The Stolen Generation

'We may go home, but we cannot relive our childhoods. We may reunite with our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunties, uncles, communities, but we cannot relive the 20, 30, 40 years that we spent without their love and care, and they cannot undo the grief and mourning they felt when we were separated from them. We can go home to ourselves as Aboriginals, but this does not erase the attacks inflicted on our hearts, minds, bodies and souls, by caretakers who thought their mission was to eliminate us as Aboriginals'

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From 1869 up until the 1970s the Australian government had an official policy of forcibly removing Aboriginal children of mixed race from their families. These children became known as the 'Stolen Generations'. In the 1990's an inquiry entitled 'Bringing Them Home' was conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission into the separation and treatment of Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families. The report estimates that between one in three and one in ten Aboriginal children were separated from their families and communities during this time.


'Mr Neville [the Chief Protector of Western Australia] holds the view that within one hundred years the pure black will be extinct. But the half-caste problem is increasing every year. Therefore their idea is to keep the pure blacks segregated and absorb the half-castes into the white population. Perhaps it will take one hundred years, perhaps longer, but the race is dying.'

Extract from an article in Brisbane's Telegraph newspaper in May 1937

Past Australian governments removed children in response to what they saw as the growing problem of increasing numbers of children from mixed white and Aboriginal parents. The purpose of taking children from their families was to absorb or assimilate children with mixed ancestry into the non-Indigenous community. Children were put into religious or state run institutions, fostered or adopted. Many spent time in more than one institution or foster family. Later, many were sent out to work for little or no money. Some moved from institution or foster family to detention centre or psychiatric hospital, therefore repeating the cycle of institutionalisation. The treatment and conditions that the children endured have been widely reported as substandard and in some cases inhumane. This further contributed to the trauma experienced by most children once they were taken away from their families.

The Experience

The 'Bringing Them Home' Inquiry researched and collected the stories of hundreds of Aboriginal people and compiled a record of common experiences as told by the people themselves. The report was published in 1997. Mick Dodson, an Aboriginal leader and rights advocate, was the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the time and co-wrote the report. His leadership has been essential in getting the voices of the 'Stolen Generations' heard and recognised. The stories recorded in the inquiry gave an insight into the conditions in which the 'Stolen Generations' were forced to live in. Some common themes included in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Report are:

  • Being discouraged from family contact - 'I remember this woman saying to me, 'Your mother's dead, you've got no mother now. That's why you're here with us'. Then about two years after that my mother and my mother's sister came to The Bungalow but they weren't allowed to visit us because they were black.'
  • Being taught to reject their Aboriginality - 'I didn't know any Aboriginal people at all, none at all. I was placed in a white family and I was just - I was white. I never knew, I never accepted myself to being a black person until - I don't know if you ever really do accept yourself as being ... How can you be proud of being Aboriginal after all the humiliation and the anger and the hatred you have? It's unbelievable how much you can hold inside.'
  • Institutional conditions were very harsh - 'There was no food, nothing. We was all huddled up in a room like a little puppy dog on the floor. Sometimes at night we'd cry with hunger. 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.'
  • Education was often very basic - '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.'
  • Excessive physical punishments were common - 'Dormitory life was like living in hell. It was not a life. The only things that sort of come out of it was how to work, how to be clean, you know and hygiene. That sort of thing. But we got a lot of bashings.'
  • The children were at risk of sexual abuse - 'I ran away because my foster father used to tamper with me and I'd just had enough. I went to the police but they didn't believe me. So she [foster mother] just thought I was a wild child and she put me in one of those hostels and none of them believed me - I was the liar. So I've never talked about it to anyone. I don't go about telling lies, especially big lies like that.'
  • Some found happiness - 'We were all happy together, us kids. We had two very wonderful old ladies that looked after us. It [Colebrook, South Australia] wasn't like an institution really. It was just a big happy family. Y'know they gave us good teaching, they encouraged us to be no different to anybody else.'

Was it Genocide?

In 1948 the United Nations made Genocide an international crime, punishable under the Convention on the prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Article 2 of the Genocide Convention defines genocide as:

"Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  • (a) Killing members of the group;
  • (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to 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 group;
  • (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

Whether the actions behind the formation of the Stolen Generation was an act of genocide is highly contested in Australia. The 'Bringing them home' report found that the policy of forcibly removing Aboriginal children fell within the international legal definition of genocide as the crime of genocide is not restricted to the immediate physical destruction of a group. However, some commentators disbelieve the findings of the 'Bringing Them Home' report saying they are exaggerated. Others insist that there was actually no official policy in any state or territory at any time, for the systematic removal of Aboriginal children. Another argument put forward is that what was done was not bad enough to constitute genocide. However, the policy of forcibly removing Aboriginal children was originally carried out with the aim of 'breeding out' the Aboriginal race in Australia and this is the main intention or outcome of genocide.


'Lots of white kids do get taken away, but that's for a reason - not like us. We just got taken away because we was black kids, I suppose - half-caste kids. If they wouldn't like it, they shouldn't do it to Aboriginal families'.

Member of the Stolen Generation, South Australia

Some people have argued that the removal of children from their families was for their own good- to protect them from neglect or abuse. However in the case of the 'Stolen Generations' there was no investigation into the treatment of children within their families prior to their removal. They were taken away simply because of a government policy, which supported the removal of children on the basis of race. The psychological effects are still being felt among the victims of this regime. The 'Bringing Them Home' report made 54 recommendations on how to start the healing process for the Aboriginal community.

While some of the recommendations have been met, the Australian government is still under pressure to implement all the recommendations outlined in the report over ten years ago and to whole-heartedly face up to their responsibilities towards the 'Stolen Generations'. In recent years, notably since the election of a new Labour-led government, some progress has been made in meeting the recommendations, including a national apology. However, the facts still remain- Aboriginals who were removed are 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 drugs.

For more information on the 'Stolen Generation' check out: