Stolen Generations

Aboriginal people are believed to have lived in Australia for up to 60,000 years. They successfully adapted to the often harsh environments they inhabited and developed ways of life that were rich in spirituality, music, art and storytelling. The arrival of the British to Australia in 1788 decimated the Indigenous population through massacres and other violence, introduced diseases and loss of access to land, resources and traditional lifestyles. As a result of colonisation Aboriginal people were removed from their traditional homelands and relocated to reserves or missions on the fringes of non-Indigenous settlements. By 1911 all states except Tasmania had appointed a ‘Chief protector’ or ‘Protection board’ with extensive powers to control all aspects of Indigenous people’s lives. Aboriginal people needed permission to move in and out of the reserves, marry or hold employment. Parents lost all decision-making powers over their children.

In the 1950s, following more than 150 years of violence against and dispossession of Aboriginal people, Australia formally adopted a policy of assimilation and as many as one in three Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families and communities. The children were placed in dormitories and other institutions, non-Indigenous foster homes or adopted by non-Indigenous families.

The ultimate aim was to eradicate Aboriginal people as a distinct cultural group. The policies were not only overtly racist but the resulting disruption to families, communities and culture has also contributed significantly to many of the challenges facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today.

The Bringing them home report

The terrible harm done to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children during this period was comprehensively documented and acknowledged for the first time through the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, established in 1995. The inquiry’s report Bringing them home described the physical, psychological and sexual abuse, sexual and labour exploitation, racism, grief and suffering, disruption of family life, and loss of Indigenous identity, culture, heritage and community and cultural connections suffered by members of the Stolen Generations.

Impact on Stolen Generations survivors

The diversity of policies and practices that underpinned the forced removal of Aboriginal children in different states and territories means the experiences reported by Stolen Generations members differ widely depending on where they lived and were removed to. Yet around the country the legacy of the Stolen Generations era has had a devastating impact on immediate survivors and their descendants.

The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families estimated that:

‘between one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities in the period from approximately 1910 until 1970. In certain regions and in certain periods the figure was undoubtedly much greater than one in ten. In that time not one Indigenous family has escaped the effects of forcible removal’.

Evidence presented to the inquiry detailed the harsh, inhumane and degrading treatment many children experienced. The overwhelming majority of children were forcibly separated from their communities and culture as well as their families, and forbidden from speaking their native language. Many children were taught to believe that their families had relinquished them because they were unwanted and unloved. Others were told their parents were dead. In an attempt to indoctrinate them and diminish their desire to return to kin, country and culture upon their release, Aboriginality was denigrated and Aboriginal people were discussed in derogatory ways. The living conditions were often sparse and harsh with funding levels provided to institutions that housed Indigenous children far below those of non-Indigenous children’s homes. The children were taught only basic numeracy, literacy and life skills, limiting their employment prospects to roles such as domestic servants or labourers. Punishment for minor transgressions was often severe and children were vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation regardless of whether they were removed to foster homes, adoptive families, dormitories or large institutions.

For many survivors the resulting trauma, pain and suffering remains long after these laws, policies and practices ended in the 1970s. They had to come to terms with the realisation that they had been targeted for the purposes of assimilation, lied to, and that their forcible removal from kin, country and culture was deliberate and sanctioned by law.

Impact on families and communities

The Bringing them home report highlighted the intergenerational effects of removal, noting that ’the overwhelming evidence is that the impact does not stop with the children removed. It is inherited by their own children in complex and sometimes heightened ways.’ Healing is not only required for those that were taken but for the mothers, families and communities left behind.

Swan and Raphael (1995) identified unresolved loss, trauma and grief associated with forcible removals as among the most serious problems facing Indigenous people today, while Koolmatrie and Williams believe that forcibly removing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families has ’left a powerful residue of unrecognised and unresolved grief that [has] pathological effects on Indigenous communities’.

Healing our Stolen Generations

’Healing occurs throughout a person’s life journey as well as across generations. It can be experienced in many forms … Mostly, however, it is about renewal, leaving behind those things that have wounded us and caused us pain: moving forward in our journey with hope for the future, with renewed energy, strength and enthusiasm for life.’

The Bringing them home report emphasised the importance of self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities in overcoming the devastating legacy of forced removals from family and country. It recommended that local Indigenous community based services and organisations be supported to lead and develop their own healing responses to enable communities to overcome the trauma of removal and limit the intergenerational transfer of trauma:

’Only Indigenous people themselves are able to comprehend the full extent of the effects of the removal policies. Services to redress these effects must be designed, provided and controlled by Indigenous people themselves.’

The social and emotional wellbeing and healing needs of those who were forcibly removed from their families and communities are distinct from the wider Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.  Healing needs to be led and developed by Stolen Generations members and recognise their need for connection with one another, their families and their culture as critical to recovery. One of the ways for this to be enabled is through collective healing practices.

On 13 February 2008, a formal apology was made on behalf of the Australian Parliament to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, in particular to the Stolen Generations.

The journey to a national apology began with the Bringing them home report with recommendations 5a of the report stating “that all Australian parliaments officially acknowledge the responsibility of their predecessors for the laws, policies and practices of forcible removal.”

In 2020, after the 12th anniversary of the national apology, it is important that we continue to say sorry, to acknowledge the pain and trauma that was created by the forced removal of children from their families. While the national apology was an important part of healing for Stolen Generations survivors, it is also important to continue to share their stories to understand the impact of intergenerational trauma and to enable them to continue their healing journey.


Collective healing

Collective healing is where people are supported and empowered to heal through group activities such as gatherings and family reunions. It is particularly important for Stolen Generations’ members who were institutionalised.

Collective healing broadens the scope of who ‘does healing and who healing is ‘for’. It means moving from a model where expert professionals work with individuals to a model where individuals develop their own skills and capacities to empower healing in themselves and their families and communities. Collective healing engages all participants ‘as workers for healing so that working together we grow the wider circles of relationships necessary to develop healing communities’.

Healing in this context is about restoring and making connections for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have been disconnected from family, country and culture. For some Stolen Generations members circumstances will mean that the connections made are not to their Aboriginal family but to their institutional family. Whatever form it takes collective healing involves bringing people with similar experiences together, often with their children and grandchildren, in a safe space where they can share, get to know their own story, build understanding and skills and take positive steps towards a better future.

Key resources



Pathways to Healing by Jenna Lee

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