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Bringing them home - Frequently asked questions about the National Inquiry

asked questions about the National Inquiry

Following the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families and the release of the report Bringing them home several questions have been frequently asked and statements made about the Inquiry’s findings and recommendations. Most of these have focussed on issues such as why Australians should acknowledge and apologise for past removals of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families; why those children were removed and why it was genocide; why do the "Stolen Generations" deserve compensation; and why do Indigenous people still talk about their children being separated today.

  1. Why
    is so much of the report focused on the past? What we need to do is
    look at the present and the future, not dwell on the past

  2. Is
    the report saying that Australians should feel guilty about what happened
    in the past?

  3. What
    will saying sorry achieve?

  4. Weren't
    Indigenous children removed for their own good? Being taken away from
    their Indigenous families gave them a good education and opportunities
    they would not have had otherwise

  5. Lots
    of children have been removed from their families - from poor families
    or from single mothers - not just Indigenous children. Why do Aboriginal
    children who were removed deserve their own National Inquiry?

  6. How
    can you judge the past from the perspective of the present? At the
    time people thought they were doing the right thing by the children

  7. Why
    was the forcible removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
    children genocide?

  8. Why
    do people from the 'stolen generations' deserve compensation?

  9. Why
    do Indigenous people say that their children are still being taken?

1. Why
is so much of the report focused on the past? What we need to do is look
at the present and the future, not dwell on the past.

The National Inquiry’s
first term of reference, as outlined by the Attorney-General in May 1995,
required the Australian Human Rights Commission to:

trace the past
laws, practices and policies which resulted in the separation of Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander children from their families by compulsion,
duress or undue influence, and the effects of those laws, practices
and policies.

Comprehensively tracing
the past laws, practices and policies affecting the lives of Indigenous
peoples is crucial to Australia’s understanding of its history.

Society cannot
simply block out a chapter of its history; it cannot deny the facts
of its past, however differently these may be interpreted. Inevitably,
the void would be filled with lies or with conflicting, confusing versions
of the past. A nation’s unity depends on a shared identity, which
in turn depends largely on a shared memory. The truth also brings a
measure of healthy social catharsis and helps to prevent the past from

People mistakenly
believe that the taking of Indigenous babies and children from their mothers
only happened in the distant past. But the policies and practices of removal
were in effect throughout this century until the early 1970s. There are
many Indigenous people, now in their late twenties and early thirties,
who were removed from their families under these policies.

Although the official
policies and practices of removal have been abandoned, the report reveals
that the past resonates today in Indigenous individuals, families and

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. …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

Bringing them
home, p. 178.

The negative consequences
of removing children cannot be underestimated. The effects of separation
on the lives of Indigenous Australians has been devastating for both those
who were removed and their families and communities.

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

Sydney Aboriginal
Mental Health Unit quoted in Bringing them home, p. 197.

Why me, why
was I taken? It’s like a hole in you heart that can never heal.

Bringing them
home, p. 177.

For the majority
of witnesses to the Inquiry, the effects have been life-long and profoundly
disabling. But the effects of removal do not stop with the children taken.
Generations of Indigenous families continue to bear the brunt of government
policies and practices which attempted to wipe out their rights and their
culture. The unresolved grief and trauma of being taken from your family
as a child is inherited by future generations.

The Inquiry found
that a high proportion of people separated from their families as children
had their own children removed from their care.

things in my life that I haven’t dealt with and I’ve passed
them on to my children. ... 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.

Bringing them
home, p. 222.

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2. Is
the report saying that Australians should feel guilty about what happened
in the past?

failure …
to distinguish between the ideas of collective guilt and historical
shame. Because guilt for wrongs done is always a matter of individual
responsibility, any idea of collective guilt genuinely makes no sense.
An individual cannot be charged with the crimes of others. He or she
cannot experience remorse on someone else’s behalf. …

Talk of sharing
in a collective guilt over the dispossession of the Aborigines is one
thing; however, talk of sharing in a legacy of historical shame is altogether

The word ‘guilt’
is only used once in the report in a quote from Sir William Deane, the
Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia:

It should, I think,
be apparent to all well-meaning people that true reconciliation between
the Australian nation and its indigenous peoples is not achievable in
the absence of acknowledgment by the nation of the wrongfulness of the
past dispossession, oppression and degradation of the Aboriginal peoples.
That is not to say that individual Australians who had no part in what
was done in the past should feel or acknowledge personal guilt.

It is simply to
assert our identity as a nation and the basic fact that national shame,
as well as national pride, can and should exist in relation to past
acts and omissions, at least when done in the name of the community
or with the authority of government.

No Indigenous Australian
who gave evidence to the National Inquiry said that they wanted non-Indigenous
Australians to feel guilty. Overwhelmingly, those who gave evidence simply
wanted people to know the truth. They wanted to be able to tell their
stories and have the truth of their experiences acknowledged.

Before the Inquiry,
few non-Indigenous Australians were aware of the reality of removal. They
were certainly not aware of how many Indigenous people were affected by
past assimilation policies or of the levels of abuse that many children

Australians who were
not directly involved in the practice of removing Indigenous children
from their families should not perceive the Inquiry as asking them to
feel personally guilty. However, it is the responsibility of all Australians
to acknowledge the effects of assimilationist policies and practices,
and to respect the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

As Andrew Lewis wrote
to the Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald:

Is each generation
a new society or a continuation of the existing society?

I was not personally
responsible for any of this. I am a member of a society that wronged
a group of people primarily on the basis of their race. That society
owes an unqualified apology.

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3. What
will saying sorry achieve?

An apology acknowledges
that wrong has been done, and attemps to make amends to those who have
suffered. Apologies can be made on a variety of levels – for example,
as an individual or collectively, as part of a particular group. Apologies
can be made by government representatives on behalf of the people they
represent, but also on behalf of previous governments. Governments are
ongoing representative bodies, irrespective of the particular individuals
who occupy positions of power within them. They inherit the laws and practices
of previous governments and so too inherit responsibility for their past

Saying sorry does
not undo the past.

However, we expect
our governments, and the governments of other countries, to take responsibility
and make amends for harm suffered in the past. Many Australians expect
Japan to apologise today for acts committed against Australians in the

Indigenous people
who were separated from their families look to the institutions that devised
and implemented the laws and policies which affected them – such
as governments and their agencies, churches and welfare organisations
– for acknowledgement, apology and reparation. Many institutions
have acknowledged and apologised for their role in removing Indigenous
children. For example, the Anglican Church Social Responsibilities Commission
stated in its submission to the Inquiry:

[The Commission]
simply states that no amount of explanation can detract from the now
observable consequences of those misguided policies and practices. A
great wrong has been done to the indigenous peoples of Australia. It
is for participation in that wrong that this apology is offered.

Bringing them
home, p. 290.

However, many institutions
have not.

There are precedents
for institutional apologies for past wrongs. In May 1997 the President
of the United States, Bill Clinton, apologised to African-Americans who
were abused in syphilis experiments in the 1930s. More recently, the Prime
Minister of Great Britain, Tony Blair, acknowledged and apologised to
the Irish people for Britain’s role in the potato famine. The Truth
and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa believes acknowledging the
truth and expressing regret is the best way to heal the nation of the
legacy of apartheid.

Saying sorry is an
act of compassion, understanding and healing. Acknowledgement and apology
are essential components of reparation and reconciliation.

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4. Weren’t
Indigenous children removed for their own good? Being taken away from
their Indigenous families gave them a good education and opportunities
they would not have had otherwise.

This assertion is
based on the very stereotypes used to justify forcibly removing children.
It assumes that non-Indigenous people and institutions know more about
looking after Indigenous children than their own families do.

Many people have
said that Indigenous children were removed from appalling living conditions.
However, nothing was being done by government agencies to improve these
conditions for Indigenous families. Children were allegedly removed from
their families out of concern for their well-being. But the fact that
only some children in Indigenous families were taken negates this assertion.
It was generally the children with lighter skin who were removed because
children with lighter skin were considered more appealing by prospective
non-Indigenous foster and adoptive parents. Children with lighter skins
were considered easier to assimilate into white Australia.

Studies indicate
that people separated from their families fared no better than those
not separated when assessed on social indicators such as education,
employment and income. However, those removed were twice as likely to
have been arrested more than once in the last five years, and they suffer
more health problems.

Bringing them
home, pp. 13-17. (See Statistics, Removal, pp. 199-201)

If some Indigenous
people removed from their families are now ‘successful members of
society’, it is largely in spite of their separation from their families,
rather than because of it.

The notion that children
were removed for their own good is particularly offensive to Indigenous
peoples given the state of the institutions to which many children were
sent. Far from being saved from neglect or destitution, many were imprisoned
in institutions without enough food, without enough clothes, without love.

As witnesses who
gave evidence to the Inquiry said:

Sometimes at
night time we’d cry with hunger, no food…We had to scrounge
in the town dump, eating old bread, smashing tomato sauce bottles, licking
them. Half of the time the food we got was from the rubbish dump.

Bringing them
home, p. 159.

I’ve seen
girls naked, strapped to chairs and whipped. We’ve all been through
the locking up period, locked in dark rooms. I had a problem of fainting
when I was growing up and I got belted every time I fainted and this
is belted, not just on the hands or nothing. I’ve seen my sister
dragged by the hair into those block rooms and belted because she’s
trying to protect me... How could this be for my own good? Please tell

Bringing them
home, p. 161.

Far from being protected,
Indigenous children were regularly victims of abuse. Almost a quarter
of witnesses to the Inquiry who were fostered or adopted reported being
physically abused. One in five reported being sexually abused. One in
six children sent to institutions reported physical abuse and one in ten
reported sexual abuse.

Although Indigenous
children were supposedly receiving a good education and opportunities
for the future, most received just enough of an education to prepare them
for menial labour.

I wanted to
be a nurse, only to be told that I was nothing but an immoral black
lubra, and I was only fit to work on cattle and sheep properties …
I strived every year from grade 5 up until grade 8 to that perfect 100%
mark in my exams at the end of each year, which I did succeed in, only
to be knocked back by saying that I wasn’t fit to do these things
… Our education was really to train us to be domestics and to take

Bringing them
home, p.171.

Many Indigenous children
were sent to work for non-Indigenous families, where they were vulnerable
to and often experienced, abuse and exploitation. Many Indigenous children
did the work of adults, but were rarely paid a minimum wage, if they were
paid at all. A large proportion of their wages were officially placed
in trust for these children, but many never saw the money they had earned.

The bulk of evidence
to the Inquiry detailed the damaging and negative effects of removal.
But overwhelmingly even those submissions which acknowledged love and
care or a good education said that they wished they had never been removed
from their families.

Even though
I had a good education with [adoptive family] and went to college, there
was just this feeling that I did not belong there. The best day of my
life was when I met my brothers because I felt like I belonged and I
finally had a family.

Bringing them
home, p. 13.

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5. Lots
of children have been removed from their families – from poor families
or from single mothers – not just Indigenous children. Why do Aboriginal
children who were removed deserve their own National Inquiry?

The Inquiry found
that the main reason for removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
children from their families was not concern for a child’s well-being.
The majority of children were removed because they were Indigenous.

The removal of vast
numbers of children on the grounds of their race was the unique experience
of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. No other Australians
were subject to discriminatory assimilation policies from the moment they
were born. And no other section of the Australian community had their
children taken away in such a systematic and insensitive manner.

I was taken
off my mum as soon as I was born, so she never even seen me. What Welfare
wanted to do was adopt all these poor little black babies into nice,
caring white families, respectable white families, where they’d
get a good upbringing. I had a shit upbringing. Me and [adopted brother
who was also Aboriginal] were always treated different to the others
... we weren’t given the same love, we were always to blame. ...
I found my mum when I was eighteen – she was really happy to hear
from me, because she didn’t adopt me out. Apparently she did sign
adoption papers, but she didn’t know [what they were]. She said
to me that for months she was running away from Welfare [while she was
pregnant], and they kept finding her. She remembers being in –
it wasn’t a hospital –but there were nuns in it, nuns running
it. I was born at Crown Street. They did let her out with her brother
one day and she run away again. Right from the beginning they didn’t
want her to have me.

Bringing them
home, p. 50.

The Inquiry found
that the predominant aim of the forcible removal of Indigenous babies
and children was to absorb or assimilate the children into the wider,
non-Indigenous community so that their unique cultural values and identities
would disappear. There was a clear and explicit intention to eliminate
Indigenous peoples.

[T]his conference
believes that the destiny of the natives of aboriginal origin, but not
that of full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people
of the Commonwealth, and it therefore recommends that all efforts be
directed to that end.

It was thought that
Indigenous peoples of Australia were a ‘dying race’, and that
children of ‘mixed descent’, particularly those with fairer
skin, could be assimilated into the broader community.

Children were not
allowed to know anything about their families or their Indigenous heritage.
Their names were changed. They were punished for speaking their own language.
Many were never told they were Indigenous and were brought up with the
racist beliefs of the non-Indigenous people around them.

We were all
rostered to do work and one of the girls was doing Matron’s office,
and there were all these letters that the girls had written back to
the parents and family – the answers were all in the garbage bin.
And they were wondering why we didn’t write. That was one way they
stopped us keeping contact with our families. Then they had the hide
to turn around and say. "They don’t love you. They don’t
care about you.

Bringing them
home, p. 155

Although different
states had separate laws which sanctioned the removal of Indigenous children,
government officials throughout Australia had absolute power over Indigenous
families and could simply order the removal of an Indigenous child without
having to prove to a court that the child was neglected. In some cases
laws permitted the removal of Indigenous children on the grounds of race

There is not an Indigenous
family in this country that has not been directly affected by children
removed under these laws. Families and communities lived in constant fear
that their children might be taken away – and constant grief for
those already gone.

Indigenous children
who were removed did not only lose their families. They lost their languages,
their cultures, their rights to land and their identities. Many were taught
to hate and fear their people and so were taught to hate themselves.

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.

Bringing them
home, p. 211.

Removal policies
did not just affect individuals and their families. Whole communities
lost their confidence in bringing up their own children, and have been
denied one of their most important and precious roles.

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.

Bringing them
home, p. 215.

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6. How
can you judge the past from the perspective of the present? At the time
people thought they were doing the right thing by the children.

The Inquiry was careful
to evaluate past actions in the light of values and legal standards operating
at that time. It has become clear since the release of the Inquiry’s
report that although many Australians knew that Indigenous children were
removed, they did not know of the extent of the laws which made removal
possible or the atrocities that those children suffered. There were also
many Australians that simply did not know that Indigenous children were
systematically removed from their families for decades. The outrage expressed
today at the findings of the Inquiry could well have been just as strong
in the past if the same information had been publicly available.

Dissenting voices
were not absent at the time of these policies and practices, they were
simply not listened to. In November 1950 the Government Secretary to the
administrator of the Northern Territory, R.S. Leydin, wrote:

I cannot imagine
any practice which is more likely to involve the government in criticism
for violation of the present-day
[1950] conception of ‘human

The Australian Aborigines
Progress Association in 1928 said:

of tender age and years are torn away from their parents…and put
to service in an environment as near to slavery as it is possible to

Fred Maynard, an
Aboriginal activist, wrote to the Premier of NSW in 1927 demanding that:

…the family
life of Aboriginal people shall be held sacred and free from invasion
and interference and that the children shall be left in the control
of their parents.

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7. Why
was the forcible removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children

The crime of genocide
does not necessarily mean the immediate physical destruction of a group.
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,
which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and ratified by
Australia in 1949, defines genocide in Article II as such:

In the present
Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with
intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ehnical, racial
or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing
members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm of members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated
to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the groups

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The Convention
recognises that genocide is a crime against humanity and expressed a shared
international outrage about genocide and empowered any country to prosecute
an offender.

The Inquiry’s
examination of historical documents found that the clear intent of removal
policies was to absorb, merge or assimilate children so that Aboriginal
people, as a distinct racial group, would disappear.

Policies and laws
are genocidal even if they are not solely motivated by animosity or hatred.
The Inquiry found that a principle aim of removing children was to eliminate
Indigenous cultures as distinct entities. The fact that people may have
believed they were removing Indigenous children for ‘their own good’
was immaterial. The removal remains genocidal.

The Inquiry found
that the forcible removal of Indigenous children was a gross violation
of their human rights. It was racially discriminatory and continued
after Australia, as a member of the United Nations from 1945,
committed itself to abolish racial discrimination.

The Inquiry also
concluded that even before international human rights law developed in
the 1940s the treatment of Indigenous people breached Australian legal

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8. Why
do people from the ‘stolen generations’ deserve compensation?

The National Inquiry’s
third term of reference specifically requested that the Australian Human Rights Commission:

examine the
principles relevant to determining the justification for compensation
for persons or communities affected by such separation;

It became apparent
at an early stage in the Inquiry proceedings that the issue of compensation
was only one aspect of a broad range of desired responses from institutions
by the survivors of separation. This is why the Inquiry report addresses
compensation as part of a broader concept of reparation.

is the appropriate response to gross violations of human rights. According
to international legal principles, reparation has five parts:

  1. acknowledgment
    of the truth and an apology;
  2. guarantees
    that these human rights won’t be breached again;
  3. returning
    what has been lost as much as possible (known as restitution);
  4. rehabilitation;
  5. compensation.

In the words of one
woman who gave evidence to the Inquiry:

The Government
has to explain why it happened. What was the intention? I have to know
why I was taken. I have to know why I was given the life I was given
and why I’m scarred today. Why was my Mum meant to suffer? Why
was I made to suffer with no Aboriginality and no identity, no culture?
Why did they think that the life they gave me was better than the one
my Mum would give me?

And an apology
is important because I’ve never been apologised to. My mother’s
never been apologised to, not once, and I would like to be apologised

Thirdly, I’ve
been a victim and I’ve suffered and I’ll suffer until the
day I die for what I’ve never had and what I can never have. I
just have to get on with my life but compensation would help. It doesn’t
take the pain away. It doesn’t take the suffering away. It doesn’t
take the memories away. It doesn’t bring my mother back. But it
has to be recognised.

And I shouldn’t
forget counselling. I’ve had to counsel myself all my life from
a very young age. And in the homes I never showed my tears... I’ve
been told that I need to talk about my childhood. I need to be counselled
for me to get back on with my life.

Bringing them
home, p. 277.

By way of making
reparation the report of the National Inquiry suggested recording testimonies
of all those removed; acknowledgment and apology by those institutions
involved in removing children; commemoration in the form of a national
Sorry Day; public education for all Australians on the ‘stolen generations’;
prioritising reunion; developing language, culture and history centres;
assisting people who were removed to identify as Indigenous; and establishing
a National Compensation Fund.

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9. Why
do Indigenous people say that their children are still being taken?

It was widely recognised
in the Indigenous community that any Inquiry into past removals of children
must include an investigation into contemporary practices of separating
Indigenous children from their families. This is why a specific term of
reference was included in the Inquiry to:

examine current
laws, practices and policies with respect to the placement and care
of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and advise on any
changes required taking into account the principle of self-determination
by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Although laws specifically
designed to remove Indigenous children from their families were officially
repealed decades ago, as far as Indigenous people are concerned, their
children continue to be removed through the child welfare and juvenile
justice systems. Due to the entrenched disadvantage and ongoing dispossession
of Indigenous Australians, contemporary laws continue to discriminate
against Indigenous families where raising children is concerned.

Aboriginal families
continue to be seen as the ‘problem’, and Aboriginal children
continue to be seen as potentially ‘saveable’ if they can
be separated from the ‘dysfunctional’ or ‘culturally
deprived’ environments of their families and communities. Non-Aboriginals
continue to feel that Aboriginal adults are ‘hopeless’ and
cannot be changed, but Aboriginal children ‘have a chance’

The Inquiry found
that Indigenous children are six times more likely to be removed for welfare
reasons and 21 times more likely to be in juvenile detention than non-Indigenous
children. There are many reasons for these high rates of removal, including
continuing cultural bias against Indigenous modes of parenting, inadequate
and inappropriate services for Indigenous families and discriminatory
treatment of young Indigenous people before the law.

After countless reports
documenting the damaging effects of removing Indigenous children from
their families and communities and recommending alternative ways of dealing
with the problems, we cannot say today that we do not know that continuing
these practices is wrong. (See Chapter 3, The New Stolen Generation.)

Supporting Indigenous
families and communities to find their own solutions regarding their children
works better than removal. Indigenous children should be placed with Indigenous
families wherever possible. Strengthening families and communities is
far better than punishing their children.

In July 1996 Australia’s
Prime Minister, John Howard, had this to say about the value of families:

I believe that
Australian families not only provide the greatest source of emotional
and spiritual comfort to Australian individuals but beyond that a functioning
united coherent family is the most effective social welfare system that
any nation has ever seen.

And the widening
gap between rich and poor, much of the social disintegration of this
country and much of the unemployment of this country can be traced to
the disintegration of family life

Given the Prime Minister’s
reluctance to officially apologise to the ‘stolen generations’,
this statement is ambiguous and contradictory. It appears, once again,
to be a case of the government dictating one set of values for Indigenous
Australians, and another for the rest of the country.

It must be recognised
that Indigenous families and communities are entitled to the capacity
and the power to do what they were denied in the past. That is, to raise
and care for their families without fear of discriminatory institutional
intervention. Indigenous peoples have the right to bring up their own

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Last updated 2 December 2001.