The Stolen Generations

The ‘Stolen Generations’ are the generations of Aboriginal children taken away from their families by governments, churches and welfare bodies to be brought up in institutions or fostered out to white families.

Removing children from their families was official government policy in Australia until 1969. However, the practice had begun in the earliest days of European settlement, when children were used as guides, servants and farm labour. The first ‘native institution’ at Parramatta in 1814 was set up to ‘civilise’ Aboriginal children.

The Aborigines Protection Board was established and oversaw the mass dislocation of Aboriginal people from their traditional lands onto reserves and stations. Aboriginal girls in particular were sent to homes established by the Board to be trained for domestic service.

In 1909 the Aborigines Protection Act gave the Aborigines Protection Board legal sanction to take Aboriginal children from their families. In 1915, an amendment to the Act gave the Board power to remove any child without parental consent and without a court order. (1)

It is not known precisely how many Aboriginal children were taken away between 1909 and 1969, when the Aborigines Welfare Board (formerly the Aborigines Protection Board) was abolished. Poor record keeping, the loss of records and changes to departmental structures have made it almost impossible to trace many connections.

Almost every Aboriginal family has been affected in some way by the policies of child removal. Taking children from their families was one of the most devastating practices since white settlement and has profound repercussions for all Aboriginal people today.

Bringing them Home

In 1995, the Commonwealth Attorney General established a National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, to be conducted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC). The Inquiry report, Bringing them home, was tabled in the Commonwealth Parliament on 26 May 1997, the day before the opening of the National Reconciliation Convention. Bringing them home made 54 recommendations.

Former High Court Judge, Sir Ronald Wilson, chaired the HREOC Inquiry. After Bringing them home was released, he told an audience in Canberra that:

Children were removed because the Aboriginal race was seen as an embarrassment to white Australia. The aim was to strip the children of their Aboriginality, and accustom them to live in a white Australia. The tragedy was compounded when the children, as they grew up, encountered the racism which shaped the policy, and found themselves rejected by the very society for which they were being prepared. (2)

The Inquiry found that between one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were removed from their families under past government policies, but could not be more precise due to the poor state of records.

The Effects of Removal Today

Despite some claims that children were removed ‘for their own good’ or that policies were essentially benign in intent, the separation of children from their families has had long term negative consequences.

The HREOC Inquiry found that children removed from their families are disadvantaged in the following ways:

  • They are more likely to come to the attention of the police as they grow into adolescence
  • They are more likely to suffer low self-esteem, depression and mental illness
  • They had been almost always taught to reject their Aboriginality and Aboriginal culture
  • They are unable to retain links with their land
  • They cannot take a role in the cultural and spiritual life of their former communities
  • They are unlikely to be able to establish their right to native title. (3)

Government Responses to Bringing them Home

A major recommendation of Bringing them home was that all Australian Parliaments apologise to the Stolen Generations for the actions of their predecessors in forcibly removing children from their families.

All State and Territory Governments have apologised. Many local governments, police forces, government agencies, non-government organisations and church groups have also apologised. In 1999 the Commonwealth Government passed a ‘statement of regret’ for past practices.

In response to the findings of the Inquiry, the Commonwealth Government announced a package aimed at reuniting families and enabling Indigenous people to access archives and historical information about themselves and their families. The reparations package includes:

  • 50 new counsellors to those going through reunion processes
  • the establishment of a national network of family linkup services to assist reuniting with families
  • culture and language maintenance programs
  • the expansion of the network of regional centres for emotional and social well-being
  • a national oral history project.

(1) Securing the Truth -NSW Government Submission to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families.
(2) National Sorry Day website
(3) Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner, Face the Facts 1997

Abridged from:

The Stolen Generations Background Briefing
New South Wales Department of Aboriginal Affairs

Refer also:

Separated Children Indigenous Issues Fact Sheet 14
Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs
Department of Immigration and Citizenship
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Bringing them home
Creative Spirits Stolen Generations Timeline