Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcibly removed from their families and communities in Australia from the early nineteenth century onwards. While the circumstances of these separations varied, Indigenous children in most states could be legally removed by governments without parental consent or the need to prove neglect before a court. This represents one of the most widespread and damaging assaults on Indigenous Australians, and the children affected have become known as the Stolen Generations.
Indigenous children represented a potential source of labour to squatters and pastoralists and a target for the evangelising efforts of the churches. As the Indigenous population increased in the late nineteenth century, government policy began to promote the removal of Indigenous children of mixed descent to ensure that this population would merge over time with the non-Indigenous population. These children were liable to be removed for training in institutions as domestics or farm labourers, to be reared as if they were white in orphanages and children’s homes or to be fostered or adopted by non-Indigenous families. The application of assimilationist welfare policies by states and territories during the 1940s to the 1960s saw even greater numbers of Indigenous children removed from their families on pretexts such as alleged neglect, poor school attendance, and for medical treatment.
Removals on the basis of race continued into the 1970s. While forced removals affected every region of Australia, its intensity varied according the period, the available resources and the visibility of children of mixed descent. The legacy of forcible separation remains in the lives of Indigenous individuals and communities today.
In its 1997 report, Bringing Them Home, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission estimated that between one third and one tenth of all Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families and communities during the period 1910 to 1970. It also found that most Indigenous families have been affected, in one or more generations, by the forcible removal of one or more children. The full scale of removals is still not known because many records have been lost.
In 1980 an organisation called Link-Up was established to enable Aboriginal people who had been fostered, adopted or raised in institutions to regain contact with their communities and to forge family links. Most children who were separated grew up knowing very little of their Aboriginal families, culture, heritage or identity. The issues involved in assisting people to find their way home are overwhelming, and the contribution Link-Up has made to the lives of so many members of the Stolen Generations cannot be over-estimated.
Based on information gleaned from Face the Facts: Some Questions and Answers about Refugees, Migrants and Indigenous People, Sydney, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 2001 and 2003, as well as Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry Into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children From Their Families, (Commissioner: Ronald Wilson), Sydney, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997. For more information, see Resources section, including web links and film / print references.