National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families

Report launch speech by Mick Dodson, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Australian Reconciliation Convention, Melbourne, 26 May 1997

How much indignity, Mr Howard?

How much loss?

The story in my hand is the saddest of all stories. It is the story of children taken from their mothers and fathers and families. It is the story of mothers and fathers and families who lost the most precious thing in their lives. Their children.

In my life I have seen my people face hostility and rejection and cruelty on more occasions than I would care to recall. But nothing, nothing could have prepared me for the days I spent with my co-commissioners listening as people spoke the truth of their lives for the first time. Of being taken from their mothers at three weeks of age. Of mothers waiting a life time to see their babies' faces again.

They came before this inquiry, and they told us of being sent to institutions "for their own good" - institutions without the loving arms of aunties and grandma's. But rather cat -o- nine tails and porridge with weevils and frightening adults who came into your room at night.

They recalled being told that their parents had given them away because they did not love them. And they told me what it was like to be taught to hate Aborigines and then turn that hate against your own history, your own mother and yourself. Some told me that they had tried to go home - but no one was alive any more.

Early this century, the local protector in Western Australia wrote:

I would not hesitate for one moment to separate any half-caste from its Aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic her momentary grief might be at the time. They soon forget their offspring. (P. 104)

At times I wonder how much has changed.

Don't you think we feel pain and loss just like everyone else? Stop for a moment - and imagine this had happened to you.

Fifty seven years ago mrs howard took her baby son john home from hospital. On the same day, an Aboriginal woman was told that her baby had died and went home alone.

Yes, this is a very personal remark - but this is personal. It could not be more personal. This is not a report about finance or industry or trade relations. We are not making recommendations that will effect banking transactions or the budget deficit.

This volume holds the truth about people just like you and me and all the politicians in parliament house. It holds the stories of the lives of our brothers and sisters and mothers, and your fellow Australians. It holds the anguish of adoptive parents when they learned that their child's parents were not dead as they had been told.

And its recommendations are directed to lessen the hurt people have suffered at the hands of our own nation.

This is not someone else's history. This is all of our history. I am glad that the Prime Minister has spoken publicly of his personal sorrow. But that is simply not enough Mr Howard. As leader of this nation, you must speak for this nation.

We cannot turn away from what this nation did to Aboriginal children. We cannot refuse to listen to people who have for so long held their pain in silence. We cannot ignore the atrocities that have happened in our own life times and in our own country.

This report demands our nation's compassion. It also demands justice. Five or six generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were affected by removal. We are talking about up to one hundred thousand Australians.

This nation is proud of its rule of law. Proud of its sense of justice and a fair go. One of those laws is that if you steal something, and you are caught, you have to give it back. This nation has stolen. From parents and families and communities it has stolen children.From children it has stolen love, and family; language and culture; land and identity.

It committed a grievous crime. A crime against humanity. It is time to pay for that crime.

There is nothing complicated or unusual or controversial about trying to make up for the hurt one has caused. Imagine if I was entrusted with one of your children, and I hurt them. Surely you would demand that I acknowledge what I had done. Surely you would expect me to say sorry and do everything in my power to make up for it?

Why should Australia as a nation be exempt from that simple moral obligation - to make up for the hurt one has caused. To say sorry. To do everything that you can to give back what has been lost.

This inquiry was charged to examine the laws and polices and practices which resulted in and continue to result in Indigenous children being separated from their families. It does so in meticulous detail. It traces the repugnant pseudo-scientific justifications. It details the elaborate bureaucracies developed to execute the laws and policies. It recounts the cruelty inflicted on families as their children were taken under compulsion, duress and undue influence.

It portrays the lives of those children in institutions, in adoptive and foster families and in the houses and properties where they were sent to work. What happened to them there is a matter of the greatest shame. Remember, these children were "removed for their own good".

Could you look one of those people in the eye and tell them that a metal cot was an improvement on their mother's arms?

Can you convince yourselves that educating those children to the level of a ten year old and then sending them out as unpaid labour was an opportunity?

Where is the benefit in punishing a child who dares even to whisper to her little sister in their mother tongue?

Is there anyone willing to convince me that turning these children into the working poor of white Australia was giving them a superior culture?

Superior to the culture their ancestors had formed over thousands of years just to place in their hands?

Can you even speak the phrases "for your own good" and "systematic sexual and physical abuse" in the same breath?

We have sat with hundreds of those children - now grown up, as they told me those things. And we know that there are hundreds who could not speak.

One thing missing from this report are the mothers' stories - but then how could a mother possibly bear to tell of her loss?

Many of those who spoke to the inquiry told us that the telling was itself healing - particularly telling and knowing that you were being heard by an official body. We feel that everyone affected by removal should have a similar opportunity - both for their own healing, and because this is a part of our nation's history that must not be lost. So our first recommendation is that governments should fund Indigenous organisations to record and preserve testimonies.

We also tried to find out and explain the effects that separation had on the children, their families and communities. Again, my few words can barely begin to convey what we saw and heard. The incessant emotional pain and the attempts to dull that pain with alcohol and drugs. The enormous anger and the explosion of that anger in violence and self abuse. The loss of self esteem, the self hatred. The withdrawal and incapacity to engage in the world socially or professionally. The inability to trust or be intimate with other people - worst of all with your own children.

43 of the 99 Aboriginal people whose deaths in custody were investigated by the Royal Commission had been separated from their families. How many more of those children are now in prison, on medication, without education or employment and unable to find a way out of that cycle of despair? Are they the people you walk past in the gutter?

In the face of this evidence, certain people continue to insist that some of our leaders owe their success to removal policies. This view is not only repugnant - it is also wrong. The vast majority of those removed were placed in institutions where they received minimal education and were sent straight into the most menial employment. If some have risen to achieve great things, it is a testament to their own strength of spirit. Quite frankly, I think we should all be in awe that any of those children are still standing. In fact, as horrendous as the effects have been, the overriding impression I take from this inquiry is not the damage, but the strength.

Ladies and gentlemen, the truth is now on the table. The defence of ignorance is no longer available. Nor is the defence that "it was not us". These children were removed as a matter of national policy. The policy of our nation.

Just as the current government must take responsibility to address the budget deficit it says it inherited - so too it must take responsibility for the laws and policies that left a black hole in these Australian families. Government is an ongoing institution. It inherits the achievements, the responsibilities and the mistakes of its predecessors.

The obligation to pay a pension toWWII veterans did not dissolve with the government in power at the end of the war. Nor do we think that the germany of today can absolve itself of what was done by the Germans fifty years ago. Governments take up that inheritance all over the world, all the time.

Just last week the President of the United States apologised to the black men who were victims of government run scientific experiments sixty years ago. He said, and I quote:

what is done cannot be undone, but we can end the silence....we can stop turning our heads away, we can look you in the eye and say, on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was wrong and I am sorry.

That is what this is all about. Not turning away. Trying to restore justice. Individual Australians are not guilty for what happened to our families. But if you fail to respond to what you now know, you will be guilty. If you do not help to ease the pain, you will be guilty. And we can certainly be held responsible for the harms we are inflicting in the present.

Removal is not something in the past - it is still happening to our people as I speak. We consider contemporary removal an issue of such gravity that we have devoted about a third of our report to it. As heart wrenching as the issues of past removals are, our feelings about the grown up children must not swamp our responsibility for the children being taken today.

Sure, the state does not claim automatic guardianship of all Aboriginal children, as it once did. But given the number of our children who are in care or in juvenile detention centres, we are not far off.

Indigenous children are six times more likely than other children to be removed for welfare reasons and 21 times more likely to be removed to juvenile justice centres.

The state is still undermining our right to bring up our own children, and to have a say over the course of their lives. Welfare and judicial systems still discriminate against us and view our family cultures as somehow pathological. They still deny our children the right to grow up within their own culture. With all that we know about the long term effects of removing Indigenous children from their families and communities, Australians cannot allow this to continue.

If anything we are more culpable because we have the knowledge and the tools to do things differently. We know that supporting Indigenous families and communities to find their own solutions to their childrens' problems works better than removal. We know that Indigenous children should be placed with Indigenous families wherever possible. We know that strengthening families and communities is far better than punishing their children.

Perhaps we cannot give back the children who were removed fifty or thirty years ago. But we can give back the children who are being removed today. And we can give back to Indigenous families and communities the capacity and the power to do what is surely their right - to bring up their own children.

The final part of the report provides extensive guidelines about how juvenile justice and welfare systems could operate to ensure that systematic and discriminatory removal is really a thing of the past. This report is not a raking over the past for its own sake. It is directed to healing and reconciliation for the benefit of all Australians.

The first two parts of the report recount the laws, practices, policies and effects of removal. They are part of the telling, the listening, the understanding and the acknowledgment which Sir Ron spoke about.

The second two parts are about what we ought to be doing for people affected by removal and the practical steps we can take to repair the injustice and ease their pain.

We believe that "Reparation" is the correct response. Reparation is a broader concept than compensation. It means trying to repair the damage caused by removal, trying to give back what was taken and lost, trying to make up for the hurt. It is, of course, impossible to reconstruct a life that has been so radically altered. But experience in other countries, and the international guidelines on the right to reparation for victims of gross human rights violations provide us with some guidance.

We suggest that reparation has five parts, and for each we have made specific recommendations.

First is acknowledgment of the truth and apology, which Sir Ron spoke about in some detail. All Australian parliaments must officially acknowledge the responsibility of their predecessors and extend apologies. I should make it clear that personal expressions of sorrow are welcome. But they are not a substitute for institutional apologies. We also recommend that all Australian police forces, churches and non-government organisations which played a role in removal give similar acknowledgment and apologies.

Many churches have already taken that step. I praise them for their leadership.

The second component of reparation is the guarantee against repetition.

As a nation, we must do all that we can to make sure that Indigenous families and communities need never fear that their children will be removed again. All school children, and all those working with Indigenous people should be taught about the history of removal. The government should also legislate to implement the Genocide Convention so that it has full effect within Australia.

The third component is restitution. That is, trying to re-establish the situation that existed before the violation occurred. We have looked at what people have lost, and how those things might be returned. For example, helping people to return to country and reunite with family and community. To that end we suggest improving access to records, and training Indigenous archivists, genealogists and historians to help people with the searches.

We heard some particularly distressing evidence of people finding their families, but being so wrought with emotion that they are unable to have the meeting they all so desperately needed. The gap of time, guilt and pain is just too much .

This is one of the areas where a simple response, like funding Indigenous run family tracing and reunion services can make an enormous difference to peoples' lives.

We also received a great deal of evidence about the loss of language and culture. About people finding their mothers and being unable to speak to them, or hear their words. We believe that Indigenous language, culture and history centres are best suited to bringing people home in a cultural and linguistic sense.

People also told us of that part of their way home was tracing the files that plot their lives and those of their families. As long as those records are not theirs or even accessible to them, they feel that they are not fully free of institutional control. Again, this is one of the areas where simple bureaucratic and legal changes will cost governments little but will make a huge difference.

The fourth component is rehabilitation. As I said earlier, removal has had an enormous impact on peoples' mental and physical health, their relationships, their parenting and their ability to get by in the world. In our view mental health services for people affected by removal must be grounded in an understanding that health for Indigenous people is inseparable from our social, cultural and emotional well-being.

The fifth and final component is compensation. You cannot, of course, bring back the years of childhood. Monetary compensation is a recognition that restitution in kind is impossible . All those who were removed should be paid a minimum lump sum monetary compensation. Compensation should also be paid for particular harms such as physical, sexual and emotional abuse, economic loss and pain and suffering.

The suggestion of compensation seems to cause a great deal of difficulty for some people. I would simply point out to them that most of the categories of harm for which people would be claiming compensation are already grounds for compensation under Australian law. We are not inventing anything new in compensation law. We are simply saying that justice demands that the stolen children are treated equally by the law.

Already the government has responded by ruling out compensation saying that it will be divisive. What type of Orwellian double speak is that?

Our Prime Minister has told us that the family is the core of our society.

What could be more divisive than breaking up families?

Isn't it divisive to have one set of laws for Aboriginal families and one set of laws for everyone else?

Isn't it divisive to say that you can claim compensation for emotional pain, for arbitrary deprivation of your liberty, for abuse, for loss of land, for loss of culture and for loss of opportunity - but not if those things happened because the governments of this country took you away because of the colour of your skin?

There is nothing divisive about compensation. Compensation is part of reparation - and reparation means recognising and repairing what has been broken. As Sir Ronald said, it is not just peoples' lives and peoples' communities which have been broken. It is the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Repairing that relationship is anything but divisive.

But my greatest fear is not just that our government will reject the recommendations of our report. It is that the inhumanity and discrimination which we now see in our past will continue to underpin our nation's policy. Another phrase for genocide is extinguishing a people. It seems that extinguishment is a bit of a theme in this country. Extinguishment leads to extinction. I think that is something all the people of this nation really need to contemplate.

If you take our land you take the ground of our culture. If you take our children, you take the future of our culture. If you keep on taking, there will be nothing left. We can no longer equivocate. This is not history. When we are gone, you won't be able to bring us back. It will be too late.

Think about the stark permanency of a person's death. Extinction is the death of a people. When you read about our mothers losing their children - forever, perhaps you should take that to heart. Imagine that you come home, like she did, but this time a whole race of people has disappeared. And imagine you search, just like she did. But no matter what you do, you cannot find us. And you no matter how hard you try you cannot get us back.

Imagine that you will never, never see us again.

Imagine that loss.

Or imagine seeing us come home.

That is what this report is about.

Last updated 1 December 2001