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Bringing them Home - Chapter 15

Part 5 Services for Those Affected

Empty Cradles

Nunga baby taken away

`Where's my mama' hear him say

`You takin' me to Goonyaland?'

Carried and fed by white man's hand

Growing up different

Never knowing

Aunts and uncles, cousins growing

Mama cries - Government pays

Children lost to city ways

But they'll return

when they grow old

and tell their children

of lies been told

So it won't happen again

you see

The cradles outback

that were left empty.

Mandy Hunter-Hebberman 1996

Chapter 15 Evaluating Government Responses

... there needs to be a focused response to the needs of families and communities affected by past policies beyond those provided to individuals who access their own records (Victorian Government interim submission page 4).

Governments have been slow to respond to the effects of forcible removal on Indigenous people. The first responses were made by Indigenous individuals themselves who made efforts to locate and reunite their families. These efforts began for some from the very moment of separation.

During the 1980s Indigenous organisations were formed to assist in tracing family members and to provide counselling and support. In 1980 Coral Edwards and Peter Read established Link-Up (NSW). Similar services now exist in other States and in the Northern Territory and have attracted government funding.

Indigenous family reunion workers brought to light the need for forcibly removed children and their families to have ready access to the records kept by government and non-government agencies involved in their removal or subsequent placement. Other records, for example genealogies collated by anthropologists and family history cards compiled by missionaries or government agents, are also needed to assist in identifying family and community ties. Most governments but few churches have recognised Indigenous people's need for information from their records to allow tracing of family and proof of identity.

Reunion can be a part of healing for the individuals, families and communities affected by forcible removal. However the damage to well-being and emotional health has typically and quite predictably been severe. Yet the need for healing strategies focused specifically on those affected by forcible removal has only very recently been acknowledged by governments and funding is still scarce. Fortunately again some Indigenous people and services have recognised this need and begun to address it.

While governments began responding to some of the effects of forcible removal during the 1980s, it was the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody which articulated an obligation on all governments to address these effects comprehensively. The Royal Commission found that 43 of the 99 people whose deaths in custody were investigated had been separated from their families in childhood. All governments support the relevant recommendations of the Royal Commission and have committed themselves to implementation.


The Inquiry's second term of reference requires an examination of existing services and procedures available to those affected by the forcible removals. We have taken this to mean those services and procedures specifically for those affected and specifically addressing the effects. A literal interpretation of term of reference (b) would require the Inquiry to examine all services applicable to Indigenous people, because all are `available' to those affected.

The examination is further confined to services and procedures provided by governments or by churches who were involved in caring for forcibly removed children as responses to the history and its effects. Many services are provided by Indigenous communities. When these are funded by government it is appropriate that the funding mechanism and quantum be evaluated by the Inquiry. However, community-based services are otherwise for Indigenous people themselves to evaluate and reform if that is considered necessary.

Term of reference (b) requires the Inquiry to evaluate the effectiveness and the adequacy of the relevant services and procedures, of `responses' to the effects of forcible removal. To make a useful and thorough evaluation which can assist in the development of improved responses, the Inquiry has considered each response within two distinct but overlapping frameworks.

With respect to government responses we consider first the framework established by governments themselves based on the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Second we propose a framework that satisfies Australia's human rights obligations and takes account of the levels of need identified by this Inquiry.

In this Part we outline and evaluate the three principal government responses to the continuing effects of separation:

1. provision of access to personal and family records,

2. provision of funding to Indigenous services assisting family reunification, and

3. provision of services to address the individual and family well-being effects of forcible removal.

We briefly describe the response of the churches in the final chapter of this Part.

Our first evaluation of each government response takes as its starting point the stated or implicit objectives of that particular response. We ask, `What does the response aim to achieve?'. Then, `Have these objectives been achieved?'. Achievements are compared with aspirations. We conclude that achievements do not match aspirations. Moreover, the aspirations themselves are often minimalist. The major reasons for this are a limited understanding of the Royal Commission recommendations, failure to understand and incorporate human rights goals and ignorance about the size of the problem and the extent and seriousness of the need for services. If government responses to the effects of forcible removal are to be adequate in the future, they must be established within a framework of Indigenous human rights and with a commitment to healing the effects of forcible removal for which governments bear responsibility.

The Inquirys evaluation criteria

Term of reference (d) requires us to take into account the principle of self-determination in formulating our recommendations with respect to laws, policies and practices relating to child placement and care. Adoption of this principle hs fundamental to progress in Indigenous affairs generally. It must also underpin changes to laws, policies and practices relating to services and procedures for those affected by forcible removal.

Term of reference (b) requires us to consider the adequacy of existing services and procedures. For a service to be adequate it must at least operate in a fair and timely way without imposing additional harm on clients or potential clients. This requires that services take account of the variety of life circumstances and the extent and duration of the need for assistance in the Indigenous community. One measure of inadequacy is the unmet need for the service.

In addition to evaluation criteria dictated by the terms of reference, we have also taken into account Australia's human rights obligations: notably, the obligations of governments to prevent racial discrimination and to respect and promote the right of members of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities to enjoy their cultures, religions and languages.


Self-determination is a collective right of peoples to determine and control their own destiny. It is a right to exercise autonomy in their own affairs and a right to make their own decisions. As the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner has noted, `every issue concerning the historical and present status, entitlements, treatment and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is implicated in the concept of self determination' (Dodson 1993 page 41).

For evaluation purposes it is necessary to distinguish between different levels of Indigenous participation in decision-making and service delivery. Self-determination requires more than consultation because consultation alone does not confer any decision-making authority or control over outcomes. Self-determination also requires more than participation in service delivery because in a participation model the nature of the service and the ways in which the service is provided have not been determined by Indigenous peoples. Inherent in the right of self-determination is Indigenous decision-making carried through into implementation.

The right of self determination is the right to make decisions. These decisions affect the enjoyment and exercise of the full range of freedoms and human rights of indigenous peoples (Dodson 1993 page 41).

The relevant distinction is between a program or policy freely adopted by Indigenous peoples and a program or policy adopted by government about or for Indigenous peoples (Dodson 1993 page 43). The former reflects an exercise of self-determination. The latter does not. To respect the right of self-determination, governments should confine their roles largely to providing financial and other resource support for the implementation of Indigenous programs and policies.

There is no right more fundamental for indigenous people than that of self determination. It is central to addressing the general disadvantage and oppressed condition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples ... It is central to a social justice package that policies, institutional structures and legislation should operate to empower indigenous peoples and provide for collective rights of indigenous peoples (ATSIC 1995 page 29).

Unless provided in accordance with the requirements of self-determination, services to Indigenous people may be effectively inaccessible to them or where accessible are unlikely to secure their objectives.

The exercise of self determination by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities most frequently centres on the provision of community services. The aim is not merely to participate in the delivery of those services, but to penetrate their design and inform them with indigenous cultural values. The result is not merely services which are better structured to reflect the needs and identity of particular communities: there can be a resultant improvement in the effectiveness and efficiency of these services (Dodson 1993 page 56).

Only Indigenous people themselves are able to comprehend the full extent of the effects of the removal policies. Services to redress these effects must be designed, provided and controlled by Indigenous people themselves.


The prohibition of racial discrimination has long been fundamental to human rights law. It finds expression in all the treaties within HREOC's jurisdiction, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These treaties do not just prohibit intentional or explicit discrimination. They also prohibit systemic discrimination against an ethnic group because, for example, a service is modelled on the needs, language or culture of others. Actions, policies and services which have the effect of discriminating against an ethnic group, intended or unintended, are also prohibited (section 9(1A) Racial Discrimination Act 1975).

Implicit in the design of any service are assumptions about the nature and needs of the anticipated clients. Typically a service will be designed with the majority or dominant ethnic group in mind. This is particularly true for generalist or `mainstream' services as contrasted with specialist services. In Australia the dominant ethnic group (Anglo-Australians) has a very different demographic profile from Indigenous Australians. Most Anglo-Australians live in urban areas or visit cities regularly and with ease, earn a salary, speak English and have had a high school education. A very high proportion of Indigenous Australians, in contrast, lives in rural or remote areas, rarely travels to cities, is dependent on social security, speaks English as a second or third language and does not read it fluently, and has not had a high school education. It will always be the case that a service designed to address the needs of the majority of Anglo-Australians will fail to cater to the needs of a certain proportion of the members of that group. However, it will fail to cater to the needs of a substantially higher proportion of Indigenous Australians.

In practice such a service would be racially discriminatory because access to and effective use of it would be denied to a significantly higher proportion of Indigenous Australians. This is indirect discrimination. Some services which fit this description can nonetheless be justified because it would be unreasonable to require them to cater to the needs of Indigenous and non-Indigenous clients alike. Factors relevant to deciding reasonableness can include remoteness, cost, the extent of the need for the service and detriment caused by lack of effective access.

This justification is not available for core government services, however. Governments have a duty to ensure that basic services are provided on a basis of equality to all. Substantive equality will require that particular needs and disadvantages are taken into account. A clear example is the need to provide an interpreter when a non-English speaking person requires medical assistance.

Cultural and language differences, remoteness, unique histories and particular emotional needs mean that equality in the provision of services to Indigenous people will frequently require distinctive approaches. In some cases modification of a `mainstream' service may suffice. In other cases, a specialist service will be required. Necessary specialist services should not be confused with discriminatory services. The objective of specialist services is to ensure equity of access and to overcome the discrimination which clients would otherwise experience if required to have their needs met by mainstream services.

Cultural renewal

Human rights law recognises the right of distinct ethnic groups to the enjoyment of their culture (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights article 27). This right involves two distinct categories of obligation for governments. First, governments must not interfere in groups' enjoyment of their cultures, practise of their religions and use of their languages. Second, governments must act positively to ensure the conditions for the exercise of this right.1 For example, if school teachers today were punishing Indigenous children for using their own languages at school, governments would have an obligation to prohibit such punishments

The purpose of article 27 is `to ensure the survival and continued development of the cultural, religious and social identity of the minorities concerned'.2 In particular, governments must take all measures necessary to ensure the cultural survival and well-being of Indigenous peoples.

Under the heading of cultural renewal we consider whether the service in question contributes effectively to the repair of broken cultural and familial ties. In this connection we recognise the existence of many Indigenous cultures in Australia. Common to all is the history of forcible removal and other gross violations of human rights.

Coherent policy base

The history we have documented has had a profound impact on every aspect of the lives of Indigenous communities. It has jeopardised their very survival. It has impoverished their capacity to control and direct their future development.

An adequate response to this history and its effects will challenge the sensitivity, the goodwill and the creativity of all governments. It requires a whole-of-government policy response with immediate targets, long-term objectives and a continuing commitment. Each aspect of the government's response -- whether provision of family history information or enhancing well-being through medical and mental health services -- must derive its rationale from that central policy commitment. The degree of co-ordination and co-operation between government departments and agencies and the level of resources committed must adequately reflect the implications of our finding of genocide and other gross violations of human rights.

Having a coherent policy base means that the people who fund the service and the people who deliver it are clear about why they are doing it and what goals they are trying to serve. So, for example, a reunification service must understand the history of forcible removals and be committed to facilitating reunion for all those affected who want to find their families. It must be culturally appropriate. It must not turn away people whose nuclear family members are deceased. Instead it must recognise the extended family and the whole community as people with whom a stolen child needs to be reunited. It must also recognise the child's right to know about his or her land and culture.

Government policy must identify services needed to begin a process of healing and reparation as well as a degree of central co-ordination of the resourcing of services designed for this purpose.

Adequate resources

The key resource for any service is its staff. As our discussion of previous criteria has established, services to Indigenous people and communities must be controlled and delivered by Indigenous people themselves. Staff must be adequately and appropriately trained and equipped to perform their roles. Whether the role is counsellor, psychologist, archivist or researcher, the education and training must be accessible to Indigenous people. This may require the establishment of traineeships and scholarships. Training must be culturally appropriate. This will require significant Indigenous input throughout the degree or other qualification.

The expertise in the Indigenous community must be recognised and appropriately remunerated. Survivors of forcible removal have a wealth of knowledge about the history of removal, its effects and the experiences of children in placements. They can provide invaluable information about the children with whom they were placed. Older community members can build genealogies, have information about removals and their impacts on family members left behind and can assist in tracing the subsequent movements and experiences of family members. People who have effected their own reunions can assist others with information and encouragement. Mutual support, community and friendship are keys to healing. The knowledge, experience and skills of traditional healers also need to be acknowledged and drawn upon.

There must be sufficient funding and other resources to ensure that services can respond promptly to demands in ways which ensure realisation of the right of self-determination, which are culturally appropriate and which ensure equality of access for all. Services must be adequately resourced so that they can be flexible enough to take into account the many and diverse ways in which the removal policies have affected individuals, families and communities.


1 The Human Rights Committee's 1994 General Comment on article 27 states that, `The enjoyment of those rights may require positive legal measures of protection...' (UN Document CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.5, 26 April 1994).

2 Ibid.