Between 1910 – 1970, over 100,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcibly removed from their families by the Australian government. These children are known as the Stolen Generations. The children were taken from their mothers and placed into institutions for care. Most families were affected in more than one generation with the removal of one or more children. The stolen children were trained to be assimilated to Anglo-Australian culture and were punished for speaking their local indigenous languages. The intent was to prevent them from being socialized in Aboriginal cultures.
Many of the children suffered psychological, physical and sexual abuse while in institutions or with their adoptive families. Many children were told their parents had died or had abandoned them. Many never knew where they had been taken from or who their biological families were. Many were expected to work as manual laborers or domestic servants. There is a high incidence of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and suicide among the Stolen Generations. The Indigenous cultural knowledge was disrupted and lost due to removal of several generations of children. Many parents never recovered from the grief of having their children removed and turned to alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism.
The Australian government launched a national inquiry in 1995. The “Bringing Them Home” report was issued in 1997 which estimated that between 10-33% of Indigenous children were separated from their families. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered a national apology to the Stolen Generations on 13th February 2008; with the wording made in consultation with Aboriginal leaders.
I recently met a colleague at Save the Children who shared his story. He was taken from his family when he was 2½ years old. He and his older siblings were taken away from their mother and placed in an orphanage while other family members were adopted. Varying levels of emotional, physical and other forms of abuse were experienced. He left his adopted family and joined the navy at 16 years old. He was an angry young man and loved picking fights. He worked as a bouncer and would pick a fight early each night to get his aggression out. One night he found himself yelling at a woman who asked him a simple question. At that moment, he realized that he needed to change. He figured out that he was “Doing” instead of “Being”. It took some time but he began working in development programs in overseas countries. When he returned to Australia, he was asked to work in an Aboriginal community. Some community members recognized him and eventually reconnected him with his older sister. His sister told him that after he was adopted, she would run away from the orphanage to visit him. She would stand outside his bedroom window and hold her hand against the window. This story triggered a memory that he thought was a dream, where he would stand up in his cot and hold his hand against the fly screen window from the other side.
He currently works with disadvantaged families in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. His background story provides him the energy and drive to do his work. His core principles are: Respect, Relationship, Responsibility, Rights and Reciprocity. He acknowledges their past however, is more interested in their future, asking “What’s your life plan?”, then partners with them to figure out how to get there.
He shared his story with me and told me, “This is just one story. There are thousands of stories like mine where both cultures have suffered disenfranchisement, prejudice, biases and genocide”. He shared his story to prevent it from happening again.