Bringing them home - Frequently asked questions about the National Inquiry

Frequently 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 reoccurring.

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 communities.

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 all.

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.

There’s 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 another.

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 suffered.

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 actions.

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 past.

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 me.

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 orders.

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 alone.

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 rights’.

The Australian Aborigines Progress Association in 1928 said:

…girls 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 find.

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 genocide?

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 standards.

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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.

‘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; and
  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 to.

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 children.

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Last updated 2 December 2001.