Why are Aboriginal babies still being stolen?

May 20, 2017
Two years after Kevin Rudd's apology in 2007, more Aboriginal children were being removed in NSW than in the 1920s.

Twenty years after the original Bringing Them Home report was released, Aboriginal children are still being taken from their parents — in greater numbers than before.

Commenting on the impact of Bringing Them Home — which documented evidence about the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal children — Murri elder Sam Watson told Green Left that “it is beyond dispute that Aboriginal children were removed in significant numbers”.

“Every single [Aboriginal] family was affected,” Watson said and this “dated back to the first years of European invasion”.

Though commissioned by the Keating government the report was not released until 1997, after the election of John Howard as prime minister. The Howard government totally rejected the report and its recommendations. Infamously, Howard refused to apologise to the Stolen Generations.

However, the dramatic apology in February 2008 by newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd led many to believe that a new page had been turned.

“This parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again,” Rudd said.

But far from “never happening again”, the situation is now worse.

Larissa Behrendt pointed out last year that “the statistics from the year before the apology speech, from June 2007, showed that 9,070 Indigenous children were in out-of-home care; in June 2015 that number had risen to 15,455.”

The 2007 figures were themselves a dramatic increase on the 2785 Indigenous children removed from their families at the time of Bringing Them Home.

Further, Behrendt said “in 2007, 45.3 per cent of Indigenous children in out-of-home care were placed with their own Indigenous family. Today that number has been reduced to 35.9 per cent. So more Indigenous children are being removed today than at any other time in Australian history”.

Even by August 2009 — almost two years after Rudd’s election — the Daily Telegraph could report that “some 4300 Aboriginal children [were] taken from their parents [that year] in NSW alone”.

“This number ... is greater,” the paper said, “than the numbers said to have been removed in the 1920s and 1930s” and “in north western NSW communities, children are being taken from their Aboriginal parents every week”.

There has been a lot more attention paid to this issue since the January 2014 formation of Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR). By May that year, it had become a national network with Sorry Day protests organised in a number of centres and a national statement released.

In September 2014, the Victorian government released a report that found that, at 16 times the community average, “the rate of Aboriginal child removal in Victoria exceeds that at any time since white settlement”.

In October 2016, Michael Lavarch (the Keating-era Attorney General who commissioned the report) was speaking out saying that “state intervention into Aboriginal families has accelerated child removal in the 20 years since the Bringing Them Home report”.

Often these comments are couched in terms of the “danger” or “potential” of a “New Stolen Generation”. But perhaps it is more accurate to say that the Stolen Generation never actually ended.

Bringing Them Home spoke openly about the removal of Aboriginal children as a policy of genocide:

“When a child was forcibly removed that child’s entire community lost, often permanently, its chance to perpetuate itself in that child. The Inquiry has concluded that this was a primary objective of forcible removals and is the reason they amount to genocide.”

Watson believes that there remains a “genocidal intent” behind the “record numbers” of Aboriginal children across Australia being forcibly removed from their families by the authorities.

“Once children are removed from their homes, it's becoming almost impossible for parents to regain custody of those children,” he said.

It may not be the same as the “racist and deliberate cold blooded intention” of the early days, he told Green Left, “but I still say the intention is there to totally remove Aboriginal people from the cities and drive us back into the rural camps.”

NSW-based Aboriginal leader Ken Canning, who like Watson has stood as a Socialist Alliance candidate, agrees that “Liberal and Labor have been committing genocide”.

“They just don't care about Aboriginal people,” he told Green Left. “Their only agenda is to give Aboriginal land to multinational mining companies.”

Watson told Green Left that the removal of Aboriginal children “has got to stop — Aboriginal children belong with their families.”

“If these children are at risk in particular domestic environments every attempt should be made to locate other family members who can take responsibility for these children rather than have them removed to foreign and alien environments within the white community.”

While it is official policy to do just that, Behrendt pointed out that authorities are not held to account on this point. She cited the example of Victoria's commissioner for Aboriginal children who was “told by child protection workers, on many occasions, that they could not find Indigenous family members with which to place Indigenous children” whereas “he had been able to locate them within a few minutes just by using Facebook”.

A lot could be achieved by simply implementing the recommendations of the original report.

Behrendt pointed out that “these included the need to end discriminatory practices within the child welfare sector that made assumptions about dysfunction in the Aboriginal community”, and that the report also “warned against punishing families for the poverty that they find themselves in”.

Instead, as a 2012 Northern Territory report found, “tens of millions of dollars are spent on separating children and families while very little [approximately 1/160th] is invested in supporting families to raise healthy children under very challenging circumstances over which they have no control”.

Reversing this situation is key to ending the ongoing trauma of the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families.

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