Between 1910 and the 1970s*, many First Nations children were forcibly removed from their families as a result of various government policies. The generations of children removed under these policies became known as the Stolen Generations. The policies of child removal left a legacy of trauma and loss that continues to affect Indigenous communities, families and individuals today.
What happened and why?
The forcible removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families was part of the policy of Assimilation, which was based on the misguided assumption that the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would be improved if they became part of white society. It proposed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be allowed to “die out” through a process of natural elimination, or, where possible, assimilated into the white community.
Policies focused on assimilating children as they were considered more adaptable to white society than adults. Children of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and white parentage were particularly vulnerable to removal because authorities thought the children could be assimilated more easily into the white community due to their lighter skin colour.
Children taken from their parents were taught to reject their Indigenous heritage and were forced to adopt white culture. Their names were often changed, and many were forbidden from speaking traditional languages. Some children were adopted by white families, and many were placed in institutions where abuse and neglect were common. First Nations people who were removed were left with lifelong trauma and were never treated as equal to other Australians.
The Stolen Generations have had devastating impacts for the people who were forcibly removed as children, their parents and families, and their descendants.
All three of these groups experience high rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and suicide, and poor health and socioeconomic outcomes. Stolen Generations survivors, their families and descendants have experienced greater disadvantage than both non-Indigenous Australians and other First Nations people who were not removed.
For the people who were taken as children:
- Many were psychologically, physically, and sexually abused while living in state care and/or with their adoptive families, leading to lifelong trauma.
- Efforts to make stolen children reject their culture often created a sense of shame about being of Indigenous heritage. This resulted in a disconnection from culture, and an inability to pass culture on to their children.
- Many children were wrongly told that their parents were abusive, had died or had abandoned them. Many never knew where they had been taken from or who their biological families were.
- Living conditions in the institutions were highly controlled, and children were frequently punished harshly, were cold and hungry and received minimal, if any, affection.
- The children generally received a very low level of education, as they were expected to work as manual labourers and domestic servants. This has had lifelong economic implications and means many who are now parents are unable to assist their children with schoolwork and education.
For the parents and family members of children who were taken:
- Many parents never recovered from the grief of having their children removed.
- Some parents couldn’t go on living without their children, while others turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism.
- Many siblings were separated. Many First Nations people are still searching for their parents and siblings.
For the descendants of members of the Stolen Generations:
- The removal of several generations of children severely disrupted the passing on of Indigenous cultures, and consequently many cultural knowledges have been lost or lay dormant.
- People who were removed as children were often deprived of living in a healthy family situation and prevented from learning parenting skills. In some instances, this has resulted in generations of children being raised in state care. Some people and organisations call this a “new stolen generation”.
- Many are still experiencing intergenerational trauma that results when the effects of trauma are passed down to the next generation.
When Ruth was 4 years old, she was separated from her mother on Cherbourg mission in Queensland. Ruth was 6 months old when she and her mother first arrived at Cherbourg. Times were tough; it was during the Great Depression, and Ruth’s mother had gone to Cherbourg with Ruth, seeking help for her ageing parents.
But once she arrived at the mission, Ruth's mum was prevented from leaving and then forcibly separated from her daughter. What was intended as a temporary visit became years of separation and control. “People would say it was for your own good, but my own good was to stay with my mum,” says Ruth.
At first, Ruth was allowed to stay with her mum in the women’s dormitory. But, when she was 4 years old Ruth was moved to a separate dormitory from her mum. “Once you were taken from your parents, you had no more connection with them,” she explains.
For a short time, Ruth still saw her mum from a distance. But when Ruth was 5, her mother was sent away from Cherbourg and forced to leave her daughter behind.
What’s been done about this?
Individuals, families, communities and organisations (such as the Healing Foundation) have been working to reconnect members of the Stolen Generations and their descendants with family members, Indigenous communities, culture and Country, and to heal the hurt caused by child removals. This important work has taken place over many decades and continues today.
In 1980, a government Link-Up service was established in New South Wales to help members of the Stolen Generations find their families. Over the next 15 years this expanded to all states and territories, and the service continues to assist members of the Stolen Generations and subsequent generations today.
In 1995, the Australian Government launched an inquiry into the policy of forced child removal. The report, Bringing Them Home, was delivered to Parliament on the 26th May 1997. It estimated that between 10 and 33 per cent of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were separated from their families between 1910-1970 and concluded that this was a breach of fundamental human rights.
While it was the Keating Government that commissioned the inquiry into the Stolen Generations, the Howard Government had come to power by the time the report was finalised and largely ignored its 54 recommendations.
Recommendations included financial compensation for victims of the Stolen Generations on a national level. Some state-level reparations have been made, however many people who were removed as children have found they don’t fit the criteria for these compensation schemes. Others have said that no amount of money will ever be able to compensate them for the trauma they were put through.
Why do the Stolen Generations still matter today?
The forcible removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families had a profound impact that’s still being experienced today. It’s led to many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people suffering a loss of identity and culture, and families living with intergenerational trauma in a cycle of abuse and violence.
A report released by the Healing Foundation in 2020 found that Stolen Generations survivors and their descendants still experience greater disadvantage, across a range of life indicators, when compared to both other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and to non-Indigenous Australians.
The 13th of February is the anniversary of the 2008 National Apology. The 26th of May is National Sorry Day, the anniversary of the day the Bringing Them Home report was tabled in Parliament in 1997. Each year these dates are an opportunity for all Australians to learn more by listening to the voices of First Nations people who are affected by the Stolen Generations.
Ruth, featured in the video above, is one of many First Nations people who have taken the courageous step of sharing their stories.
Listening to these stories helps all Australians understand what happened, which is the first step towards acknowledging our painful history, and building a brighter future.
*Policies of forced removals were in place from 1910 – 1969, but there are many stories of forced removals prior to and after these dates.
- 1. Behrendt, L. 2012, Indigenous Australia for Dummies, Wiley Publishing Australia PTY LTD, Milton, Australia, pg. 295
- 2. Behrendt, L. 2012, Indigenous Australia for Dummies, Wiley Publishing Australia PTY LTD, Milton, Australia, pg. 295-301
- 3. Behrendt, L. 2012, Indigenous Australia for Dummies, Wiley Publishing Australia PTY LTD, Milton, Australia, pg. 295-301
- 4. Behrendt, L. 2012, Indigenous Australia for Dummies, Wiley Publishing Australia PTY LTD, Milton, Australia, pg. 304-306
- 5. Larkin, S, The Healing Foundation, 2020, Addressing the gap within the gap, Journal of Indigenous Wellbeing, Volume 5, Issue 1
- 6. Behrendt, L. 2012, Indigenous Australia for Dummies, Wiley Publishing Australia PTY LTD, Milton, Australia, pg. 304-306
- 7. Family Matters, ‘a new stolen generation’ – On National Sorry Day, Family Matters calls on governments to take action for all children, viewed 31 July 2020
- 8. AIATSIS, Stolen Generations History of Link-Up, viewed 20 July 2020
- 9. ABC, Stolen Generations: Victims to get $73 million compensation, NSW Government says, viewed 31 July 2020