Living between two worlds - the Aborigines` stolen children

Presentation / Essay (Pre-University), 2000

11 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)



Table of contents

I. Introduction
II. Main Part
1. The treatment of Aboriginal children in the Australian society
1.1 Colonisation and the first removal of Aboriginal children
1.2 Reasons for the children’s removal
1.3 The children’s living conditions among the whites
2. Life between a black and a white world - Stolen children tell
2.1 Tony, Jennifer and John: “We are stolen children”
2.2 Abuses of stolen children
2.3 Far-reaching consequences for a stolen child

III. End

1. The current situation of stolen children

1.1 The demand for a governmental apology

I. Introduction

What do people think of when they hear the word “Aborigine”? They think of small persons with a reddish brown or dark brown skin, nearly naked hunters with boomerangs and artists singing strange songs. The history of those people who are known as the first inhabitants of the Australian continent begins more than 40.000 or even 60.000 years ago. Scientists have made great efforts in the investigation of the Aboriginal culture. In many books there can be read almost everything about their life, art and social structure but one dark chapter of the Aboriginal history is often completely missing in literature: The stolen children

The expressionstolen childalludes to the process of removing children from their families mostly in a violent way. Incidents like that arose in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries in countries that were occupied during wars and especially in those countries that were taken as colonies by the Europeans. The problematic of stolen children can be observed e.g. in many Latin American countries but in Australia it is of great import.

With Australia’s colonisation at the end of the 18th century the Aborigines’ destiny was unavoidably the same as of all other Indigenous the Europeans had subdued e.g. in Spain.

Because of their technical and economical progress European settlers were able to control the whole continent although it was all over inhabited by the Aborigines.

The story of stolen children starts with this absolute oppression of their families. European people exterminated parents, grandparents and great-grandparents but the children were demanded to live in a completely different culture. Over a long period of time nobody paid attention to the physical, psychical and sexual abuses Aboriginal children were harmed by wresting them from their families. Although some Australian politicians have a negative attitude towards stolen children and say that “the number of Aboriginal children removed from their families is being exaggerated”, more and more Australians try to enlighten and digest the incidents as to stolen children and their families. Since this process has been started, also initiated by the Olympic Games 2000 in Sydney, presence of Aboriginal stories in media is very high and especially the World Wide Web gives a mass of information about the subject.

The following paper tries to outline the central aspects belonging to the subject “stolen children”.

II. Main Part

1. The treatment of Aboriginal children in the Australian society

1.1 Colonisation and the first removal of Aboriginal children

Responsible for the first removal of Aboriginal children and the reason for the children’s theft at all is the progress of Australia’s colonisation at the end of the 18th century. In the first decades of the European settlement there was hardly any contact between Whites and Aborigines. When the colonists went further inland to find new pastureland for their cattle the Aboriginal and European cultures clashed. The colonial right of the 19th century said that the Aborigines had to be put on an equal footing but the white Australian colonists were of another opinion. For the civilised settlers the Aborigines represented no independent political and economical units and as there was no sense of national identity the colonists thought that the Aborigines were doomed to die out. Being thoroughly convinced that their culture could not be arranged with the European one because it was too underdeveloped the Aborigines were not integrated into the white society. What happened was the exact opposite. Aboriginal men and women were persecuted and hunted like animals. Those who were not killed had to live in ghettos completely controlled by the white settlers. It was not put down when the removal of the first Aboriginal children was started but the accurate year is not important for the children’s destinies. In most of the cases the children were left alive and had not to suffer from the bad living conditions in the ghettos but they were completely segregated from their relatives and were given into the hands of welfare institutions. After some years of European colonisation and proper chases on Aborigines the Aboriginal population had decreased in an immense way but also many mixed-racial families between white settlers and Aborigines had developed. From this point on government officials concentrated on taking away the children from the mixed racial families. Why the removal of children took place almost exclusively in the mixed-racial families had different reasons.

1.2 Reasons for the children’s removal

To the new-fangled ideas of Australia’s society belonged the conviction that a child of only Aboriginal origin was not capable to assimilate to a white society. The whites thought that an indigenous child would not survive in the highly developed culture of the European people because he was not clever enough and just too naive. It was unimaginable that such dark children should go to a white school although their relatives had never learned how to read or write. The situation was a different one as to children from mixed-racial families. Floating white blood in their veins children from those mixed-racial families were given a chance to assimilate to the white society and the white Australians tried to integrate them. The problem was that this integration could not be realised as long as the children grew up in families with Aboriginal relatives. As long as a mother, a father or just a great-grandmother was of Aboriginal origin the integration was not practicable. To solve this problematic the Australian Government decided to remove the children from their families. Government officials were instructed to take all children from mixed-racial families away and to give them into the charge of national or clerical welfare organisations. The organisations’ task was it not only to bring up the children but also to teach them to be acceptable members of the white Australian society. To reach this aim it was necessary that the children joined the whites’ religion, Christianity. They were demanded to forget everything about their origin and the Aboriginal culture. With strictness and thoroughness many children were converted to the whites’ way of life.

Before 1940 the Australian administrative bodies were given unrestricted power over all families with Aboriginal members. If a government official had the task to remove a child from a certain family he often arrived accompanied by the police and so the parents were not able to avoid the theft of their child. Many stolen children described the days of their removal and the power of the welfare commissioners like Tony and Jennifer:

“When I was three months old the welfare department sent the police to my grandparents’ house. They came armed with a warrant to have me removed. Despite any opposition my fate had been decided. I was taken away.”

“Early one morning in November 1952 the manager from Burnt Bridge Mission came to our home with a policeman. I could hear him saying to Mum, ‘I’m taking the two girls and placing them in Cootamundra Home’. My father was saying, ‘What right have you?’. The manager said he can do what he likes’.”

Although the “General Child Welfare Law” of 1940 required the proof that the children were neglected, uncontrollable or had to live in misery more and more children were removed from their families. Australia’s Government did not try to improve the living conditions of the families with Aboriginal members but made the whites’ standards the only criterion for the children’s theft.

How convinced Australia’s representatives were by their politics of removing children in the sense of assimilation and that they also paid no attention to anyone of the families shows the following statement of a politician from Western Australia:

„ I would not hesitate for one moment to separate any half-caste from its aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic her momentary grief might be at the time. They soon forget their offspring“ Certainly, the intention of Australia’s Government to integrate the children into the white society was well meant but for the children the process was connected with a lot of grief.

1.3 The children’s living conditions among the whites

To give the children a home the Australian Government built up many nursing homes and clerical missions. In such houses sometimes more than one hundred children had to live close together and were huddled into small dormitories. Usually the children were still infants or babies but the educators in those homes were ruthless and treated the children like worthless animals.

A child that did not obey to the rules was punished very hard. Some children reported that they had been kept only by bread and water in a dark room for a week or more because they had offended against a rule of their nursing home. A man that was removed from his parents at two years and was taken to a mission in the 1950s told the following about the punishments in his “new home”:

“I remember the beatings and hidings [they] gave us and what I saw. I remember if you played up, especially on Sunday, you got the cane. You play chasing, you had to drop your pants, lie across the bed and get 3-5 whacks. If you pissed the bed - another 3-5. I remember seeing, when I was about 7 or 9 - I think it was IM get pulled by the hair and her arm twisted behind her back and hit in the face...”

The educators’ behaviour was not understandable for the children. On the one hand they were constantly advising the children to be Christians but on the other hand they treated them worse than bloody animals. It was not only the cruel treatment by the educators that made the children’s life in the nursing homes and missions to a life like in hell. The supply with food was often worse than the supply in their natural families. Several children told that they got not enough to eat, just a bit of porridge for breakfast, a plate of soup for lunch and a dry slice of bread for dinner. In many nights the children were not able to sleep and cried because of their empty stomachs.

Some stolen children were a little bit more lucky and were released for adoption instead of being transported into a nursing home or welfare mission. Adoptions were only arranged to white families, most of them owners of big cattle and sheep farms. Some children reported that they had been lined up in white dresses by the welfare departments so that white Australians who wanted to adopt a child could go around and pick one out as if he was for sale. This foster- families were given the guardianship but the children rarely lived with one family. It was possible that they had lived with four or six different foster-parents until they reached the age of

16 and were free to decide about their life themselves. Although life in a foster-family was a little bit more pleasant than in a nursing home, it was not easy at all. Certainly, the children were offered enough to eat and a clean room to sleep but often they had to work hard in the white households or they were forced to slave away on the cheep and cattle farms without getting any money for it. Anyway the children were not accepted as full members of their foster-families. Both a life in a welfare home and in a foster-family had the consequence that the children completely lost their identity. Their names were changed and a contact to their natural relatives was refused. Often they were told that their parents had died. For the reason that the children were infants or babies they believed in the cock-and-bull stories of their “new” parents. Most of the stolen children got never into contact with the world outside the nursing homes or the houses of their foster-families. They were held like prisoners. It is obvious that such a treatment destroyed not only the children’s childhood but also had far-reaching effects on the children’s psyche and their whole life.

2. Life between a black and a white world - Stolen children tell

2.1 Tony, Jennifer and John: “We are stolen children”

The “Bringing Them Home” report, published by Sir Ronald Wilson, is a national inquiry as to the subjectstolen childrenand describes on more than 500 pages several individual destinies of children that used to be removed from their families. Nobody except for the stolen children themselves will ever be able to understand the grief the children had to go through during their childhood and even today.

Jennifer’s ancestors were full blood Aborigines and lived in peace in the Australian outback. Her family is counted among the first of which children were removed. At the very beginning of the 19th century, Jennifer’s grandmother Rebecca was taken away from her family to live in the white world. She gave birth to four girls, among them Jennifer’s mother Grace. With twenty- three Rebecca died from tuberculosis and Jennifer’s grandfather supported the four girls. Grace grew up in the Aboriginal culture protected by her aunt and uncle. In 1915 the welfare department menaced Jennifer’s grandfather to send him to jail forever if he did not give away the four girls and so Jennifer and her sisters were removed. The four sisters were separated and together with her sister Esther, Jennifer’s Mum was sent to Cootamundra, an overcrowded, strict and cruel home. Esther and Grace were also separated. Both did not meet again until they started working at Rose Bay. Grace was strong enough to build up a completely new life and to set up her own family. Nevertheless it was a mixed-racial family and so it happened that Jennifer and her sister Kate were removed. They had to live in different welfare homes, suffering from the bad conditions. Nothing to eat, overcrowded dormitories, being constantly belittled and violated by the staff, everywhere it was the same. Jennifer said that the days she had to spend at Narromine were the worst time of her childhood and that she often thought she would not survive long enough to see her mother again. Although it had been very difficult, Jennifer’s mother was able to keep the contact to her children and it verged upon a wonder when she finally got Jennifer and Kate home in 1957. Until today Jennifer has never understood why she and her sister were taken away from home. The reason could not have been that the Australian Government thought Jennifer’s parents treated their children badly. They never neglected them, gave them nice clothes to wear and they were not starving. Jennifer’s father was working hard and the children came from a very close and loving family. Although Jennifer does not understand the reasons for her removal she understands one thing very clearly:

The people who took away the children from their families took away their childhood, too, and left a big hole in the life of all these stolen children.

Removing several children from Jennifer’s family shows that Australia’s Government brought a lot of grief over more than two generations of a family with Aboriginal relatives but it also makes clear that the children had to live in the welfare homes under alarmingly bad living conditions. Drumming white religion and white values into the heads of the stolen children, the sisters of welfare homes forced them to think like whites, to act like whites and finally to be like a white person. They were completely brainwashed and if there was any rest of Aboriginal culture in the children this rest was tried to put out.

John was removed from his family when he was still a baby and then was sent to one of the numerous welfare homes. He describes that all the kids in the Christian home thought that there were one big family and that the sisters were their mothers. None of the children was visited by his parents or by any other member of their families and because they never got to know that they had a family the children thought that they actually had no family. While most of the stolen girls were sent to the Home of Cootamundra, the stolen boys had to go to Kinchela. Kinchela was like a prison with military drill. The only thing the boys had to do was work, work and again work. John was also sent to Kinchela and bas he never got to know anything else in his childhood, he thought living there was his job. Being convinced of the white way of life, John felt like a white man for the most part of his life. Only when he gets to know about the stolen children at the end of the 20th century, he realises that he is also of aboriginal origin.

Stolen children that were adopted and had a little bit more contact to the white society had soon problems with their dark skin. Tony was taken away from his family in 1965 and adopted into a white family in 1967. The family had two sons of their own and Tony realises very quickly that his adoption mother rejected him. He experienced this rejection in every second of his life in the foster-family. His adoption mother always sang a song to him that was called “the biggest disappointment in the family is you”. As Tony grew up, he noticed that his skin was getting darker. His adoption father and his two adoption brothers started discriminating against him and called him “boong”, “coon” or “abo”. One day he asked his adoption mother why he was dark and she answered that it was because he kept playing with Aboriginal kids at school. Tony did not believe in this theory. Deep inside he was feeling that there had to be something else concerning his dark skin. He was sick of his adoption family and ran away several times. He noticed that whenever he got into contact with dark people there was something special about him. He felt that he had something in common with these dark people and somehow he felt as if he was at home. When he went by train at the age of thirteen he met a woman of brown skin who took care of him and treated him like a mother. In his later life Tony spent great efforts in the investigation of his origin. One day, after thirty years of searching, he found out that the woman in the train had been his mother. Unfortunately she had died nine years before.

Tony’s fate is only one example of hundreds of other stolen children.

It is not difficult to imagine which mental and also physical violations the stolen children had to suffer from during their childhood and have to deal with still today in Australia’s society.

2.2 Abuses of stolen children

There were not only the overcrowded dormitories and the meagre meals in the welfare homes or the denial by their foster-families the stolen children had to deal with during their childhood. Sexual abuses of the children arose very often, both in welfare homes and foster-families. The girls were more at risk than the boys and the statistics show that for a girl the risk of a sexual assault in a foster placement was much higher than in any other. Furthermore the statistics demonstrate that almost one in ten boys and just over one in ten girls were allegedly sexually abused in a children’s institution. Behind the abstemious figures depressing fates are hidden. The description of a boy who witnessed the following incidents in a welfare home requires no further commentary:

“There was tampering with the boys...the people who would come in to work with the children, they would grab the boys’ penises, play around with them and kiss them and things like this. These were the things that were done...”

2.3 Far-reaching consequences for a stolen child

Because of bad living conditions, an inhuman treatment, a life without a real family, an inner conflict between two cultures and because of all the other things a stolen child had to deal with during his or her childhood, every psychiatrist would predict for such a child a life in alcoholism, deep depressions, in jail or just a life with an early death. This way it really happened to many of the stolen children. After they were released from welfare homes and adoption families into freedom they saw no perspectives for their life. A stolen child being an adult today and going to mix in the white society will not be accepted because of having a dark skin. Many organisations have been founded to unite the stolen children with their families but what happens to a stolen child that meets his indigenous ancestors for the first time? The stolen children, like Jennifer, Tony and John and the many others, have never learned the Aboriginal way of life. They know nothing about the traditional language and have never practised the rituals or were able to visit the spiritual places of the Aborigines in the outback. If they try to mix with the Aborigines they will not be able to identify with them because they have too many white ways in themselves. So they are neither black or white. Some people call them simply a lost generation of children and that is what they really are. They are given a place at the bottom of the white society and they are not more than cheap labour force on the Australian job market, similar to cannon fodder.

Only a few stolen children were able to find a way out of this “caste”. Most of them die from alcoholism or drugs, others sit in jail for long years and some commit suicide in their deep despair.

III. End

1. The current situation of stolen children

1.1 The demand for a governmental apology

Since the dark chapter of Aboriginal history has been opened and the incidents as to the stolen children are discussed in public the demand for a governmental apology has been expressed. Many stolen children claim this apology but until now Australia’s Government has refused. Not either Sir Ronald Wilson’s alarming report about the different fates of hundreds of stolen children could impress Australia’s governmental representatives. They remain in cold reserve and pretend that there has not been a generation of stolen children at all.

Many white Australians sympathise with the stolen children’s demand for a governmental apology and try to loosen up the tensions between Australia’s population and the Aborigines. Especially the stolen children will not give up. “I still feel the pain, every day. Sometimes it threatens to engulf me. But I’m not going to let it destroy me.”, says Howard, a member of the stolen children. His aim and that of the other stolen children is it not to strengthen the case for compensation with the demand for a governmental apology but the apology should be a statement of “regret”. The result of polls show that over the of Australia’s population support the stolen children. The statement of the stolen child, Roach, summarises the stolen children’s request best: “The government can’t even say the word s-o-r-r-y. Most Aborigines I talk to want a simple statement from the heart.”

Hiermit bestätige ich, dass ich diese Facharbeit selbstständig und nur unter Verwendung der angegebenen Quellen bearbeitet und erstellt habe.

Sara Kleinwächter

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Living between two worlds - the Aborigines` stolen children
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Sara Kleinwächter (Author), 2000, Living between two worlds - the Aborigines` stolen children, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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