Call for 'stolen children' inquiry

August 7, 1991

By Debra Wirth

A call for a national public inquiry into the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families has been launched by the Secretariat of the National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC).

Under the assimilationist policies of successive Australian governments, continued until the late 1960s, at least 5000 Aboriginal children in NSW alone were taken from their homes.

The usual justification for this forced removal was that the children could be "educated". Generally this meant domestic service for girls and menial manual labour for boys. The children were mostly placed at great distances from their families, making contact virtually impossible. This policy was aimed at wiping out an entire people.

When, as a result of protests, wholesale removals were ended, they were replaced with more subtle policies which had the same effect. In Victoria, for example, Aboriginal children could still be removed from their families up until the early 1970s after the filing of a Care and Protection Application. Children removed in this way usually became wards of the state.

According to a paper entitled "Aboriginal Children and Youth in Care", by Stewart Murray, the most common grounds used to file a Care and Protection Application were:

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  • Abandonment. (Children left with relatives while their parents were away seeking seasonal work, were considered to be 'abandoned'. No pensions or Supporting Parents' Benefits were available at that time.)

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  • No visible means of support or no settled home. (Aboriginal families without an income, sharing accommodation with kin were considered to have 'no visible means of support'.)

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  • Living or in company of known vagrants or criminals. (All too many Aboriginal people had been charged and convicted of 'vagrancy' thus toting up a criminal record.)

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  • Under unfit guardianship. (Aboriginal parents would have to prove they were fit guardians — all too often value judgments of the charging officer decided Aboriginal parents were 'unfit'.)

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  • Likely to lapse into vice or crime: exposed to moral danger. (These two charges were frequently used to remove children from parents who had been previously charged with

vagrancy, in instances where an unmarried mother was living in a de-facto relationship and was considered to be a prostitute.)"

Brian Butler, chairperson of SNAICC, said of the call for a public inquiry: "Literally thousands of Aboriginal adults live with the trauma caused by these removal policies. Many of the mothers and fathers who had their children taken away are guilt- and grief-stricken. Their children are traumatised by the thought that they were unwanted. Identity conflicts rage in these children — now adults — who have lived most of their lives as non-Aboriginal people."

One in six Aboriginal children were removed from their families, according to Dr Peter Read of the History Department of the Australian National University. Virtually no Aboriginal family has been unaffected by these policies.

Butler said the inquiry was needed to determine how many children were taken from their families and how. "We want the inquiry to hear from Aboriginal people about how they have been affected and what must be done to compensate.

"We also want to consider whether these policies fall within the definition of genocide in article II (e) of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide."

For more information, contact Nigel D'Souza from SNAICC in Melbourne on (03) 417 6744 or (03) 489 2543 (ah).

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