadian Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples 1995 page 25 quoted by Telling Our Story 1995 on page 52).

Every culture is continually changing and adapting to new conditions. Cultural stress such as the massive disruption caused by massacres, introduced diseases, dispossession and forcible removal of children robbed Indigenous societies of almost every opportunity to control the nature of their adaptations.

The impacts of forcible removal are renewed when societies must deal with the desire of removed children to return and reclaim their inheritance. The Jawoyn Association in the Northern Territory explained to the Inquiry,

... the impact of the former policy of assimilation on traditional Aboriginal Law - in particular the Law applying to inheritance and inclusion within traditional clan and kinship systems ... is creating continuing social tensions and division and has the potential to disrupt and damage - well into the future - traditional land ownership and management structures.

... the establishment of a genealogical affiliation does not necessarily determine `who speaks for country' under Jawoyn traditional law - and it is this aspect of trying to cope with the colonialist history of assimilationism that has created difficulties for the Jawoyn nation ...

... To be able to `speak for country' crucially involves knowledge: knowledge about the law; knowledge about country; knowledge about `the system'; and a social connectedness to all things Jawoyn. Without such knowledge and connectedness, appropriate to one's age group and experience, one is not entitled to `speak for country' (submission 841 pages 2, 4 and 6).

The Jawoyn Association has found a way to resolve two competing interests.

The ability of Jawoyn people living on or near Jawoyn traditional lands, and whose lives are completely integrated in Jawoyn society, to determine what happens on those Jawoyn traditional lands. There has been a strongly expressed fear - perhaps unfounded - of Jawoyn people in this situation being potentially `outvoted' on decisions by people living well away from their traditional lands and having little if any strong connectedness to those lands or its people.

Recognition and an acknowledgment of and respect for the Jawoyn heritage of those people stolen from their kin and country, and their descendants. Significantly, very few people in this situation have said they want to receive a share in rentals or royalties (except perhaps as a symbol of recognition), however a number of people from a Stolen Generation background have stated they wished to `come back' to Jawoyn land; some have stated they wished to establish commercial ventures and/or living areas on Jawoyn land (submission 841 page 7).

The resolution chosen by the Jawoyn will not necessarily appeal to other communities and associations dealing with this issue. The Central Land Council advised the Inquiry,

In some cases, the reunification of some `Stolen Generations' people with their families and culture has led to Land Councils including those people in land ownership and native title holder records, as determined and as directed by Traditional Owners.

In other cases, while reunited family members are often involved in land and native title claims, their loss of language and culture often `disables' them from taking part.

There are also cases where `Stolen Generations' people claim genealogical relationships which may not be acknowledged and cases where there is not recognition of a genealogical link between people in a land or native title claim, situations which are painful for all concerned (submission 495 page 3).

What is clear from the Jawoyn experience is the imperative that each community exercising its right of self-determination must be empowered to resolve the matter for itself.

It has not been through choice that the Jawoyn had their children kidnapped from their country; likewise those children suffered a cruel fate.

It was a policy that drove at the heart of Jawoyn society, and tore our families apart.

The resolution of this colonialist legacy will only in part be achieved through the mechanisms of this Inquiry and the response of government to its recommendations.

It will not be an easy process, it will not be quick. But it cannot succeed unless Aboriginal law - which has been damaged as part of the same process of assimilationism that led to kids being taken away - is respected as having a place in the restitution process (submission 841 page 11).

Warning: The following link may contain images of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons.

Click here to view a photo on

Sister Maria and Girls at Work in the Laundry, New Norcia, WA, 1954

Courtesy Battye Library 74234P


If you grow up with no love ... I thought sex was love. That's why I probably had all those kids, `cause I was trying to get all this love, y'know. `Cause I never got it when I was in the Home.

Confidential evidence 383, South Australia: woman removed at about 4 years in the 1940s and raised largely at Koonibba Lutheran Children's Home.

We wasn't told anything about the facts of life. When we left the Home they didn't tell us anything about sex and that. All us girls, when we all come out the Home, we were all just, bang, pregnant straight away.

Confidential evidence 170, South Australia.


Inter-generational effects

There's things in my life that I haven't dealt with and I've passed them on to my children. Gone to pieces. Anxiety attacks. I've passed this on to my kids. I know for a fact if you go and knock at their door they run and hide.

I look at my son today who had to be taken away because he was going to commit suicide because he can't handle it; he just can't take any more of the anxiety attacks that he and Karen have. I have passed that on to my kids because I haven't dealt with it. How do you deal with it? How do you sit down and go through all those years of abuse? Somehow I'm passing down negativity to my kids.

Confidential evidence 284, South Australia.

The impacts of the removal policies continue to resound through the generations of Indigenous families. The overwhelming evidence is that the impact does not stop with the children removed. It is inherited by their own children in complex and sometimes heightened ways.


Most forcibly removed children were denied the experience of being parented or at least cared for by a person to whom they were attached. This is the very experience people rely on to become effective and successful parents themselves. Experts told the Inquiry that this was the most significant of all the major consequences of the removal policies.

Denial of this experience results in an individual whose ability to parent his or her own children is severely compromised, and this is certainly my observation with people who were removed in early childhood. Not only has the legacy of impaired interpersonal relationships and poor self-worth rendered them more liable to unplanned parenthood, but they make poor parents and their children in turn have often been taken into care for having been abused or neglected. Such parents are often disorganised, impatient, capricious and ultimately demoralised, feeling unable to provide for their children what they missed out on and often being painfully aware that the experience of childhood they are providing for their children [is] not dissimilar to that which they experienced (Dr Brent Waters submission 532 page 2).

... when they grow up and begin to form family relationships as adults, they have not had a history of socialisation which includes processes of being nurtured, so that they have difficulty in sustaining and developing good constructive family relationships with their own children (Dr Ian Anderson evidence 263). The way it translates to the way they become parents down the track is that from a personal point of view sometimes they are very struck by the incongruity of the desire and yearning to look after their kids consistently, the difficulties in dealing with all the real world limitations on that at different times, but also just the sense of emotional continuity that they have not personally experienced because of their disruption and loss. In some way it becomes built into them as a way of defending against the need that their children may have for them in a consistent and ongoing fashion.

So what it means is that they might become afraid of the dependency of the children, or they might become afraid of the needs of their children and they might not be as ready to ensure that all the things that maintain trust and continuity with the care of their children can be sustained (Dr Nick Kowalenko evidence 740).

The damage was recognised by a senior State welfare official in evidence to the Inquiry.

The fact that there has been no history there of family caring, nurturing, and because there has been a fair degree of in some cases institutionalisation upbringing, people don't have the social and emotional skills to cope. The child has been deprived of its role models (Mike Hepburn, WA Department of Family and Community Services, evidence).

Many parents from the stolen generations are very good parents. Dr Ian Anderson noted that `some individuals have been very lucky in the way in which they've been able to reconstruct their sense of self-worth and their sense of commitment to their children' (evidence 263). Michael Constable noted that `despite all the odds and despite the pain, so many people function. They manage to keep families together' (evidence 261).

I feel I have been totally denied of a childhood, but I could never repeat the cycle that happens to so many Aboriginal children that have been removed. It happened to my eldest brother: he had his five children removed. My other brother suffers from alcoholism ...

Even though I drink, it's probably once or twice a year. I believe I got it out of my system when I had my first child. Even though I continued to drink when I had my first child, the drinking binges started easing up [to the point] where I didn't need to be drunk every weekend, cause my little boy needed me to be sober.

Confidential submission 788, New South Wales.

Shaun and his mother, Clare, are among the fortunate. Although her parents died when she was young, Clare was raised until the age of 13 by her mother's sister and her husband. She was then removed to a children's home with her younger sister. Clare was determined that her own two sons would not be taken from her and at one stage, when they were quite young, she decided to board them with different relatives to ensure that her own status as a sole parent would not lead to their removal. In this period Clare commuted on weekends alternately to the two homes from her place of work. Shaun told the Inquiry that,

I probably would've been still trying to find my way in life, but the foresight was there from our elders [mother and aunts], teaching some respect and some form or way of getting through life without having to worry.

Confidential evidence 207, Victoria.

Many Indigenous parents experience anxiety in rearing their children. In adulthood the forcibly removed children carry with them the fear that their own children will be taken from them in turn. This was said to be one reason Indigenous people `don't tap into mainstream services, because there's that fear that the children could be taken away' (Joyce Smith evidence 135).

I now understand the way I am and why my life is so full of troubles and fears. I find it hard to take my children to hospital for the fear of being misunderstood and those in authority might take my children away as I was.

Confidential submission 483, South Australia: woman removed at 18 months in the 1960s.

Now I understand why Mum is the way she is, why she's been strict on us, why she never used to take us to the doctors when we used to hurt ourselves, because the first thing they would have looked at was her skin and said, `Well, you're obviously not looking after them properly'. So now I know why all those times we never used to go to the doctors and go to the hospital ... because Dad worked all his life and Mum stayed home and looked after us kids, so she was very hesitant to take us kids to doctors.

Confidential evidence 143, Victoria.

Professor Ernest Hunter found among his patients a group of parents who `feel extremely uncertain and almost paranoid about looking after their kids and concerned for their kids' welfare' (evidence 61). The fears of the parents can translate into a lack of discipline for their children.

A lot of people think I'm very, very easy on my children. I don't smack them because I really used to get belted. A lot of people think a smack's not going to hurt them but I just remember it as a child, you know. They've got a lot of spirit in them and I won't knock it out of them. I just won't knock anything out of them that's in them already like I had it all knocked out of me.

Confidential evidence 629, Queensland: WA woman removed as a baby in the 1960s and eventually fostered at 10 years.

... You see some people that just don't know how to show love and they're getting into a lot of financial problems because they're spending all their money on their grandkids. They're doing this so that the kids think that they love them. You see other parents that can't chastise their kids at all or say no to them, you know, in case they won't love them. So some of the kids have just grown up with no limits set on them at all (Sister Pat Swan evidence 658).

That's another thing that we find hard is giving our children love. Because we never had it. So we don't know how to tell our kids that we love them. All we do is protect them. I can't even cuddle my kids `cause I never ever got cuddled. The only time was when I was getting raped and that's not what you'd call a cuddle, is it?

Confidential evidence 689, New South Wales: woman placed in Parramatta Girls' Home at 13 years in the 1960s.

I have a problem with smacking kids. I won't smack them. I won't control them. I'm just scared of everything about myself. I just don't know how to be a proper parent sometimes. I can never say no, because I think they're going to hate me. I remember hating [foster mother] so I never want the kids to hate me. I try to be perfect.

Confidential evidence 529, New South Wales: woman fostered as a baby in the 1970s.

Behavioural problems

A high proportion of the `stolen generations' have `problem children' of their own (Michael Constable evidence 261). Dr Max Kamien's 1972 study in Bourke, NSW, found that one-third of the Aboriginal adults he interviewed had been separated in childhood for more than five years. One-quarter of the Aboriginal boys aged between 5 and 14 and one-third of the girls had `substantial behavioural problems' (cited by Hunter 1995 page 378). Kamien commented that nearly all the Bourke children experienced `inconsistency, unpredictability, and a conflict of values with the dominant white society' (cited by Hunter quoting The Dark People of Bourke page 168). However, the study was not conducted in such a way that it could confirm a causal link between a parental history of separation and their children's `behavioural problems'.

Dr Jo Topp, a Victorian General Practitioner, was able to compare parenting among Koories in Victoria with parenting in remote communities in Central Australia where `most people had not been directly affected by removal policies'.

In Central Australia I never saw any infants with feeding or sleep difficulties and whenever I saw infants who were unsettled it was because they were unwell. Young mothers were clearly well supported and advised by their relatives and they had a strong belief in what they were doing. In contrast in Victoria ... I saw many young mothers with very little idea of how to interact with their young infants, how to feed them, how to rear and discipline their older children or how to set limits. Removal of children from their families and from their culture has at the very least resulted in loss of role models for them to learn their parenting skills (submission 767).

Separation of people from families interrupts the flow of knowledge and understanding with respect to stages of child development and culturally appropriate models of parenting and household management (Marion Kickett, WA Health Department, evidence).

Linda Briskman confirmed that `children coming to the attention of Aboriginal child care agencies frequently had parents who had been removed as children' (evidence 134). Professor Ernest Hunter, in his practice as a psychiatrist, has found that many adolescent patients of the second generation present `with pictures that look like personality disorders: girls with patterns of substance abuse, promiscuity, self-harm' (evidence 61).

Because of their behavioural problems there is a significantly increased risk that these second generation children will in turn be removed from their families or will have their children removed.

... as children who grew up under the stolen generations, the fact that we didn't often have our own parents, that we in fact as children when we were raised were not parented by other people and as adults and as women we go on to have children and that those skills and experiences that our extended family would have instilled in us are not there - that puts us at great risk of having our children removed under the current policies and practices that exist today (Joanne Selfe, NSW Aboriginal Women's Legal Resource Centre, evidence 739).

I'm a rotten mother. My own husband even put my kids in the Home and I fought to get them back. And then I was in a relationship after that, and he even put my kids in the Home. I think I've tried to do the best I could but that wasn't good enough. Why? Because I didn't have a role model for a start.

Confidential evidence 179, South Australia: multiple foster placements in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Aboriginal Legal Service of WA surveyed 483 clients who had been forcibly removed. More than one-third of those clients reported that their children had been taken away in turn (submission 127 page 44).


Professor Ernest Hunter has noted the very high rates of self-harm including suicide and domestic violence among young men in many Indigenous communities (1996). His research has led him to identify the root cause as the inappropriate construction of male identity in Indigenous families due to the fact that male role models were either absent or had been undermined (page 10). Professor Hunter looked beyond the contemporary Indigenous family to explain the reasons for the absence of effective male role models.

I believe that violence to significant others and self-harm are related and represent the enactment, at the centre of Aboriginal societies, that is, within the family, of the consequences of the protracted and damaging intrusion into family life that accompanied and followed colonisation. I contend that the destabilisation continues as a result of the poor social circumstances and disadvantage of contemporary Aboriginal societies (Hunter 1996 page 11).

Maggie Brady's findings on petrol sniffing strongly support Professor Hunter's conclusion that self-destructive behaviour among young Indigenous men is a consequence of the undermining of family roles and, in particular, of male role models. Brady found that petrol sniffing was rare in communities which had not experienced missionary or government intrusion into family life. These communities had been engaged in the pastoral industry. Pastoralists not only did not intrude into Indigenous families, at least not nearly to the extent experienced on missions and government stations, but they valued Indigenous families living on their traditional lands. The reasons may have been self-interested - the adult workers knew the country intimately and the children were a convenient current and future workforce - but the consequences include stronger Indigenous families and communities (Brady 1992 pages 183-190).

Unresolved grief and trauma

Ways of relating and ways of nurturing are passed from generation to generation.

There is no doubt that children who have been traumatised become a lot more anxious and fearful of the world and one of the things that impact has is that they don't explore the world as much. Second, a certain amount of abuse over time certainly causes a phenomenon of what we call emotional numbing where, because of the lack of trust in the outside world, children learn to blunt their emotions and in that way restrict their spontaneity and responsiveness. That can become an ingrained pattern that becomes then lifelong really .. and it becomes far more difficult for them as parents to be spontaneous and open and trusting and loving in terms of their own emotional availability and responsiveness to their children (Dr Nick Kowalenko evidence 740).

The Inquiry received evidence that unresolved grief and trauma are also inherited by subsequent generations. Parents `convey anxiety and distress' to their children (Professor Beverley Raphael evidence 658).

I've come to realise that because of Dad being taken away, grief and all that's been carried down to us. We're not organised. We don't know where we're heading.

Confidential evidence 403, Queensland: speaker's father was removed at the age of 18 months to The Bungalow, Northern Territory.

I have six children. My kids have been through what I went through. They've been placed. The psychological effects that it had on me as a young child also affected me as a mother with my children. I've put my children in Bomaderry Children's Home when they were little. History repeating itself.

Confidential evidence 444, New South Wales: woman removed at 4 years and suffering sexual abuse in one foster home and emotional abuse in the other.

Depression and mental illness

The Inquiry has documented the high rates of depression among people who experienced forcible removal in childhood. The children of these parents are also known to be at risk. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's Inquiry into Mental Illness reported that,

Other recent research indicates that children of depressed parents demonstrate significantly greater levels of anxiety, depressive symptoms and physical illnesses than children of non-depressed parents. They have more difficulty in school, with discipline, and in relating to their peers (pages 498-499 citing Gross 1989, Silverman 1989).

That Inquiry found that the children of parents with mental illness are at greater risk of being taken into care and this is done more swiftly and with less consideration of the alternatives (page 494).

James Family

Related by a psychotherapist and her colleagues at the Victorian Koori Kids Mental Health Network.

Grandmother Helen:

Helen was removed from her family at the age of four and placed in a white institution. She was not allowed contact with her parents and left the institution at seventeen to work as a cook in the city. She had no family to support her and no idea of where she came from. She became pregnant very young and was unable to care adequately for any of her children as she had severe socio-economic problems and was also unable to cope because she had no model from which to develop her own parenting skills. Her partner was alcoholic and violent and she became very depressed and began to drink. As her own ability to trust and form close relationships was damaged due to her traumatic removal from her parents at such a young age with no substitute attachment figures provided, she was unable to maintain intimate long-term relationships, her marriage broke down and all her children were placed in care by `the welfare'.

Mother Jenny:

Jenny grew up in a chaotic family experiencing violence, alcoholism and sexual abuse from her father. At three and a half years she was placed in foster care.

There were periods of time when she was returned to her mother and then removed again. Like her mother she also received no adequate model on which to base her future parenting and due to her deprivation and abuse her ability to trust and form close relationships was damaged. In addition, she also had to cope with a history of violence, alcoholism and sexual abuse that left her depressed and only just able to cope with life on a day to day basis. She could not hold down a regular job, abused alcohol, was attracted to violent, abusive men and tried to meet her needs for care and nurturing by having one child after another. While her children's basic needs were met, the family was chaotic and there were numerous times when Jenny was clearly not coping and needed to have respite from her children. However, she was not able to avail herself of this support for fear that `the welfare' would become involved and the children would be removed as she had been. Needless to say children brought up under these circumstances would inevitably have a lot of emotional and behavioural problems thereby continuing the cycle into the next generation.

Baby Mary (3 months):

Mary was born at full-term and considered to be a normal, healthy baby. However, due to her mother Jenny's depression and high level of stress she was emotionally unavailable to mother her child. Breast milk failed and she had difficulty organising regular bottle feeds. Mary lost weight and became listless and pale, ie. failed to thrive. Mary cried constantly which stressed mother Jenny further and reduced her ability to cope even more. Such severe deprivation in the first year of life can lead to disturbances in attachment process and the development of trust and does not bode well for this child's future development.

Son Stephen (7 years):

Stephen presented as a physically healthy though overweight little boy. He was depressed and talked of feeling that life was not worth living - he had in fact attempted to kill himself by cutting his wrists.

Although a very intelligent boy he was failing at school, had no friends and was frequently placing himself at serious risk of physical damage. His behaviour also included sexual acting out which indicated possible sexual abuse, however this could not be substantiated. Due to his aggressive, out of control behaviour he was suspended from school and subsequently moved to another school where after a short period the behaviour continued. Although the school was prepared to try to manage his behaviour his mother could not manage and he was eventually sent to live with his grandmother. Thus at 7 years this boy is unable to learn and has had to be removed from his mother, sister and brother. His future in relation to being able to form relationships, get a job and live a satisfying life are at serious risk and it is very likely that he will end up as a `street kid'.

Son Jo (14 years):

Jo presented as a physically stocky 14 year old who was dressed neatly. He related initially in a hostile manner saying his problem was that his `mum was hopeless' and made him feel angry all the time. Jo believed he should be allowed to do what he wanted and gave a history of school truancy, staying out for nights at a time and mixing with an older Aboriginal group of boys where alcohol abuse, smoking marijuana and taking pills was a regular event. Jo felt he belonged with this group of friends whereas at school he was the only Aboriginal student and the butt of racial taunts. Issues of identity were also a major contribution to his distress.

Behind the anger emerged a significant degree of depression with Jo describing himself as feeling hopeless and helpless about his life changing and believing he would be better off dead. He in fact identified his risk-taking behaviour as a `Russian roulette' of possible death from taking too many pills. He also saw getting stoned as a way to escape his worries.

Jo's feelings of hopelessness were connected to his desire to look after his siblings and mum, but he also felt unable to do anything that prevented family breakdown. He often thinks about his father and wonders if life up north would be better. He has an idealised image of his father as his parents separated when he was very young. He wants to learn more about Aboriginal culture and feels saddened and fatalistic about the lives of the young people around him in Melbourne.

As far as his own life is concerned, unless some changes occur Jo is likely to become more depressed and drop out of the education system carrying again this cycle on to the next generation. In addition his risk taking behaviour was escalating with the potential for suicide in the future.

Sue Wasterval and colleagues, Victorian Koori Kids Mental Health Network, submission 766.

Warning: The following link may contain images of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons.

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Nurse with two infants, Moore River Settlement, WA, undated

Courtesy University of WA Berndt Museum of Anthropology.




He was about 6 month becaus he was just sitting up. And we loved him very much. And my sister use to visit him on the veranda sitting in a cot but when I use to visit him they told me that he was not my brother becaus I was a half cast child and because of that they wouldn't let me see him because he was a dark child same as my sister.

Confidential submission 65, Tasmania: child fostered at 2 months in 1936.