The stealer and the stolen

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 February, 2008, 12:00am


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I'm one of the men whose actions resulted in Australia saying sorry to Aborigines and the people who have become known as the 'stolen generations'. Yes, I took some children from their homes. And I supported the apology. It needed to happen. But that does not mean that I now think what I did was wrong. I firmly believed at the time we were doing the right thing, and to this day I still do. What was most important was what was best for the children. I have the same approach to my own family, who include five grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren of Aboriginal descent.

This is a far more complex issue than is often painted by the media.

I'm now 88, but the official policy of taking Aboriginal children [predominantly mixed race] from their families and putting them into institutions or foster homes started long before I was born. I do know that in the early years when Aboriginal children were taken, the biggest perpetrators were the police. They just went in, and bang! They were the police and you did what you were told.

In the 1920s there was a certain attitude towards Aboriginal people but by the time I began work in the [Northern] Territory's Native Affairs Branch in the early 1950s the mindset had changed. It was a different kind of patrol officer. For more than two decades my main concern was the welfare of Aboriginal children, who usually lived in remote communities. My approach was softly, softly. I would look at the environment, the family situations, the background, the reasons why and then weigh it all up. My main intention was always to keep the family unit together.

Patrol officers like me tried to do our best to improve conditions. That was the major thing. There were always a few who did it differently; not many of them, but there were a few of them. You would get the impression, looking at the media today, that taking children from their parents was all we did. In 25 years I was only involved in three cases like that in the Northern Territory, and maybe half a dozen when I was a welfare officer at the Aborigines Welfare Board at Dubbo in western New South Wales.

We had to balance the ideal of keeping families together against the best interests of the kids. In all but one of those cases the parents agreed with my decision to put their children into a home or with a foster family. There was one poor child with polio who had to be carried around by her mother everywhere. The mother realised she would get better care elsewhere. In another case there was a young mother living in a humpy, a hut made from tree bark and branches. I went back each month to check on conditions. One day I walked in and there was this poor little fella sitting in a dirty fry pan. He was flyblown, had flies all over him and hadn't been washed in a week. I always tried to educate mothers to improve conditions but this was a clear case of neglect.

There were also families I saw who reckoned their children had no future and asked me to get them into a home. This was at a time when Aborigines still weren't recognised as citizens in Australia. The men couldn't vote and the children couldn't go to a state school. They were supposed to go to an Aboriginal school, and that used to frustrate me a lot. I knew one or two of the young kids who would really have got ahead if they had been given a good education.

At the same time, I believe the living conditions for Aborigines today are a lot worse than they were then. I read about all the sexual abuse, violence and alcoholism. We never had the problems they seem to have now. The Aboriginal men were working. Once they started giving them welfare, that's when things really started to fall apart. That's my view. There was a little bit of drinking, of course, but nothing like what it's supposed to be like now. One of my best workers liked to have a drink. Now and again I would turn a blind eye and he would go into town and get full. But that was it, and you accepted that.

I remember one of the drovers saying to me: 'It's cold working the cattle at night. You can have a drink of rum and you can't not offer him one too.'

In the last few days people have been asking me what I thought of the apology made by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Wednesday. Overall, he did a good job. He did not pull any punches.

I knew when John Howard's party was in power that it would never happen. It needed a change of government and then it was a possibility. Now that it has happened, my view is that the solicitors will be jumping on the compensation bandwagon.

I got a bit of an insight into how they work several years ago when a man called Peter Gunner went to court alleging he had suffered abuse at the St Mary's Anglican Hostel. In 1956, when he was eight, I had recommended he be moved to St Mary's from his home at the Utopia Station near Alice Springs. His was one of the mothers who asked me to send her son to a home. During the case, Peter Gunner's counsel produced part-Aborigines who were also at St Mary's as witnesses and claimed they were 'stolen children'. But I knew that the parents of those boys sent them there, and paid for their welfare.

For me, the apology itself was very emotional, particularly when they showed some of the people and how they obviously felt. You could see what it meant to them. They were really affected by it.

For the whole sick and sorry story I thought it was right for the Parliament to apologise.