Generations of loss

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 October, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 October, 1998, 12:00am

Being forcibly taken from one's family as a child has been a defining part of the Australian Aboriginal experience since the early 1900s, when sinister notions of 'breeding out' and 'biological absorption' of a race became the vogue. It continued right up until the widespread adoptions of the 70s.

The Stolen Children is an important historical contribution to knowledge of a secret Australia of child theft and racial eugenics.

In particular, the government and churches that sponsored this systematic tearing apart of families intended that 'half-castes' should become a kind of servant class to white Australians.

Compiled oral histories reveal both the cruelty and the way that removal of children has devastated generations of families and communities - though, of course, the details are a revelation only to outsiders: Aboriginal Australians have always known about the traumatic effects of such forced separation.

The laws drawn up at the start of the century lasted until the early 70s and were designed to break up families in the hope that the Koori and Murri people - who were not dying out as the authorities hoped but instead swelling in numbers - would eventually assimilate and disappear.

The Stolen Children mainly consists of oral reports given to the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, and the inquiry's recommendations.

Many of these short, powerful stories are told under assumed names, by people whose lives have been irrevocably damaged by removal. Many feel rootless, disconnected, unable to fit in.

'We didn't have a clue where we came from. We thought the Sisters [nuns] were our parents . . . we didn't know what it meant by 'parents' 'cause we didn't have parents and we thought those women were our mothers,' recalls 'John'.

Physical, emotional and sexual abuse were common experiences in homes or foster families: 'Carol' tells of her life at West Australia's Beagle Bay Mission, where exploitative work and endless prayer were fuelled by a main meal of flour, sugar and water.

The book contains accounts of a dawning, often painful discovery of Aboriginal identity after being denied any personal history by authorities.

Others fostered and brought up with white families during the 60s and 70s talk about racial taunts and the hurt of being supposedly 'given away'.

One child runaway from a white foster home met a Murri woman on a train who let him stay at her house before he moved on.

As an adult, he also finds his real family, but discovers his mother has died: she was the woman on the train.

He is now serving 14 years in jail for armed robbery.

There is pain even for those who find their relatives.

'Lance' tells the inquiry that he will never feel part of his adopted family - yet he also 'hates' his birth mother for giving him up.

The Stolen Children's reprise, which features musings from eminent and ordinary Australians, is perhaps its weakest point.

Its very title - 'Perspectives' - is loaded after the harrowing 'Stories' of the book's first half, as if explanations and opinions by some well-placed or well-meaning individuals such as Canberra Times editor Jack Waterford and federal opposition leader Kim Beazley can somehow lend any rationality or perspective by bringing up the rear.

In the absence of a national apology, they add no more than any concerned individual could. Others, such as maverick politician Graeme Campbell, argue that no apology is necessary.

The book documents yet another troubled chapter in Australia's history with which the nation has to come to terms before any real reconciliation between black and white Australians can be achieved.

It is an important issue worthy of worldwide attention: if you cannot get the book through the bookstores, order it through Random House's Web site, The Stolen Children edited by Carmel Bird Random House, $100