The History of the Stolen Generations

Who were the Stolen Generations?

The term Stolen Generations describes the many Aboriginal - and some Torres Strait Islander - people who were forcibly removed from their families as children by past Australian Federal, State and Territory government agencies, and church missions, from the late 1800s to the 1970s. These removals were carried out under acts of their respective parliaments, and the children removed were sent either to institutions or adopted by non-Indigenous families.

Children taken by State and Territory authorities were often not permitted to have visits from their parents or families, such was the extent to which the separation from family, community and culture was enforced.

Nearly every Aboriginal family and community was affected by these policies of forcible removal – those taken away, the parents, sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts, and the communities themselves.

Why were children removed?

Throughout the early 1900s, the Australian public was led to believe that Aboriginal children were disadvantaged and at risk in their own communities, and that they would receive a better education, a more loving family, and a more civilised upbringing in adopted white families or in government institutions.

The reality was that Aboriginal children were being removed in order to be exposed to ‘Anglo values’ and ‘work habits’ with a view to them being employed by colonial settlers, and to stop their parents, families and communities from passing on their culture, language and identity to them. The children who were targetted for removal by the authorities of the time, in almost all cases, had one parent that was 'white' and one that was Aboriginal. The objective behind the removal of these children then was often one of racial assimilation,

The Aboriginal Protection Boards at the time believed that by separating these mixed race children from their families, community, land and culture, assimilation into white Australian society would be all the more effective, with the mixed descent Aboriginal population in time merging with the non Indigenous population.

The children removed and then placed in institutions or with new foster families so often received a lower standard of education, and sometimes no education at all, when compared with the standard of education available to white Australian children.

In Western Australia, for example, once removed, children were often placed in dormitories, trained as farm labourers and domestic servants, and by the age of 14 were sent out to work.

Experiences of the children

Experiences of the children taken from their families varied widely.

Some coped with the trauma of losing their families, and flourished, despite the prevailing sense and knowledge of their loss of and separation from their birth families, communities, land and culture.

I was very fortunate that when I was removed, I was with very loving and caring parents. The love was mutual ... I know my foster parents were the type of people that always understood that I needed to know my roots, who I was, where I was born, who my parents were and my identity ... I remember one day I went home to my foster father and stated that I had heard that my natural father was a drunk. My foster father told me you shouldn't listen to other people: `You judge him for yourself, taking into account the tragedy, that someday you will understand'.
Confidential submission 252
, South Australia: woman fostered at 4 years in the 1960s.

However, once removed, so many children were encouraged to abandon and deny their own Aboriginal heritage and language in favour of western values and norms, and the English language.

My mother and brother could speak our language and my father could speak his. I can't speak my language. Aboriginal people weren't allowed to speak their language while white people were around. They had to go out into the bush or talk their lingoes on their own. Aboriginal customs like initiation were not allowed. We could not leave Cherbourg to go to Aboriginal traditional festivals. We could have a corroboree if the Protector issued a permit. It was completely up to him. I never had a chance to learn about my traditional and customary way of life when I was on the reserves. Confidential submission 110, Queensland: woman removed in the 1940s.

For many other children, who were placed with unsatisfactory foster parents or in institutions, as adults they continue to struggle to overcome their experiences of trauma, loss, isolation, and often, abuse.

I led a very lost, confused, sad, empty childhood, as my foster father molested me. I remember once having a bath with my clothes on `cause I was too scared to take them off. I was scared of the dark `cause my foster father would often come at night. I was scared to tell anyone `cause I once attempted to tell the local Priest at the Catholic church and he told me to say ten Hail Mary's for telling lies. So I thought this was how `normal' non-Aboriginal families were. I was taken to various doctors who diagnosed me as `uncontrollable' or `lacking in intelligence'. Confidential submission 788, New South Wales: woman removed at 3 years in 1946; experienced two foster placements and a number of institutional placements.

The Bringing them home Report and the Stolen Generations Testimonies website both feature the first hand stories of adults, who as children were forcibly removed from their families and communities. They tell their own stories of loss and separation from their families, communities, culture and land, social isolation, deplorable living conditions, neglect, and physical, mental and sexual abuse.

The institutions to which the children were taken were tasked with preparing 'part-Aboriginal' children to take their place in a society which treated non-white people as second-class.

Long term impacts

The forcible removal of Aboriginal children irrevocably broke parental links, severing cultural connection to family and country. As a measure of remedy, the emergence of the Link Up services across the country now mean that increasingly, Stolen Generations members are able to receive assistance and support when seeking to be reunited with their families. The journey that Stolen Generations survivors embark on when looking to trace their family members as adults can be fraught with a range of varied and mixed emotions. Even when the opportunity to become reunited with ones family arises, it is incredibly difficult to shift the deep and understandable sense of resentment that is felt by many Stolen Generations survivors and their families. For many, the question 'how could the policies of forcible removal ever have been justified in light of the trauma and loss they caused' has still yet to be answered.

Few Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families have escaped the impacts of the forcible removal of children. The end result is a deep sorrow in the psyche or spirit for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals, families and communities throughout Australia.

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