Why me; why was I taken? It's like a hole in your heart that can never heal.
Witness to the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families (1997)
The ‘Stolen Generations’ refers to Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families under the laws and policies of Australian Federal and State Governments during a large part of the 20th Century. The term was coined following the release of the 1997 landmark report, Bringing Them Home, which analysed the impact of the laws, policies and practices of the forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their families for nearly a century of relatively recent Australian history. The report came as one of the results of the Australian Human Rights and Equality Commission’s National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families (1997), which systematically investigated these shameful past practices, including through the testimonies of a large number of witnesses.
Colonisation has had many negative consequences. One of the most profound has been the removal of Aboriginal children from their families. Most Aboriginal families have experienced removal of children or displacement of entire families into missions, reserves or other institutions. (Dudgeon et al., 2014, p. 12)
The Bringing Them Home report concluded that between one in three and one in ten Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families from approximately 1910 until 1970 (Australian Human Rights and Equality Commission, 1997). This figure was much greater during certain periods and in particular regions of Australia. The Aboriginal children were sent to missions, institutions or adopted into non-Aboriginal families. Children were removed from their families at any age, however, between one-half and two-thirds of children forcibly removed were taken before the age of five years. Many children were taken within days after their birth, particularly those identified for adoption.
In the early years, governments’ motivation for removing Aboriginal children from their families was to develop ‘European’ values in Aboriginal children. During the 1930s and 40s, the ultimate purpose of forcible removal of children was to control the reproduction of Aboriginal people by blending them into the non-Aboriginal population (Australian Human Rights and Equality Commission, 1997). The central belief was that Australian Aboriginal peoples, their cultures, their language and beliefs would fade away with colonisation (Bretherton and Mellor, 2006). During the 1950s and 1960s, even greater numbers of Aboriginal children were removed from their families to progress the policy of assimilation. This policy was envisioned to provide equality for all peoples living in Australia to erase discrimination and foster one new way of living (Haebich, 2002). Children of ‘mixed race’ in particular were believed to need extra help to assimilate into white society. However, those who were taken were not assimilated with equality. They were mistreated and put into institutions that trained them for menial positions. Authors such as Anna Haebich (2000) have comprehensively documented this period of history.
Adoption of Aboriginal children
According to the Bringing Them Home report, approximately 17 per cent of Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families were adopted into new families. In the great majority of cases where fostering or adoption took place, the family was non-Aboriginal. There have also been reported incidences of babies and children being adopted into families overseas.
The majority of these adoptions occurred after 1950 when authorities began promoting the fostering and adoption of Aboriginal children by white parents as part of assimilation policies. The government of the day was so taken with the notion that pamphlets – with titles such as ‘Fringe Dwellers’ and ‘The Skills of our Aborigines’ – were compiled for dissemination to Australians to support the idea of providing protection to the Aboriginal peoples of this land (Haebich, 2002). Reports in the media made no reference to the Aboriginal children’s families and presented the children’s adoption into a white family as their only alternative to leave the isolated world of institutional life (Haebich, 2001). The media promoted assimilation and even perpetuated the view that Aboriginal children were happier living in non-Aboriginal families than their own. For instance, photos in newspapers featured Aboriginal children smiling and living with non-Aboriginal people, with captions such as “Adopted: into a white home he [an Aboriginal child] becomes a member of the family and automatically a member of the white community” (Adelaide Advertiser, 1957, cited in Haebich, 2002).
Impact of forced removal from families
The impact of these past forcible removable practices on Australian Aboriginal peoples, both individually and collectively, has been immeasurable. Most Aboriginal families have been affected by the forcible removal of one or more children across generations, and this in turn has had a major impact on the cohesion of many Aboriginal communities.
While there has been no systematic research on the effects of the forcible removal of Aboriginal children, accurate accounts of the devastating impacts have been presented to the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families (1997). The testimonies of 535 Aboriginal people throughout Australia who had been removed as children or had family members that were removed were provided to the Inquiry.
Evidence from these testimonies is presented in the Bringing Them Home report. As the objective of the assimilation legislation and policies was to absorb children into white society, many children experienced denigration or denial of their Aboriginality and they were not permitted to use their languages. Many children were told that they had been rejected by their parents, or that their parents were worthless or even dead. Most often family members were unable to keep in touch with their children. These practices cut children off from their heritage and left them open to exploitation and abuse. Many witnesses spoke strongly of a sense that they did not belong to either the Aboriginal community or to white society.
The impact of these experiences damaged the children who were forcibly removed, their parents and families, their communities and subsequent generations who continue to suffer the effects. Although there are many individual differences in reaction to trauma, for the majority of witnesses to the Inquiry the effects of forcible removal of children has been profoundly disabling. Psychological and emotional damage has led to low educational achievement, unemployment, poverty, self-harm, substance abuse and antisocial behaviour.
The report makes no conclusions about whether children who were adopted into white families fared better than those sent to institutions or missions, with many similarities between the disturbing testimonies. The testimonies indicate that the alienation from their sense of Aboriginality had a profound impact on the children’s sense of identity as they grew up in white families. However, it must be noted that some children were fortunate to find love and care in their adoptive families, as well as an understanding of their Aboriginal heritage.
The impacts of the removal policies continue to resound through the generations of Aboriginal families as the trauma is inherited by new children in complex ways through parenting practices, behavioural problems, violence, unresolved grief and trauma, and mental illness.
Despite the release of the landmark Bringing Them Home report, for many years after the Australian Government refused to apologise for these past wrongs (apparently out of concern for financial liability), and maintained that children were taken for protection purposes only. However, on 13th February 2008 the new Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, delivered a formal Apology to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Stolen Generation’s children and families on behalf of the Australian Government. The Apology represented a major milestone in the reconciliation process with Aboriginal Australians, and the validation and acknowledgement of the impact of the shameful forcible removal policies has provided a pathway for healing.
There are many successful Aboriginal-led healing programs that have been developed in recent times. One of these is the Marumali healing model by Aunty Lorraine Peeters (for a comprehensive overview of the Marumali Program, see Peeters, Hamann, & Kelly, 2014). The word ‘marumali’ is a Kamilaroi word, which means 'to heal' or 'put back together'. The Marumali journey of healing is based on Aboriginal knowledge that has been specifically developed to heal those who have been subject to the worst excesses of colonisation: forcible removal from their families. No other group of people in Australia has been subject to State-sanctioned removal from their families because of their cultural heritage, or had their children subject to sustained attempts to remove their language, culture and identity.
The Marumali journey of healing is about recovering our culture and identity as Aboriginal people. Healing involves mind, body, spirit, family, culture and sometimes (if we are lucky) country. It is about finding our ‘belonging place’, whatever that might mean to each of us.(Peeters, 1999, p.3)
The Marumali model of healing is unique, original and unparalleled, and has relevance for all who were subject to the range of forcible removal practices. The model offers an effective framework, structure and process to support the healing of survivors regardless of whether they were removed to institutional care, foster care or adoptive families.
Understandings for psychology
Bretherton and Mellor (2006) report that, although psychology was a relatively new field during the years when forcible removal practices were occurring, the psychologists who were available did not use their disciplinary knowledge to speak out against Aboriginal children being taken from their families. It appears that Australian psychology only started to more broadly provide respectful supports after the Bringing Them Home report was published.
It is imperative that psychologists working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today have a deep understanding of the impact of the traumatic history of the Stolen Generations. The shameful forcible removal practices have resulted in intergenerational and unresolved trauma and there remains extreme sensitivity to this topic among Aboriginal people. Each Aboriginal person has his or her own unique story of how forcible removal practices have impacted on them and their families.
In order to work with Aboriginal people in a culturally safe, respectful and appropriate manner, psychologists should work towards becoming culturally competent. Further, with Stolen Generation survivors, they must listen to their individual stories as they evolve, rather than asking too many questions as this may appear intrusive. They must develop a trusting relationship, and be transparent and authentic about the processes of psychological intervention before trying to address any past traumas. With this information, Stolen Generation survivors will determine with whom they may wish to work on a therapeutic or healing level. Above all, psychologists must understand the traumatic history of forcible removal of children and its collective impacts on Aboriginal people, and in so doing assist in healing the past and orienting Australia’s first peoples towards full and productive lives.
The first author can be contacted at email@example.com
- Australian Human Rights and Equality Commission. (1997). Bringing Them Home. Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. Canberra: author.
- Bretherton, D. & Mellor, D. (2006). Reconciliation between Aboriginal and other Australians: The Stolen Generations. Journal of Social Issues, 62(1), 81-98.
- Dudgeon, P., Wright, M., Paradies, Y., Garvey, D., & Walker, I. Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Social, Cultural and Historical Contexts.
- In P. Dudgeon, H. Milroy, and R. Walker (Eds.). Working Together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Wellbeing Principles and Practice (2nd ed., pp. 3-24). Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
- Haebich, A. (2000). Broken Circles: Fragmenting Indigenous Families, 1800-2000. Perth: Fremantle Arts Centre Press.
- Haebich, A., (2001). Between knowing and not knowing: public knowledge
of the Stolen Generations. Aboriginal History, 25, 70-90.
- Haebich, A., (2002). Imagining assimilation. Australian Historical Studies, 118, 61-70.
- Peeters, L. & Kelly, K. (1999). Reclaiming Identity Through the Pain: What Hurts and What Helps. A model of healing for the Stolen Generations. Invited keynote address at NSW Aboriginal Mental Health Conference, Sydney, 1- 3 Sept.
- Peeters, L., Hamann, S., & Kelly, K. (2014). The Marumali Program: Healing for Stolen Generations. In
- P. Dudgeon, H. Milroy, and R. Walker (Eds.). Working Together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Wellbeing Principles and Practice (2nd ed., pp. 493- 507). Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.