Detail of the ‘Great Australian Clock’, Queen Victoria Building, Sydney. Note that the artist confined Aboriginal men to the painted background, seemingly ignorant of the situation. You can view the clock from the highest level inside the building.
One of the darkest chapters of Australian history was the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families. Children as young as babies were stolen from their families to be placed in girls and boys homes, foster families or missions. At the age of 18 they were ‘released’ into white society, most scarred for life by their experiences.
These Aboriginal people are collectively referred to as the ‘Stolen Generations’ because several generations were affected.
Many Aboriginal people are still searching for their parents and siblings.
I feel our childhood has been taken away from us and it has left a big hole in our lives. —Jennifer, personal story in the Bringing Them Home Report
A guide to the Stolen Generations
Define ‘Stolen Generations’
The term “Stolen Generations” is used for Aboriginal people forcefully taken away (stolen) from their families between the 1890s and 1970s, many to never to see their parents, siblings or relatives again. Because the period covers many decades we speak of “generations” (plural) rather than “generation”.
Why were Aboriginal children stolen?
This is the most burning question for members of the Stolen Generations. In removing their children white people stole Aboriginal people’s future. Language, tradition, knowledge, dances and spirituality could only live if passed on to their children. In breaking this circle of life white people hoped to end Aboriginal culture within a short time and get rid of “the Aboriginal problem”.
In the early 20th century under the assimilation policy white Australians thought Aboriginal people would die out. In three generations, they thought, Aboriginal genes would have been ‘bred out’ when Aboriginal people had children with white people.
“It was a presumption for many years that we girls would grow up and marry nice white boys,” says Aboriginal woman Barbara Cummings, a member of the Stolen Generations . “We would have nice fairer children who, if they were girls, would marry white boys again and eventually the colour would die out. That was the original plan - the whole removal policy was based on the women because the women could breed.”
Adult Aboriginal people resisted efforts to be driven out of towns by simply coming back. But children taken away were much easier to control.
I grew up feeling alone, a black girl in a white world, and I resented them for trying to make me white but they couldn't wash away thousands of years of dreaming.—Aunty Rhonda Collard, member of the Stolen Generations 
Another reason authorities took children away was their aspersion that Aboriginal parents would neglect them. There is evidence, however, that kids were malnourished or starving because Aboriginal people were not paid the full wages they were owed .
Reasons why Aboriginal girls were taken away (in %). These statistics list the ‘reasons’ for forcibly removing Aboriginal girls from their families. “Other” reasons include “being female on an Aboriginal reserve” and simply because of being “Aboriginal”. 
Which children were taken away?
Authorities targeted mainly children of mixed descent, i.e. what they called ‘half-caste’ Aboriginal children (caution, this is a derogative term!). It was thought these Aboriginal children could be assimilated more easily into white society.
What happened to the stolen children?
The stolen children were raised on missions or by foster parents, totally cut off from their Aboriginality. They were severely punished when caught talking their Aboriginal language. Some children never learned anything traditional and received little or no education. Instead the girls were trained to be domestic servants, the boys to be stockmen.
Many of the stolen girls and boys were physically, emotionally and sexually abused. Many babies born to girls raped by white men were also taken away from them, sometimes as soon as they were born.
There is no black or white, we are both of those. I am black and I am white. We were the product of white men raping our traditional women. We were an embarrassment. No-one wanted us. They just wanted us out of the way. —Zita Wallace, taken aged eight years 
Boys and girls were brought into separate institutions which they (and some experts) would later compare with German concentration camps and the holocaust. Many tried to run away but few succeeded. Many never saw their parents again or were told they were orphans.
We were each handed a pair of pyjamas with a number Mr Borland, the manager, had given us earlier printed on the pocket, and a shirt and pair of shorts also. I was number 33. Not Bill. Not even Simon. Just number 33. —Bill Simon, taken away aged 10 
Institutions in NSW where stolen Aboriginal children were more or less imprisoned to be trained as domestics or labourers.
The most infamous institutions are following. Be careful when you mention them to Aboriginal people, a lot of hurt and bad memories might come up.
- Bomaderry Children’s Home (United Aborigines Mission) operated from 24 May 1908 to 1981 (59 Beinda Street, Bomaderry).
- Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls’ Home (Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls), originally a hospital, operated from 1911 to 1969. About 1,200 girls were placed in Cootamundra during this time. It celebrated its centenary on 11 August 2012.
- Kinchela Aboriginal Boys’ Home (Kinchela Training Institution) which moved to Kempsey in 1924. About 600 Aboriginal boys passed through Kinchela before it was closed in 1970.
- Mittagong Boys’ Home
- Parramatta Girls’ Home which operated from 1887 until 1986. About 30,000 girls were locked up during that time. The home was also knows as the Industrial School for Girls, Girls Training School and Girls Training Home. Parragirls is a network of more than 350 women who lived in the home. Parramatta Girls is a play by Alana Valentine that is part of the HSC syllabus since 2010, contributing to the survivor’s healing process.
- Kahlin Compound, Darwin
- The Bungalow, Alice Springs
- Box Hill Boys Home, Melbourne
Many of those who were stolen established links with the area where they stayed for many years. After they left the institutions these people settled in the area.
However, the women and men also passed on the kinds of abuse they suffered to their own children (intergenerational trauma).
Sometimes at night we'd cry with hunger. We had to scrounge in the town dump, eating old bread, smashing tomato sauce bottles, licking them. —Bringing Them Home - Community Guide, children's experiences
Aerial photo of the former Cootamundra Girls Home. The property is near 39 Rinkin Street, Cootamundra, NSW 2590.
How many children were stolen?
That is not easy to answer. Few records of stolen children were kept, some were deliberately destroyed or just lost. Some administrations tried to tout their “successful assimilation” of Aboriginal people by deliberately understating Aboriginal numbers, thus distorting data.
Hence numbers can only be roughly estimated. It is estimated that between 1883 and 1969 more than 6,200 children were stolen in NSW alone [1,32].
A 1994 survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics stated that one in every ten (10%) Aboriginal people aged over 25 had been removed from their families in childhood , a figure which seems to be confirmed by research since the Bringing Them Home Report . Australia-wide numbers are in the tens of thousands.
The [South Australian] government was unable to say how many Stolen Generation people live in the state. —Statement in a 2007 article about the first court-ordered compensation ruling 
When were the children stolen?
Towards the end of the 19th century authorities started to take children away without a legal framework. A framework was established in 1909 with the Aborigines Protection Act.
During the 1960s the child removal process slowed down but continued well into the 1970s. Some of the schools and missions who held the Stolen Generations did not close until the early 1980s (e.g. Bomaderry Children’s Home in NSW ).
What were the effects on the stolen children?
The effects on the stolen children and their families were profound and are ongoing.
Aboriginal people suffer from many social and personal problems including mental illness, violence, alcoholism and welfare dependance, but there are many more issues members of the Stolen Generations suffer from.
More children are being taken today than during the Stolen Generations period
- Number of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care in 1997 when the Bringing Them Home report on the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families was tabled in Federal Parliament .
- Number of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care in March 2008 .
- Number of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care in June 2012 .
Children continue to be taken from their families. The Department of Community Services (DoCS) has the authority to remove children from their families if they were “at risk of significant harm”.
About 60 children are being taken away every month by child protection services, says Elder Djiniyini Gondarra, who represents 8,000 Yolngu people of east Arnhem Land . “Children are being taken away from us at numbers not seen since the Stolen Generations.”
Aboriginal children are
- almost 8 times more likely to be the subject of departmental intervention,
- 9 times more Aboriginal children are on care and protection orders , and
- 10 times more Aboriginal children are in out-of-home care than non-Aboriginal kids .
The current generation may one day grow up to say they, too, had been removed from their families.
In Victoria, only about 60% of Koorie children in care remained connected to their family and culture .
If you don't already know, the Stolen Generation scenario still applies today and has been here for a long time and will continue to be here.—Paul Ralph, CEO of KARI Aboriginal Resources Inc 
“Intergenerational effects of separation from family and culture” are partly to blame: parents stolen as kids are passing on this trauma to their own children.
Homework: Three generations fearing for their kids
Here is what Aboriginal mother Kelly Briggs said about her own fears, those of her mum and of her grandmother :
“What happens if the small amount of work I have gained dries up [...]? What if money again becomes so tight that shoes, uniforms, excursions, lunches or transport [...] become issues that keep my kids from turning up at school on occasion? What exactly is the scope of these truancy officers? Do they give my kids lunch? Buy them uniforms? Will my name be added to some department of community services list somewhere? Will there be a mark upon my name that gives rise to visits from people who can remove my children from my care?
“I spoke honestly and frankly with my mother about my worries. She was amazed that this is still happening [...]. We spoke of her own mother’s obsession with cleanliness, which sprang from her fear of the dreaded ‘welfare man’, a government employee who could come to your house and demand to be let inside to ensure your house was clean, that there was adequate food available, that the children were going to school.
“She then went on to tell me about her own fears when she was raising me and my siblings: the absolute terror she felt when she had to collect food vouchers of some nameless person swooping in to take us kids off her because she was facing hardship after my father passed away. The tremble in her voice as she recounted this broke my heart.”
- Why is Aunty Kelly fearing her kids can be taken away?
- Find out how much Kelly has to pay for the items she has listed.
- Find one word that represents the effect the women’s worries had on their lives.
- In which years were the women in Kelly’s family worried about their children?
- Research what rights the “welfare man” had, which government agency was allowed to take kids “facing hardship”, and what can happen today if kids don’t turn up at school.
- With the background of Kelly’s story above, explain what she said below.
In the back of my mind, I always hear the voice that says "don’t ever let anyone know you’re doing it tough, because they will take your kids from you".—Kelly Briggs, Aboriginal mother 
The new Stolen Generation is much larger
A Special Commission of Inquiry into the Department of Community Services found that in March 2008 there were 4,458 Aboriginal children in out-of-home care, 4 times as many Aboriginal children as were in foster homes, institutions or missions in 1969, during the Stolen Generations . 8% of Aboriginal people aged 15 years and over were removed from their natural families in 2008 .
From February 2001 to August 2007 the number of children reported to DoCS increased by 300% to 55,303 .
In Queensland, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children represent 6.3% of the under-18s, yet in 2006 they made up over 25% of those in out-of-home care . In 2011 in New South Wales, 33% of Aboriginal children and young people were in the care system, and the national figure was 36% .
In Western Australia, 46% of children in state care were Aboriginal in 2011, in regional areas “nearly 100%” were thought to be Aboriginal .
Filmmaker John Pilger investigates this new stolen generation in Utopia. “The theft is now higher than at any time in the last century,” he found. In mid-1997 there were 2,785 Aboriginal children in out-of-home care across Australia. By mid-2012 there were 13,299 - almost a five-fold increase.
Pilger notes the NT government spent $80 million in one year removing children but just $500,000 supporting impoverished families. 
If you don't fix the underlying issues—unemployment, housing—that contribute to child protection, Aboriginal children will continue to be removed from their families. —Julie Tommy Walker, Aboriginal leader and Innawonga woman 
If Aboriginal children are put into foster care, they should at least be put into other Aboriginal families. These children’s safety is “always grounded in their culture”  because they need to remain connected to the communities and be sure and strong in their cultural identity.
But in 2013, in the Northern Territory, about 66% of children are taken away from their culture and community. To no surprise, one-third of the Aboriginal children removed to non-Aboriginal homes have told the government they had lost all contact with family .
The madness of the past is still the cruelty of today.—Jeff McMullen, journalist 
Only one day a year
An Aboriginal Perth father can only see his two daughters for what equates to one day a year .
His two children have been removed from their mother’s care by the Department of Child Protection (DCP) and placed with non-Aboriginal carers for 4 years.
The father lodged a complaint saying that the department failed to let the children know about their family and culture. He was only allowed to see his daughters one hour every fortnight which “equates to one day a year”.
The man’s mother was a member of the Stolen Generations. “[I ] saw my mother and all her siblings taken from my grandparents, and my grandparents taken from my great grandparents,” he said.
Today’s numbers of stolen children are so high that in January 2014 Aboriginal grandmothers from Gunnedah in northern NSW formed the group Grandmothers Against Removals in an effort to highlight the process of removal used by the New South Wales Department of Children’s Services.
Was it legal to steal Aboriginal children?
With all the pain and trauma caused by the child removal policies one has to ask: Was this legal? Didn’t these laws violate basic human rights?
These questions were put to Australia’s High Court in 1997 when two members of the Stolen Generations sued the Commonwealth (Kruger vs Commonwealth). They argued that the laws breached basic fundamental human rights such as the right to due process before the law, equality before the law, freedom of movement and freedom of religion.
In a “dramatic demonstration of Australia’s lack of rights protection”  the High Court held that none of these rights were protected. We are not talking Aboriginal rights here—we are talking human rights!
In other words, it was perfectly legal for Australia’s government to forcibly remove Aboriginal children.
Australia’s failure to protect basic human rights falls hardest on the poor, the marginalised and the socioeconomic disadvantaged. That is, they fall hardest on Aboriginal people, families and communities.
Stolen Generation reunions
Members of the Stolen Generations yearn most to reunite with their lost loved ones. Sometimes family members find each other just in time, sometimes just a short time too late. Services which help people reunite need more funding.
We didn't find our family until I was 11 or 12. —Prof. Larissa Behrendt, Aboriginal barrister 
Stolen Generation member dies only months after reunion
A 107-year-old member of the Stolen Generations died only months after she was finally reunited with members of her original people in Port Hedland, Western Australia . Belinda Dann’s life is a sad example of many other members of the Stolen Generations, many of whom died broken-hearted because they never saw their loved ones again.
Belinda was six years old when she was taken from her mother. Along with sisters she was taken to Beagle Bay mission in north-western Australia. When they asked for their mother they were told she would come which she never did. She married as a teenager and moved to Port Hedland. She remembered her Aboriginal name but did not know who she was and where she came from.
By coincidence one of Belinda’s grandsons mentioned her Aboriginal name in a conversation with an Aboriginal girl who had heard of Belinda and was connected to her people. A 100-year-long search was over. Belinda met her people and, incredibly, started speaking in her native Aboriginal language again. Four months later she died.
We didn't know we were related. You find it out at 20 or 30, sitting in a pub drinking. —Richard Pittman, Stolen Generations member, taken aged four 
Re-union services need more funding
The main service members of the Stolen Generations can use to find loved ones is Link-Up (see below). But Link-Up needs more resources to work effectively . Reunions take too long to be organised, and once they had been, they were far too short, or people were unable to afford return visits.
Some Aboriginal people feel like being “stolen again” when they are unable to revisit their newly found family .
Healing members of the Stolen Generations
The hibiscus flower is a symbol for the Stolen Generations. It was chosen because its lilac colour denotes spiritual healing and compassion and for the fact that it is widespread, grows everywhere and is a survivor . Photo: butupa, Flickr
On 13 February 2009, one year after it apologised to the Stolen Generations, the Australian government promised to establish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation.
The foundation is designed to deal with the “trauma experienced by all Aboriginal people as the after-effect of colonisation” , but with a particular focus on the Stolen Generations.
It won’t deliver healing services, instead it funds healing work, educates communities and social workers and evaluates healing programs to find out what works.
According to Aboriginal trauma and grief specialist Dr Greg Phillips, healing is “a spiritual process that includes recovery from addiction, therapeutic change and cultural renewal” .
Healing is not just another government program. It has taken many generations to get to this level of trauma and it will take quite a few to fully recover from it. —Dr Greg Phillips, Aboriginal trauma and grief specialist from the Waanyi people 
Many members of the Stolen Generations attend annual reunions where they meet fellow Aboriginal people to share their stories and experiences they endured as children in the institutions where they were raised. The Link-Up service (see bottom of this page) often supplies funding for these reunions. For many this is the start of their journey of healing.
Denying history: ‘Not stolen, but rescued’
A significant number of Australians disagreed with the apology delivered in February 2008 to the Stolen Generations by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Here are their main arguments:
- The Stolen Generations don’t exist. Some people simply and flatly deny that children were stolen. They want to see ‘proof’ and claim no-one could ‘find’ them.
- Aboriginal children were ‘rescued’. Supporters claim that Aboriginal children were not stolen but ‘rescued’ from a family and community environment that was “rife with rape, incest, >drug and/or alcohol addiction and insanitary living conditions” . The Aboriginal children were ‘given a chance’.
I've asked my granny if she thought she was rescued. She replied, "I didn't need rescuing from my mother's love."—Che Cockatoo-Collins 
- ‘We did not do it’. People who refuse to apologise to the Stolen Generations feel that they or their ancestors had no part in what happened, hence shared no responsibility for the pain caused.
- An apology leads to compensation claims. Many people fear that after the apology “a flood of compensation claims will be forthcoming” running to “millions of dollars” .
Stolen generations in other countries
Australia is not alone with its history of stolen children. Across the world are other countries with similar histories.
Before Germany united in 1989, the German Democratic Republic’s intelligence service (“Stasi”) took away children of parents who eyed the West or had attempted to flee the communist state. Deemed unfit to bring up their kids “for the purpose of socialism” parents sometimes spent “half a lifetime searching” for them .
An estimated 1,000 families were torn apart by the GDR authorities. Forced adoptions could hit anyone considered “suspect”, for example, a mother staying home for her children—incompatible with socialist guidelines.
Hundreds of Germans are still searching for their children, parents or siblings .
Families who violate China’s one-child policy face a constant threat of authorities illegally taking away their children.
Just like in Australia, some families say beatings and threats are used to force them into giving up their daughters. Others say they are tricked into signing away their parental rights .
Each town has a family-planning office, usually staffed by Communist Party cadres who have broad powers to order abortions and sterilisations. People who have additional babies can be fined up to 6 times their annual income.
Since the early 1990s, more than 80,000 Chinese children have been adopted abroad, most going to families in the United States. Officials are motivated by thousands of dollars that adoptive parents pay orphanages .
Since 2003, if people can’t pay their fines, officials would take away their babies.
An official’s statement is strikingly similar to what Australian officials told parents: ‘‘They’re better off with their adoptive parents than their birth parents,’’ says Wu Benhua, director of Zhenyuan’s civil affairs bureau.
It's too late. Your daughter has already gone to America.—Response Zhou Changqi got whose six-month-old daughter was taken in 2002 by family-planning officials in Guiyang 
From the early 1800s to the 1950s thousands of Swiss children who were orphaned, illegitimate or from impoverished families were sent to work on farms as cheap labour. Many children suffered abuse at the hands of their host families while authorities turned a blind eye.
The Foster Boy (“Der Verdingbub”), a 2011 movie and one of the most successful Swiss films between 2007 and 2013, deals with this shameful chapter in the history of a country that is so often seen in a positive light.
Free Stolen Generations resources
The resources listed here are free of charge and you can either download or order them.
Free Stolen Generations booklet
A must-read is the report by Peter Read, ‘The Stolen Generations - The removal of Aboriginal children in New South Wales 1883 to 1969’.
Published in 1981 it was then a ground-breaking first attempt to document the devastating consequences of the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families.
The report’s chapters are: 2006: The return of the Stolen Generations, Introduction, A typical case, The laws regarding children, The number of children taken, Life in the homes, Employment, Fostering, Going home, The effects, Why did they do it?, Appendix.
The 34-page report comes with several black-and-white images and can be downloaded as a PDF file from the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs (‘Publications’).
Free Bringing Them Home DVD
Free DVD: Bringing Them Home. You can order this DVD at the Human Rights Commission. It runs for 32 minutes and contains a moving documentary with and about members of the Stolen Generations.
The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, a government body, published a DVD in 1997. The free DVD is based on the Bringing Them Home Report which was released on the 26th May that year.
The DVD is a 32-minute documentary, interviewing Aboriginal people of the Stolen Generations and showing historical footage. It is a must-see for all interested in learning more and listening to the stories of Aboriginal people who were stolen. But be warned: The content is sometimes heartbreaking.
The first DVD is free, any further copy is just AUD 5. To order your copy send an email or letter to:
Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission
Level 8, Piccadilly Tower
133 Castlereagh Street
Sydney NSW 2000
Phone: 02 9284 9672
Fax: 02 9284 9611
Watch movies about the Stolen Generations
A very good movie which tells the story of three young girls taken away from their family is Rabbit-Proof Fence by Phillip Noyce.
Baz Luhrmann’s Australia also treats the Stolen Generations as a central theme of the movie.
The documentary Lousy Little Sixpence was the first film to tell shocked Australians the story of five girls stolen from their families.
Or try the award-winning documentary Why me? - Stories from the Stolen Generations by Rick Cavaggion.
I was crying for the kids. It brought back personal memories for us. I was like him. I was like them. I was taken away.—Dorothy Beto, stolen aged 7 years, reacting to the movie Australia which tells about the Stolen Generations 
Teacher resource: 2 ways to teach about the Stolen Generations
When members of the Stolen Generations tell their stories in schools students are often in tears. Some stories might be too harsh for them.
Some teachers have found softer ways of teaching  which still show the full emotional impact the policies had on people.
- Role playing. Children role play, for example, “we’re going to take you to live with us because we think it’s better. How do you feel?”
- Tearing drawings. Students make a drawing of their family at home and include valued items such as pets or computers. The teacher then tells the story of stolen children and, while walking around the room, tears away part of each student’s drawing. A student could then talk about how they felt about their valuable work being ripped apart and how they would feel being ripped from their family.
Stolen Generations organisations
There are a few organisations helping Aboriginal people from the Stolen Generations.
National Sorry Day Committee (NSDC)
The community-based National Sorry Day Committee was formed in 1998 after the Bringing Them Home report recommended that a National Sorry Day be held each year on 26 May “to commemorate the history of forcible removals and its effects.”
The NDSC aims to achieve all 54 recommendations of the Bringing Them Home report, and its Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal supporters work together with Stolen Generations members, Aboriginal communities, government, social justice and community organisations to achieve this goal.
Stolen Generations Alliance (SGA)
Formed in 2007, the SGA is a national representative and advocacy organisation made up of a network of affiliate groups and individuals around Australia who work with Stolen Generations survivors to ensure “their voices are heard, their truth is told, justice is forthcoming and a comprehensive healing process is supported.”
The Stolen Generations Alliance works towards advancing the rights and ensuring the needs of Stolen Generations survivors and their families by lobbying governments at all levels and other relevant organisations to properly address the ongoing needs and concerns of Stolen Generations members and their descendants.
Founded in 1980 and based in New South Wales, Link-Up helps members of the Stolen Generations to find their relatives. It also offers counselling to newly reunited families.
Link-Up has offices in almost every Australian state. In South Australia from 1999 to 2007 Link-Up arranged 160 family reunions and brought together 4,915 people.
Link-Up NSW Aboriginal Corporation
PO Box 93
Lawson, NSW 2783
phone 02 - 4759 1911, toll-free 1800 624 332
Link-Up caseworker advertisement. The position involves support and counselling work and requires a lot of travel . Note that Aboriginality is part of the qualification.
Family Link was established in 2009 to identify family and kin placements for Aboriginal children in foster care.
The service, funded by Link-Up, works with the Department of Community Services to place them with other family members when Aboriginal children cannot live safely with their parents.
While only 4% of NSW’s children are Aboriginal they make up 31% of all placements.
Hazelbrook, Blue Mountains, NSW 2779
Family Records Unit
The Family Records Unit helps Aboriginal people in NSW access records about themselves and their families, particularly members of the Stolen Generations.
The Unit is run by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs which is the custodian of the records of the Aborigines Welfare Board.
Family Records Unit
NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs
Level 13, Tower B, Centennial Plaza
280 Elizabeth Street
Surry Hills, NSW 2010
Download Stolen Generations postcards!
Download these two Stolen Generations postcard images and use them for your assignments or send them to friends and family to raise awareness for this important chapter of Australian history! Click images to get full-size version.