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Stolen Generation

The term Stolen Generation refers to the removal of Aboriginal children from their families by Australian government agencies and church missions between approximately 1900 and 1972. Originally considered child welfare, the practice is perceived by some as having wreaked extensive family and cultural damage.

The nature of the removals, their extent, and its effects on those removed, is a topic of considerable dispute and political debate within Australia.

According to the official government report, at least 30,000 children were removed from their parents, and the figure may be substantially higher (the report notes that formal records of removals were very poorly kept). Percentage estimates were given that 10-30% of all Aboriginal children born during the seventy year period were removed.

Although children of full Aboriginal descent were removed, in general the children of "mixed descent" (having one or more European ancestors) were the most targeted. A 1937 national government conference on "Native Welfare" concluded in its final report that "... the destiny of the natives of aboriginal [sic] origin, but not of the 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."

One of the most pressing reasons for the removal of mixed race children was that they were frequently marginalised and mistreated if left in the family or tribe of their birth. One of the first members of the Stolen Generation to seek financial compensation in an Australian court for his removal had to admit that he was in fact rescued as a baby from a rabbit hole, where his mother had left him to die.

The report noted that removals were certainly voluntary in some cases, as some mothers surrendered their children due to believing themselves unable to raise them for some reason. However a substantial body of evidence was gathered that indicated that in a disturbing number of cases children were forcibly removed from their parents using "force or duress". In general the practice was to remove children between the ages of two and four, although in some cases children were removed just hours after birth.

The official report observed that in many cases gross violations of human rights occurred. Children were in some cases forcibly removed from their mother's arms while still in the hospital. Other evidence gathered indicated that deception and brutality was used to remove the children. One account referring to events in 1935 stated that...

"I was at the post office with my Mum and Auntie [and cousin]. They put us in the police [vehicle] and said they were taking us to Broome. They put the mums in there as well. But when we'd gone [about ten miles] they stopped, and threw the mothers out of the car. We jumped on our mothers' backs, crying, trying not to be left behind. But the policemen pulled us off and threw us back in the car. They pushed the mothers away and drove off, while our mothers were chasing the car, running and crying after us." [1] (http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/special/rsjproject/rsjlibrary/hreoc/stolen/)

The official report closely examined the distinctions between "forcible removal", "removal under threat or duress", "official deception", "uninformed voluntary release", and "voluntary release". Even in the latter case, there was evidence that in some cases Aboriginal parents voluntarily sent their children to religious missions, in the hope that at least in this way they would be able to retain contact with their children and some knowledge of their whereabouts. With regard to official deception, the report identified several cases where parents were told by government officials that their children had died, even though this was not the case.

The report also acknowledged that in several cases the state took responsibility for children that were genuinely orphaned or in a state of neglect. The evidence gathered also indicated a substantial number of cases where the care of the children after removal was extremely good. Nonetheless, the report condemned the policy of disconnecting children from their "cultural heritage". In the testimony of one Aboriginal; "I've got everything that could be reasonably expected: a good home environment, education, stuff like that, but that's all material stuff. It's all the non-material stuff that I didn't have - the lineage... You know, you've just come out of nowhere; there you are". [2] (http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/special/rsjproject/rsjlibrary/hreoc/stolen/stolen04)

Removed children were in most cases placed into institutional facilities operated by religious or charitable organisations, although a significant number, particularly females, were "fostered" out. A common aspect of the removals was the failure by these institutions to keep records of the actual parentage of the child, or such details as the date or place of birth. The report went on to note that "...the physical infrastructure of missions, government institutions and children's homes was often very poor and resources were insufficient to improve them or to keep the children adequately clothed, fed and sheltered." Incidence of sexual abuse were disturbingly high, overall 17% of females and 8% of males reported experiencing some form of sexual abuse while under institutional or foster care. [3] (http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/special/rsjproject/rsjlibrary/hreoc/stolen/stolen18)

The social impacts of forced removal have been measured and found to be quite severe. Although the stated aim of the "resocialisation" programme was to improve the integration of Aboriginals into modern society, a study conducted in Melbourne and cited in the official report found that there was no tangible improvement in the social position of "removed" Aborigines as compared to "non-removed", particularly in the areas of employment and post-secondary education. Most notably, the study indicated that removed Aboriginals were actually less likely to have completed a secondary education, three times as likely to have acquired a police record and were twice as likely to use illicit drugs. The only notable advantage "removed" Aboriginals possessed was a higher average income, which the report noted was most likely due to the increased urbanisation of removed individuals, and hence greater access to welfare payments than for Aboriginals living in tribal communities.

It should be noted that Aboriginal children were not the only group to go through forced permanent removal from their families during this period. In the 1950s and 1960s, children removed from their families for various reasons and varying levels of consent, were sent from the United Kingdom to orphanages in Australia and Canada, where some experienced similar abuse to the stolen generation and were also left without family connections. See child migration[?].

The legal circumstances regarding the Stolen Generation remain unclear. Although some compensation claims are pending, it is not possible for a court to rule on behalf of plaintiffs simply because they were removed, as at the time, such removals were entirely legal under Australian Law. Likewise, even though the actions may have contravened International Law, ruling on such a basis is outside the jurisdiction of Australian courts. At least two compensation claims have passed through the Australian courts and failed. The presiding judge noted in his summary judgement that he was not ruling that there would never be valid cases for compensation with regard to the Stolen Generation, only that in these specific two cases he could not find evidence of illegal conduct by the officials involved.

History of public awareness

Awareness of the Stolen Generation, and the practices which created it, only began to enter the public arena in the late 1980s through the efforts of Aboriginal activists, artists and musicians. The extensive public interest in the Mabo case had the side effect of throwing the media spotlight on all issues related to Aborigines in Australia, and most notably the Stolen Generation.

In 1992, as media attention and public interest began to mount, the Prime Minister, Paul Keating made the first formal acknowledgement of the Stolen Generation, by saying in a speech that" ... we took the children from their mothers ... It was our ignorance and prejudice." In 1995 the (then) Attorney-General, the Hon. Michael Lavarch MP, commissioned a formal inquiry entitled "The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families".

This inquiry commenced in May 1995, presided over by Sir Ronald Wilson, the president of the (Australian) Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, and Mick Dodson, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. During the ensuing 17 months, the Inquiry visited every state and Territory in Australia, heard testimony from 535 Aboriginal Australians, and received submissions of evidence from over 600 more. In April 1997 the official report "Bringing Them Home - Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families" was released.

Between the commissioning of the National Inquiry and the release of the final report in 1997, the conservative government of John Howard had replaced the Keating government. The report proved to be a considerable embarrassment for the Howard administration, as it recommended that the Australian Government formally apologise to the affected families, a proposal actively rejected by Howard, on the grounds that a formal admission of wrongdoing would lead to massive compensation litigation. Howard was quoted as saying "Australians of this generation should not be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies." [4] (http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/2000/12/08/FFXDTEAWFGC). As a result Commissioner Dodson resigned from the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, saying in a newspaper column that "I despair for my country and regret the ignorance of political leaders who do not appreciate what is required to achieve reconciliation for us as a nation." [5] (http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/2000/12/08/FFXDTEAWFGC)

As a result of the report, formal apologies were tabled and passed in the state parliaments of Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales, and also in the parliament of the Northern Territory. On May 26, 1998 the first "National Sorry Day" was held, and reconciliation events were held nationally, and attended by over a million people. As public pressure continued to increase, Howard drafted a motion of "deep and sincere regret over the removal of Aboriginal children from their parents" which was passed by the federal parliament in August 1999. Howard went on to say that the Stolen Generation represented "...the most blemished chapter in the history of this country." [6] (http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/stories/s115691.htm)

In April 2000 a scandal occurred when the (then) Aboriginal Affairs Minister, John Herron, tabled a report in Parliament that questioned whether or not there ever actually had been a "Stolen Generation", on the semantic distinction that as "only 10% of Aboriginal children" has been removed, they did not constitute an entire "generation". After a week of scathing media commentary and the attempted invasion of parliament by scores of angry Aboriginals, Mr Herron apologised for the "understandable offence taken by some people" as a result of his comments, although he refused to alter the report as it had been tabled, and in particular the (disputed) figure of 10%. [7] (http://www.theage.com.au/news/20000407/A53755-2000Apr6).

In May 2000, a "Walk for Reconciliation" was staged in Sydney, with up to 400 000 people marching across the Sydney Harbour Bridge as a gesture of apology. A similar walk was staged in Melbourne later that year.

In July 2000, the issue of the Stolen Generation came before the United Nation's Human Rights Committee in Geneva who heavily criticised the Howard government for its manner of attempting to resolve the issues related to the Stolen Generation. Australia was also the target of a formal censure by the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. [8] (http://www.smh.com.au/news/0007/22/text/pageone8), [9] (http://www.theage.com.au/news/20000718/A12986-2000Jul17)

Global media attention turned again to the Stolen Generation issue during the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics. A large "aboriginal tent city" was established on the grounds of Sydney University to bring attention to Aboriginal issues in general. The Aboriginal athlete Cathy Freeman (who was chosen to light the Olympic Flame and went on to win the gold medal for the 400 metre sprint) disclosed in interviews that her own grandmother was a "victim" of forced removal. The internationally successful rock group Midnight Oil obtained worldwide media interest when they performed at the Olympic closing ceremony wearing black sweatsuits with the word "SORRY" emblazoned across them.

In November 2001, Pope John Paul II issued a formal apology on behalf of the Vatican to the affected Aboriginal families for the actions of any and all Catholic authorities or organisations in connection with the Stolen Generation.

Other viewpoints

The Australian film Rabbit-Proof Fence tells a dramatic story about three young half-caste Aboriginal girls who ran away from a Western Australian settlement in which they were placed in 1931 as part of the Stolen Generation. The historical accuracy of the film is disputed by authorities, both in terms of the feats of endurance of the girls themselves and its characterisation of the nature of government policy towards half-caste children.

See also:

External links



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