The Inquiry

Our life pattern was created by the government policies and are forever with me, as though an invisible anchor around my neck. The moments that should be shared and rejoiced by a family unit, for [my brother] and mum and I are forever lost. The stolen years that are worth more than any treasure are irrecoverable.

Confidential submission 338, Victoria.

Grief and loss are the predominant themes of this report. Tenacity and survival are also acknowledged. It is no ordinary report. Much of its subject matter is so personal and intimate that ordinarily it would not be discussed. These matters have only been discussed with the Inquiry with great difficulty and much personal distress. The suffering and the courage of those who have told their stories inspire sensitivity and respect.

The histories we trace are complex and pervasive. Most significantly the actions of the past resonate in the present and will continue to do so in the future. The laws, policies and practices which separated Indigenous children from their families have contributed directly to the alienation of Indigenous societies today.

For individuals, their removal as children and the abuse they experienced at the hands of the authorities or their delegates have permanently scarred their lives. The harm continues in later generations, affecting their children and grandchildren.

In no sense has the Inquiry been 'raking over the past' for its own sake. The truth is that the past is very much with us today, in the continuing devastation of the lives of Indigenous Australians. That devastation cannot be addressed unless the whole community listens with an open heart and mind to the stories of what has happened in the past and, having listened and understood, commits itself to reconciliation. As the Governor-General stated in August 1996,

It should, I think, be apparent to all well-meaning people that true reconciliation between the Australian nation and its indigenous peoples is not achievable in the absence of acknowledgment by the nation of the wrongfulness of the past dispossession, oppression and degradation of the Aboriginal peoples. That is not to say that individual Australians who had no part in what was done in the past should feel or acknowledge personal guilt. It is simply to assert our identity as a nation and the basic fact that national shame, as well as national pride, can and should exist in relation to past acts and omissions, at least when done or made in the name of the community or with the authority of government ...

The present plight, in terms of health, employment, education, living conditions and self-esteem, of so many Aborigines must be acknowledged as largely flowing from what happened in the past. The dispossession, the destruction of hunting fields and the devastation of lives were all related. The new diseases, the alcohol and the new pressures of living were all introduced. True acknowledgment cannot stop short of recognition of the extent to which present disadvantage flows from past injustice and oppression ...

Theoretically, there could be national reconciliation without any redress at all of the dispossession and other wrongs sustained by the Aborigines. As a practical matter, however, it is apparent that recognition of the need for appropriate redress for present disadvantage flowing from past injustice and oppression is a pre-requisite of reconciliation. There is, I believe, widespread acceptance of such a need (Sir William Deane 1996 pages 19-21).

The Inquiry's recommendations are directed to healing and reconciliation for the benefit of all Australians.

Scope of the Inquiry

Tracing the history

Part 2 of this report traces the history of forcible removal of Indigenous children. The Inquiry's first term of reference requires the tracing of 'laws, practices and policies which resulted in the separation of Indigenous children from their families by compulsion, duress or undue influence'. Throughout this report, for ease of reference, we refer to 'forcible removal'. The term contrasts the removals which are the subject of this Inquiry with removals which were truly voluntary, at least on the part of parents who relinquished their children, or where the child was orphaned and there was no alternative Indigenous carer to step in.


'Compulsion' means force or coercion (Garner 1995 page 183). It encompasses both the officially authorised use of force or coercion and illegally exercised force or coercion. It clearly extends to the removal of a child by a government delegate such as a protector or police officer pursuant to legislative powers. These officers exerted 'compulsion' by virtue of their office and the power of the legislation under which they acted. The term clearly extends to removal of a child on a court order. Indeed a court is the ultimate power which can 'compel' the removal of children from their families.

A common practice was simply to remove the child forcibly, often in the absence of the parent but sometimes even by taking the child from the mother's arms. The law firm Phillips Fox advised the Inquiry that '[o]ne of our clients had instructed us that he was taken from his parents while his mother was in hospital having her fourth child. Another client was one of six children taken from their home by the police while their mother was in hospital having her seventh child' (Phillips Fox Melbourne submission 20 page 5, both clients named).

In a letter to the WA Commissioner of Native Affairs in November 1943, Inspector Bisley of Port Hedland wrote, 'I recommend that this child be removed when she is old enough as she will be probably handed over to some aged blackfellow at an early age'. With respect to the same child, Inspector Neill in Broome wrote to the Commissioner in December 1944, '[t]here may perhaps be an objection to the children being removed from the Hospital without first returning to the Station from which they came as it means breaking faith with the mothers who either left them at the Hospital or sent them in for treatment but knowing how hard it is to arrange for the removal of children such as these once they are back on the Station I consider it justified, the fact that they have been separated from their mothers for some time already will also make the removal easier for the children' (documents submitted with confidential submission 498, Western Australia: woman removed from hospital at the age of 4 years).

My mother told us that the eldest daughter was a twin - it was a boy. And in those days, if Aboriginals had twins or triplets, they'd take the babies away. Mum swore black and blue that boy was alive. But they told her that he had died. I only found out a couple of years ago - that boy, the nursing sister took him. A lot of babies were not recorded.

Confidential evidence 450, New South Wales: woman removed at 2 years in the 1940s, first to Bomaderry Children's Home, then to Cootamundra Girls' Home; now working to assist former Cootamundra inmates.

... in the case of one of our clients, the decision to dispense with his mother's consent to adoption was based on 'inability to locate mother', although the file reveals very little attempt to locate her. This occurred during a 'temporary' placement of our client in a babies home, due to ill health. The next time our client's mother went to visit her son, she was faced with an empty cot. Her requests for her son's return were not met (Phillips Fox Melbourne submission 20 page 4).

I was at the post office with my Mum and Auntie [and cousin]. They put us in the police ute and said they were taking us to Broome. They put the mums in there as well. But when we'd gone [about ten miles] they stopped, and threw the mothers out of the car. We jumped on our mothers' backs, crying, trying not to be left behind. But the policemen pulled us off and threw us back in the car. They pushed the mothers away and drove off, while our mothers were chasing the car, running and crying after us. We were screaming in the back of that car. When we got to Broome they put me and my cousin in the Broome lock-up. We were only ten years old. We were in the lock-up for two days waiting for the boat to Perth.

Confidential evidence 821, Western Australia: these removals occurred in 1935, shortly after Sister Kate's Orphanage, Perth, was opened to receive 'lighter skinned' children; the girls were placed in Sister Kate's.


'Duress' differs from 'compulsion' in that it can be achieved without the actual application of force. However, we usually understand it to involve threats or at least moral pressure. One meaning of 'duress' is 'the infliction of hardship' (Garner 1995 page 300) while another encompasses the threat of such infliction (Mozley and Whiteley 1988 page 153). Definitions commonly refer to illegally applied compulsion, a feature which distinguishes duress from compulsion because compulsion can be either legal or illegal. The last feature of duress is that it does not exclude acceptance by those affected by it. Rather the individual submits to what is demanded.

The Inquiry heard evidence of a range of practices which in our view amounted to duress. For example, we were told that a large number of parents relinquished their children to the care of the Lutheran mission, Koonibba, in South Australia to protect them from being removed by the Protector and placed further away. At Koonibba the parents were permitted limited and supervised access (Dr Nick Kowalenko evidence 740, Lutheran Church SA submission 262).

I remember another friend of mine in St Ives. She wanted to adopt a little Aboriginal baby. And she was telling me when she got this little one that she went out to the mission and said she wanted a little baby boy. The mission manager said, 'Mrs J has a couple of boys [already], we'll take her third one'. So they adopted that child. If Mrs J would have objected, she said the welfare officer says, 'Well, if you don't give us that child, we'll take the other two'.

Confidential evidence 613, New South Wales.

I joined the [Victorian] Aborigines Welfare Board shortly after a most appalling episode in which a young woman aged 14 gave birth to a child in Gippsland. One of our Welfare Board officers went to her and said, 'Look, you're giving birth to this illegitimate child, fatherless child. We'd like to take this baby from you and give it out in adoption to a white couple'. She had the baby. [She subsequently married the child's father.] She was approached a week later to sign the papers and she said, 'I've changed my mind. I want to keep my baby'. The welfare officer then said to her, 'If you change your mind and you renege on this particular deal, I'm going to have you charged with having carnal knowledge under the age of 14'. She succumbed to that pressure and the child was taken (Professor Colin Tatz, Centre for Comparative Genocide Studies, evidence 260).

The following story seems to fit the definition of duress, with elements of compulsion.

We were brought into this life without serious thought. My Aboriginal mother was thirteen years old when she had me and Laura at fourteen or fifteen. I know myself, as a young mum, how hard things can be bringing up kids. Faith, my mother had come from a large family and did not have much sense of direction. There were eighteen kid's in my mother's family ... I feel they never new how to help my mother. Faith, my mum had met our father at thirteen he was about twenty five and they had me. My father knew this family, a white family and they took me there to stay, as I was told, I stayed there many times. Betty Sullivan who was the mother of the family loved Laura and I very much. I suppose the more we stayed there the more she loved us. One day my father and mother asked the Sullivan family to look after us for awhile because they had no where to live, so that was OK, Mrs Sullivan said yes. From then on there was a fight for us. I can remember how bad things were for my mother. I can recall when I was young how my mother went through custody battles for my sister and I to keep us. One day I remember very clearly leaving the court. In the taxi I somehow knew we, Laura and I, were going back to the home. So I started kicking and screaming to get out of the taxi. The driver stopped, got out, I saw him throw his hand's up over his eyes and said he couldn't take us, he didn't want to drive us kids away from our mother, so we then went in the police car with the lady police officer we knew. Our father was in gaol most of the time he wasn't there for her while she was at court.

I love the Sullivan family very much. Mrs Sullivan taught me how to love and what was right and what was wrong. I'm glad she taught me values because I know now what was wrong. It was wrong the way my natural mother was treated. Mrs Sullivan told my mother she should lock herself away. The Sullivan family told people my mother was crazy and the court gave us to the Sullivan family. My mother was not crazy she was only nineteen. She was the right one and shouldn't have killed herself but she knew no better as there was no one to help her keep her children. I can remember the day she died - that has haunted me for the rest of my life. I remember the police coming to Mrs Sullivan's place where we were and told her that mum Faith died I'm sure I heard that. I turned and said to Mrs Sullivan 'Mummy Faith can't take us away anymore.' The day she died we died.

Confidential submission 818, Victoria.

The extent to which Aboriginal parents who agreed to their children attending secondary school in distant locations were in fact submitting to duress is a vexed issue. The Inquiry has heard that in areas where no secondary education facilities were available, for example on Cape Barren Island in Tasmania, Central Australia and in the Torres Strait, the families of 'promising' students were asked if they wanted their children to be 'given the opportunity' of furthering their education by leaving home and going to live elsewhere. Submissions to the Inquiry emphasised that in making these offers it was never the intention to displace the family bonds or to deprive the families of the right to maintain contact with their children. Parents were free to keep in touch with their children and the children sometimes went home for holidays. Realistically, however, there was no likelihood that Indigenous families would have the material resources to ensure continuous regular contact.

At the time these separations occurred Indigenous families may have expressed more regret about losing their children in this way than the children felt at the prospect of such an adventure during their adolescent years. The children reflected on the losses, as well as the gains, that their separation entailed only after leaving or much later.

One interpretation of these offers is that the families were simply being given the same opportunity to have their children educated as non-Indigenous families in Australia, in a country where remoteness and small populations limit the kind of educational facilities that can be offered to all children. Another focuses on the power relationships between the makers of these offers and the families. Viewed in that way there was clearly an element of duress. The offers were presented in such a way that families could not refuse them.

Where the offer of education was linked to a threat if the offer were not accepted then the ensuing separation was clearly forced. For example, some parents were told that if they did not 'consent' to their children undertaking study elsewhere, then their children would be removed on the ground of neglect. But generally the tenor and surrounding circumstances of the offers are not that clear. The approach of the Inquiry has been to include these removals where they were obviously connected with pressure of some explicit nature but not to assume they all occurred under duress.

Undue influence

The term 'undue influence' has a similar meaning to 'duress'. An 'influence' which is 'undue' is an influence 'by which [a] person is induced not to act of his own free will' (Concise Oxford Dictionary). At law the term means 'any improper pressure put on a person to induce him to confer a benefit on the party exercising the pressure' (Mozley and Whiteley 1988 page 483). This definition is not entirely appropriate unless surrendering one's child is viewed as 'conferring a benefit'. However, the essence of the legal meaning is relevant: putting improper pressure on the family to induce the surrender of the children.

The relationship between the family and the 'inducer' must be one of 'influence'. This criterion is readily satisfied in the case of the relationship between Indigenous people generally and government administrators and in the case of the relationship between closed settlement managers and residents because of the latters' dependence on the former for their maintenance. It is also present in the relationship between spiritual adviser, be it priest or other missionary, and convert.

There must be a question mark over the relinquishment of children to missions in the circumstances described to us by the Lutheran Church of South Australia.

Now, the initial motivation for parents to put their children in the [Koonibba] home or entrust their children to the care of the home was fear that the children might soon be taken from them, and it's very evident that this very soon was replaced by a more positive outlook, that it was as they saw benefits accruing for their children through being entrusted to the care of the home, that they much more freely and gladly entrusted their children to the care of the home ...

The benefits that influenced the parents were not merely the benefits of being able to attend school but ... that living for some years in their childhood in the children's home at Koonibba opened the door for these children to learn ... a way of life that was better than they could themselves give to those children, bringing them up in the wurley, to use their phrase 'eating with their fingers'; that there was also an open door to a much richer and fuller way of life and a place of greater happiness and dignity in the new Australia that had grown up around their race through the participation in the life of the children's home (evidence 262).

Another strategy was the permanent retention of children who were voluntarily placed in respite care, in educational institutions or in hospital on the understanding that the placement was temporary and for a specific and defined purpose (for example confidential evidence 208, Victoria: boy placed in respite care by his grandmother and never returned). This kind of temporary placement was often induced by a false promise or a lie.

The 'Harold Blair Holiday Schemes', which was basically run by Mr Killoran in Brisbane through the Queensland Aboriginal Affairs Department, would organise holiday homes over the Christmas holidays in Melbourne [for Queensland children]. After three weeks ... the couple would say, 'I'd love to keep little Mary for a little longer'. 'Sure you can keep Mary a little longer.' No reference to the parents. Within a few months the next question, 'Could I adopt Mary?'. 'Yeah, you can adopt Mary.' This was not an AWB [Aborigines Welfare Board] Victorian adoption. It was done through the Queensland Native Affairs Department, direct adoption kind of by mail order and by phone call (Professor Colin Tatz, Centre for Comparative Genocide Studies and member of the Victorian Aborigines Welfare Board 1965-68, evidence 260. This was the experience of a girl retained by a Victorian family when her mother died, in spite of the fact that her father was still alive: confidential evidence 214, Victoria).

Link-Up (NSW) workers related the following accounts to the Fourth Australian Conference on Adoption (1990),

A mother [single teenager] had a child in a home, and went out to provide some sort of basis for rearing the child. The child was left there, and when the mother came back, they told her that the child had died. And 25 years later we have a request from a person to find his mother, and we approached the mother, and she now has gone through the grieving of the person dying and now coming to terms with his resurrection.

We also reunited a mother with her daughter recently who'd had 2 sons from a marriage and the marriage was in a mess, and the doctor and the family and the husband knew that if she had a girl she'd keep it, so they told her she had a boy. They never let her see it, and when I approached her and said your daughter wants to see you, she said; "But I didn't have a girl, I had a boy". And of course she was delighted to meet her and all she had wanted was a daughter (Working Together in the 1990s page 230).


The Inquiry is not limited to considering only those removals which could not be 'justified', for example, on the ground of protecting the child from injury, abuse or neglect. Due to the dispossession and dependence of Indigenous families, many children's physical and sometimes psychological well-being was endangered. These children are nevertheless within our terms of reference because they were separated from their Indigenous families and communities, typically by compulsion. In contrast with the removal of non-Indigenous children, proof of 'neglect' was not always required before an Indigenous child could be removed. Their Aboriginality would suffice. Therefore, while some removals might be 'justifiable' after the event as being in the child's best interests, they often did not need to be justified at the time. Most witnesses refuted suggestions that they were neglected or abused by their parents, some making the contrast with their subsequent experiences in institutions or foster homes.

The memories of our clients certainly do not tell the opposite story - of children 'saved' or 'rescued' from situations of misery and neglect, or of children who were lucky enough to be given a chance in life. In reality, many have felt their chances were taken away - chances given only by growing up in a loving environment, not by being institutionalised as a child! For example, one of our clients who was taken away along with her siblings, describes how, when her sister was grown up (most of the siblings had found each other at this stage) 'she didn't know how to hug her babies, and had to be shown how to do that' (Phillips Fox Melbourne submission 20 page 6).

The issue of justification may be relevant to any remedy that might be contemplated.


Term of reference (a) does not confine the Inquiry to dealing only with children removed from their parents. It refers to separation from their families. The socio-economic circumstances of most Indigenous families were such that many children lost one or both biological parents while they were still young. Most Indigenous communities, however, have retained broader kinship networks involving obligations of care and nurture of children. It was usually the case that an orphaned child could make a claim on another relative to take primary responsibility for his or her maintenance and rearing. These kinship obligations were misunderstood or ignored by most administrators, government and non-government. Alternative Indigenous carers were rarely permitted to perform their child-rearing obligations.

For Indigenous children their 'families' were constituted by their entire community. This is a point of some significance considering what the children lost when they were separated. However, the practices of relevance to us do not require us to distinguish 'families' from 'communities'. Children removed from their families were also removed from their communities. The almost invariable practice was that these children were placed in non-Indigenous institutions or foster and adoptive families.

A second level of separation was from siblings. Often the removed children of a family were placed separately or, where placed together, their identities and kinship were not divulged. A number of witnesses spoke of finding out much later that they had been in the same home as one or more siblings. One spoke, for example, of being introduced to his brother on the day that brother was departing the institution for a foster placement. Another wrote of having to leave her younger siblings behind in an orphanage when she was sent to work elsewhere at the age of 14.

So this meant the grieving took place again. The grief came for my younger sister and two brothers whom I thought I would never see again. The day I left the Orphanage - that was a very sad day for me. I was very unhappy, and the memories came back. There was nowhere to turn. You was on your own. I was again in a different environment ... I had no choice but to stick it out. With the hardships going and thinking of my sister and brothers which I left at the Orphanage. My heart full of sorrows for them.

Confidential submission 843, Queensland: woman removed at 11 years from an informal foster placement with an uncle and aunt arranged by her father due to his travelling for seasonal work and after the death of her mother and placed in an orphanage in the early 1940s.

The broad definition of the Indigenous family adopted by the Inquiry means that some experiences of separation from parents are beyond our terms of reference. Typically, too, these did not involve the application of laws, practices and policies of forcible removal. One example is the child reared by her maternal grandparents who now seeks to trace her father without assistance from her mother or her family (confidential evidence 216, Victoria). Another example is the child fostered by her half-sister upon the death of her mother (confidential evidence 159, Victoria). Another is the woman whose own mother has raised her children and refuses to return them to their mother (confidential evidence 144, Victoria).

The effects

Term of reference (a) further requires the Inquiry to detail the effects of the past laws, practices and policies traced. Part 3 of this report details the effects for children removed, their families left behind and their communities. The effects for the children removed ranged from psychological harm to loss of native title entitlements. Most suffered multiple and disabling effects.

We may go home, but we cannot relive our childhoods. We may reunite with our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunties, uncles, communities, but we cannot relive the 20, 30, 40 years that we spent without their love and care, and they cannot undo the grief and mourning they felt when we were separated from them. We can go home to ourselves as Aboriginals, but this does not erase the attacks inflicted on our hearts, minds, bodies and souls, by caretakers who thought their mission was to eliminate us as Aboriginals (Link-Up (NSW) submission 186 page 29).

The bulk of the evidence to the Inquiry detailed damaging and negative effects. However, our terms of reference clearly are not confined to these. The Inquiry did receive some submissions acknowledging the love and care provided by non-Indigenous adoptive families (and foster families to a much lesser extent) or recording appreciation for a high standard of education. However, all of the witnesses who made these points also expressed their wish that they had not had to make the sacrifices they did.

... even though I had a good education with [adoptive family] and I went to college, there was just this feeling that I did not belong there. The best day of my life was when I met my brothers because I felt like I belonged and I finally had a family.

Confidential submission 384, Tasmania: woman removed in the 1960s and adopted by a non-Indigenous family; no contact with brothers for 35 years.

I've got everything that could be reasonably expected: a good home environment, education, stuff like that, but that's all material stuff. It's all the non-material stuff that I didn't have - the lineage. It's like you're the first human being at times. You know, you've just come out of nowhere; there you are. In terms of having a direction in life, how do you know where you're going if you don't know where you've come from?

Confidential evidence 136, Victoria: man adopted into a non-Indigenous family at 3 months; still grieving that he was unable to meet his birth mother before she died.

A three-year longitudinal study undertaken in Melbourne during the mid-1980s revealed the numerous differences between respondents removed in childhood (33%) and those who were raised by their families or in their communities (67%). Those removed were,

  • less likely to have undertaken a post secondary education;
  • much less likely to have stable living conditions and more likely to be geographically mobile;
  • three times more likely to say they had no-one to call on in a crisis;
  • less likely to be in a stable, confiding relationship with a partner;
  • twice as likely to report having been arrested by police and having been convicted of an offence;
  • three times as likely to report having been in gaol;
  • less likely to have a strong sense of their Aboriginal cultural identity, more likely to have discovered their Aboriginality later in life and less likely to know about their Aboriginal cultural traditions;
  • twice as likely to report current use of illicit substances; and
  • much more likely to report intravenous use of illicit substances (Dr Jane McKendrick, Victorian Aboriginal Mental Health Network, submission 310 page 22).

A national random survey of Indigenous people conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 1994 allows us to compare further the life circumstances of the people who had been separated as children against those of the people raised by their families and communities. It shows no significant difference between the two groups with respect to their educational achievement.

Post-school qualifications for adults 20 years and above

Qualification Taken away Not taken away
Higher Education 1.9% 2.0%
TAFE 1.9% 1.8%
Other 0.6% 1.0%
None 95.6% 94.8%
Not stated - 0.3%
Total 100% 100%

Source: 1994 ABS National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey, tables supplied.

Similarly, the group removed from their families in childhood was no more likely to be employed. In fact there is a slight and non-significant tendency for this group to be less likely to be employed than people who were not removed.

Employment status of adults 20 years and above

Status Taken away Not taken away
Employed non-CDEP 22.8% 25.0%
Employed CDEP 8.2% 8.5%
Unemployed 22.2% 20.0%
Not in labour force 39.2% 38.3%
Not applicable 7.6% 8.2%
Total 100% 100%

Source: 1994 ABS National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey, tables supplied.

Neither are people removed as children significantly more likely to earn higher incomes in adulthood. The differential which can be noted in the table, with removed people more likely to be in the $8,000-$12,000 bracket while those not removed more likely to be in the $0-$3,000 bracket, suggests that removed people are more likely to enjoy the benefits of social security. This is probably attributable to the greater urbanisation of this group as compared with people not removed, the latter being more likely to live in their traditional and historical communities. Similar proportions (58% of those taken away, 63% of those not taken away) have annual incomes under $12,000.

Personal income for adults 20 years and above

Personal income Taken away Not taken away
$0-3,000 13.3% 21.5%
$3,001-5,000 1.9% 5.0%
$5,001-8,000 17.7% 18.2%
$8,001-12,000 24.7% 18.3%
$12,001-16,000 15.2% 9.6%
$16,001-20,000 5.7% 7.1%
$20,001-25,000 7.0% 7.4%
$25,001-30,000 5.7% 4.8%
$30,001-40,000 3.8% 3.8%
$40,001 + 1.9% 1.8%
Total 100% 100%

Source: 1994 ABS National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey, tables supplied.

Those removed in childhood were twice as likely to have been arrested more than once in the last 5 years (22% as compared with 11% of those not taken away) (Australian Bureau of Statistics 1995 page 58). This tallies with the evidence the Inquiry heard of the very damaging effects of institutionalisation on personal emotional development and on the individual's sense of self-worth. The same factors also have an effect on health prospects.

Self-assessed health status of those 20 years and above

Status Taken away Not taken away
Excellent 13.3% 18.2%
Very good 22.8% 29.6%
Good 34.8% 36.7%
Fair 23.4% 13.0%
Poor 5.7% 2.4%
Not stated - 0.2%
Total 100% 100%

Source: 1994 ABS National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey, tables supplied.

The effects on the families left behind and on the entire Indigenous community must also be acknowledged. These are detailed in Part 3.

Most of the Koori people I have met are aware of family members who were removed. It is also recounted how some were hidden from time to time by their parents so that they would not be found. This in itself is seen to have been a traumatic experience and to have had a significant effect on the person's view and experience of the world (Dr David Mushin, Victorian Koori Kids Mental Health Network, submission 769).

Services and procedures available

Term of reference (b) requires the Inquiry to 'examine the adequacy of and the need for any changes in current laws, practices and policies relating to services and procedures currently available to those [affected by forcible removal]'. All services and procedures available to the public generally or to Indigenous people in particular are available of course to those affected by forcible removal. This term of reference directs the Inquiry to those services and procedures especially available to those affected by reason of their experiences of forcible removal or in order to remedy in some way the effects on them of the forcible removal policies.

This interpretation is reinforced by the remaining phrases of term of reference (b) which direct particular attention to policies relating to access to personal and family records and to other reunion assistance. The Inquiry has investigated these subjects together with the extent to which the effects of forcible removal have been taken into account in the provision of mental health services for Indigenous people. Our findings and recommendations are set out in Part 5.

Term of reference (b) is not restricted to those people 'directly' affected by the policies. The Inquiry is entitled to consider the services and procedures available to all those affected by forcible removal.

Principles justifying compensation

Term of reference (c) requires the Inquiry to 'examine the principles relevant to determining the justification for compensation for persons or communities affected by such separations'. Our principal conclusion is that an appropriate and adequate response to the history and effects of forcible removals requires reparations which include, as one form of reparations, monetary compensation for defined victims. Measures of reparation will recognise the effects of forcible removal on Indigenous communities as a whole, the families of children forcibly removed and the children themselves. Our findings and recommendations are set out in Part 4.

Current placement and care

Term of reference (d) requires the Inquiry to 'examine current laws, practices and policies with respect to the placement and care' of Indigenous children and to 'advise on any changes required taking into account the principle of self-determination'. Our review of the extent, nature and causes of contemporary removals of Indigenous children from their families and communities is detailed in Part 6. Our principal finding is that self-determination for Indigenous peoples provides the key to reversing the over-representation of Indigenous children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems of the States and Territories and to eliminating unjustified removals of Indigenous children from their families and communities.

The Inquiry process


The Inquiry was established in 1995 by the former Attorney-General, the Hon. Michael Lavarch MP, in response to increasing concern among key Indigenous agencies and communities that the general public's ignorance of the history of forcible removal was hindering the recognition of the needs of its victims and their families and the provision of services. The Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care and Link-Up (NSW) campaigned for a national inquiry into the issue.

A key turning point was the 1994 Going Home Conference in Darwin. Representatives from every State and Territory met to share experiences, to bring to light the history and its effects in each jurisdiction and to devise strategies to meet the needs of those children and their families who survive. A determination to make governments accountable for their actions led to the initiation of two civil compensation claims (Williams in New South Wales and Kruger and Bray in the Northern Territory). Further claims are in preparation as the decisions in those already heard are awaited.

On 11 May 1995 the then Attorney-General referred the issue of past and present practices of separation of Indigenous children from their families to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), committed a budget of $1.5 million over two years and required a report by December 1996. On 2 August 1995 the terms of reference were extended by including new term of reference (c) requesting advice on principles relevant to compensation for people affected by separation. On 24 November 1996 the reporting date was extended to 31 March 1997.

Appointment of Commissioners

The HREOC President, Sir Ronald Wilson, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Dodson, took primary responsibility for conducting the hearings of the Inquiry. They were assisted by other HREOC Commissioners and by the Queensland Discrimination Commissioner. In each region visited the Commission appointed an Indigenous woman as a Co-Commissioner (see acknowledgments).

A small secretariat was established to publicise the Inquiry, encourage contributions by way of evidence and submissions and organise the hearings (refer to acknowledgments). An information booklet, explanatory video and posters were produced and widely distributed.


The terms of reference required the Commission 'to consult widely among the Australian community ...'. The Inquiry undertook an extensive program of hearings in every capital city and in many regional and smaller centres (refer to hearing schedule). The Inquiry's limited resources precluded visits to every centre where Indigenous people and others wished to give evidence.

Public evidence was taken from Indigenous organisations and individuals, State and Territory Government representatives, church representatives, other non-government agencies, former mission and government employees and individual members of the community. Confidential evidence was taken in private from Indigenous people affected by forcible removal and from adoptive and foster parents. Many people and organisations made written submissions to the Inquiry, including many who also gave oral evidence (refer to list of submissions and evidence).

Support for witnesses

Indigenous witnesses giving confidential evidence of their experiences of forcible removal required personal and psychological support during that process and afterwards because of the traumatic nature of their memories and the inevitably confronting task of relating them to strangers.

I know people who have become extremely distraught at the thought of this inquiry, because a lot of people psychologically have put that - a lot of what happened - to the back of their minds. Something like this inquiry, where it is expected that you will tell your story, means that it comes to the front of their minds, even if they do not want it to. I have had over the past few weeks, as the inquiry has become closer, many people getting in contact with me, some who are giving evidence, some who are not, who have been very, very distressed.

If people have been traumatised and are still suffering from the effects of that trauma, they are re-traumatised every time something reminds them of the trauma, even people who have made some degree of recovery. And that is the case in any situation where there is a post-traumatic stress disorder. Things that remind people of the trauma will bring back memories of the trauma and severe distress (Dr Jane McKendrick, Victorian Aboriginal Mental Health Network, evidence 310).

An Indigenous social worker was appointed to the Inquiry's staff to provide support to witnesses before and during their evidence. In June 1996 the Centre for Aboriginal Studies at Curtin University in Perth was successful in obtaining funding to provide an Indigenous psychologist to offer follow-up counselling to Inquiry witnesses. We also acknowledge the counselling support offered by Aboriginal medical and health services during Inquiry visits.

In spite of the difficulties of giving evidence, most witnesses appreciated the opportunity and many said that giving testimony had contributed to their healing.

There is some good news I would like to pass on to you. Everyone I have spoken to has said it is like the world has been lifted off their shoulders, because at last we have been heard. For me I have grown stronger and now am able to move forward. You have played a significant part in my journey back ... (letter of thanks from a witness).

Indigenous Advisory Council

To provide advice on the hearing process, the solicitation of evidence and submissions and the analysis of the material presented, the Inquiry appointed a representative Indigenous Advisory Council constituted by members from all the major regions of Australia (refer to acknowledgments). The Council was convened on seven occasions through telephone conferencing and met together on three occasions. On the last of these occasions the Council met over a day and a half to consider the Inquiry's draft report and provided detailed comments on proposed recommendations.

Summary report and video

In addition to preparing this report to the Commonwealth Attorney-General, the Inquiry recognised the importance of reporting directly and in an accessible form or forms to Indigenous Australians, particularly those who gave evidence or made submissions to the Inquiry. A summary report and video have been prepared for distribution free of charge to every Indigenous witness (individual and organisation) and others.

Evidence and submissions

Throughout this report we have remained faithful to the language used by the witnesses quoted. The names and other identifying details have been changed in the case of Indigenous witnesses who provided evidence or submissions in confidence to protect their privacy and that of the people of whom they spoke. Where witnesses have named institutions or other places, however, the names have generally been retained.

The nature of the Inquiry process and of the information sought and provided meant that evidence and submissions could not be tested as thoroughly as would occur in a courtroom. This applies to all the evidence. Indeed, as this report indicates, much supporting evidence including records has been destroyed. The submissions from individuals, organisations and governments are important. We carefully report what we have heard so that the community generally will know the different perspectives on what has occurred. We also sought out independent sources where possible and include them in this report. We have ensured that our findings, conclusions and recommendations are supported by the overwhelming weight of the evidence.

Under Commonwealth Archives legislation HREOC is obliged to archive all submissions and evidence to the Inquiry. These materials, other than confidential evidence and submissions, will be available to enquirers subject to Australian Archives application procedures. To assist those wishing to research the submissions and evidence to the Inquiry, file numbers are supplied for evidence and submissions quoted or referred to in the text.


The Inquiry took evidence orally or in writing from 535 Indigenous people throughout Australia concerning their experiences of the removal policies. In this report we relay as many of those individual stories as possible.

Within the limited time and resources available to us we have been unable to take testimony from all who wished to provide it. The Inquiry was unable to visit every region, although extensive travelling was undertaken for the purpose of receiving testimonies (see Schedule of hearings). We are grateful to the law firms, Aboriginal legal services and other Indigenous organisations which recorded testimonies and forwarded them to the Inquiry. In Western Australia alone the Aboriginal Legal Service collected more than 600 testimonies.

The Inquiry is aware that many other people did not have the opportunity to tell their stories, were not ready to speak of their experiences or chose not to do so in the forum provided by the Inquiry. Healing and ultimately the reconciliation process require that testimonies continue to be received and recorded. This must be done in a culturally appropriate manner with recording and access determined in consultation with the person who wishes to provide his or her history.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) recommended to the Inquiry that, 'Support be provided for the collection and culturally appropriate presentation of the stories with the approval of those who experienced separation policies' (submission 684 page 18). Link-Up (NSW) called for the establishment of an Aboriginal Oral History Archive. This Archive would be 'modelled on the Shoah Foundation set up to record the oral histories of Jewish victims of the Nazi holocaust' and would 'fund and facilitate the collection of oral histories of Aboriginal survivors of our holocaust' (submission 186).

The Aboriginal Oral History Archive will testify to the atrocities committed against our people through separation laws, policies and practices, and will ensure that the genocide against our people cannot be denied (submission 186).

The Inquiry supports the establishment of such a national archive. In the immediate future, however, the primary need is to enable people to tell their stories, to have them recorded appropriately and to enable the survivors to receive counselling and compensation. The experience of the Shoah Foundation and of this Inquiry is that giving testimony, while extraordinarily painful for most, is often the beginning of the healing process. For this reason the recording of testimonies needs to be done in or near each individual's community and by expert Indigenous researchers. Counselling or ready referral to counselling services must be available. Therefore appropriate agencies are likely to include Indigenous family tracing and reunion agencies and the language, culture and history centres proposed elsewhere in this report.

Recording testimonies

Recommendation 1: That the Council of Australian Governments ensure the adequate funding of appropriate Indigenous agencies to record, preserve and administer access to the testimonies of Indigenous people affected by the forcible removal policies who wish to provide their histories in audio, audio-visual or written form.

Implementation of the recommendations

The Inquiry was urged to make recommendations for monitoring the implementation of our recommendations.

ATSIC believes it is important that the Inquiry recommend a process for monitoring the implementation of recommendations flowing from the Inquiry ... The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation recommended that there should be statutory avenues for monitoring implementation of RCIADIC [Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody], which will provide mechanisms for indigenous communities, organisation and individuals to drive the reform processes. ATSIC commends this approach to the Inquiry.

Alternatively, ATSIC recommends that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission consider a role for itself in the monitoring of the recommendations of the Inquiry, including the capacity to reconvene the Inquiry, if and when necessary (ATSIC submission 684 page 9).

The procedure we recommend adopts ATSIC's second proposal. This process will ensure that information on the progress of implementation is collected from all interested parties, evaluated and publicly presented and capable of further independent evaluation as desired by COAG.

Procedure for implementation

Recommendation 2a: That the Council of Australian Governments establish a working party to develop a process for the implementation of the Inquiry's recommendations and to receive and respond to annual audit reports on the progress of implementation.

Recommendation 2b: That the Commonwealth fund the establishment of a National Inquiry audit unit in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to monitor the implementation of the Inquiry's recommendations and report annually to the Council of Australian Governments on the progress of implementation of the recommendations.

Recommendation 2c: That ATSIC fund the following peak Indigenous organisations to research, prepare and provide an annual submission to the National Inquiry audit unit evaluating the progress of implementation of the Inquiry's recommendations: Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC), Stolen Generations National Secretariat, National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) and National Aboriginal and Islander Legal Services Secretariat (NAILSS).

Recommendation 2d: That Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments undertake to provide fully detailed and complete information to the National Inquiry audit unit annually on request concerning progress on implementation of the Inquiry's recommendations.

Warning: The following link may contain images of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons.

Biddy, nursemaid to Mr & Mrs J S Gordon of Brewon Station, with John Gordon, Walgett, NSW, 1887

Courtesy Bicentennial Copying Project, State Library of New South Wales.