Some twenty cases have now gone before the courts, but only one has produced a positive result for the plaintiff. The latest ruling specifically refutes claims that children of mixed race were for a period of time taken from their homes in the name of “assimilation”
Justice Janine Pritchard in the WA Supreme Court on December 20 rejected claims that from 1958-79 there was any official program in WA to implement the so-called Stolen Generation policy. Her judgment dismissed damages claims by the Aboriginal Don and Sylvia Collard and seven of their children removed or made state wards.
She specifically dealt with a claim that the children were removed “pursuant to a policy of assimilation of aboriginal children.” She found the children were instead removed, mainly to Sister Kate’s in Perth, to safeguard their physical welfare.
This is the twentieth case in State, Federal and High Courts involving significant Stolen Generations claims, and the nineteenth to see the claims thrown out. Justice Pritchard found:
“The references to ‘assimilation’ in the evidence I have set out above are not sufficient to support a finding on the balance of probabilities that at the time of the wardships there was, within the Department of Native Welfare or the Child Welfare Department, the pursuit of a policy of assimilation of aboriginal people into white Australian society through the wardship of aboriginal children.
“More particularly, there was no evidence that the decisions to apply for each of the Children to be made wards were made in the pursuit of a policy of assimilation of aboriginal people into white Australian society. Rather, the evidence supports the finding that the decisions to apply for the Children to be made wards, and subsequent decisions at various times not to return them to the care of Don and Sylvia, were all made having regard to the welfare – albeit primarily the physical welfare – of the Children.”
Even counsel for the Collards conceded late in the case that ‘assimilation’ was not a motive for the removals, and during the case they only pushed the assimilationist line half-heartedly. The Commissioners for Native Welfare at the time were Stanley Middleton (1948-62) and Frank Gare (1962-79). Both emphatically rejected the idea of removals of half-castes for racist reasons.[i]
The only pieces of evidence Justice Pritchard found for any assimilation policy was a letter from a bishop in the Kimberley to the Native Welfare Minister in 1962, claiming the department policy was assimilation and urging that the policy (which he favoured) be pursued only with caution. The department replied that it was already being cautious about it.
There were also references to Sister Kate’s Home assisting the assimilation process, e.g. because the part-colored children were fully incorporated into white, aged-based classes at the nearby state school. But in the Collard case, the authorities remained keen to re-unite the family, subject to the Collard parents improving their living conditions and lifestyle.
In his Stolen Generation apology of 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd emphasised that ‘forced removal’ of Aboriginal children was happening ‘as late as the early 1970s’. He said, “The uncomfortable truth for us all is that the parliaments of the nation, individually and collectively, enacted statutes and delegated authority under those statutes that made the forced removal of children on racial grounds fully lawful.”
The Pritchard judgment, in respect of post-war WA at least, shows that Rudd’s claims are nonsense. She outlines in scores of pages of detail, how WA authorities and public servants did their best to procure the physical welfare of the vulnerable Collard children. She details how WA officialdom from the late 1950s gave increasing weight to children’s emotional well-being, once the importance of parental rather than institutional care was recognized.
She acknowledges that in those times the State had different views and knowledge about children’s best interests compared with today. She notes that in 1958 there was not a single tertiary course in social work in the State, and only one social worker in the entire WA Child Welfare Department.
Justice Pritchard’s findings mirror those of Justice Maurice O’Loughlin in the Cubillo-Gunner case in the NT Supreme Court on August 11, 2000. He rejected that there had been in the NT any “wide-spread, indiscriminate removals of part Aboriginal children” when Lorna Cubillo and Peter Gunner were removed for welfare reasons in 1947 and 1956 respectively. Nor was there any policy to ‘breed out’ half-castes (one element of the Stolen Generation hypothesis first promulgated in 1981 by then ANU post-graduate student Peter Read in a 21-page polemical pamphlet he claimed to have written on a single day).
In SA, the Trevorrow case involved an unlawful removal of Bruce Trevorrow as an ailing one-year-old from his parents in early 1958. The removal was done by a well-meaning but inexperienced Aboriginal welfare worker, contrary to official policy. Trevorrow was adopted by a caring white couple but his life became dysfunctional. He won $775,000 damages in 2007-08. This remains the only successful “Stolen Generation” case, although it in fact demonstrated that SA government policy was against any racial removals of half-castes, rogue welfare workers notwithstanding.
In Victoria, the Aborigines Welfare Board from 1957 had no power to remove Aboriginal children, and six government-sponsored reports from 1996-2003 failed to find any evidence of policies for half-caste removals (contrary to Rudd’s later assertion). Nor could these six inquiries locate any individuals who fitted the bill as ‘stolen’.[ii]
Moving north, removals in NSW from 1912-68 totalled 2600, of whom two-thirds were simply teenagers boarded out for apprenticeships, as occurred with white children. The other third were largely orphans, neglected, destitute, in moral danger or abused.[iii]
In Queensland from 1908-71, only 249 Aboriginal children were officially removed from their parents and put in institutions, reserves, and missions. That is, about four per year, for all reasons.[iv]
In the WA case, Justice Pritchard found that welfare workers acted reasonably in separating the Collard children from their parents. The following examples give some of the picture:
# The five-month-old baby Ellen in March 1958 was in hospital from “malnutrition and lack of proper care” and had lost 1lb of her 6lb 3oz birth weight. Officials said they were unwilling to return her to a 4×4 metre tin humpy with dirt floor, with only two or three filthy beds for two adults and six children, and no power, running water or sanitation.
# One daughter recalled that in the humpy, the parents slept in the double bed with daughters Glenys, Eva and Beverley. Sons Donald, Darryl and Bill shared the single bed and Wesley slept in a pram by the double bed. When the double bed was too crowded, Beverley would sleep in the boys’ bed. A visiting welfare officer reported that when he visited the humpy, there was no food in it, although the Collards said they acquired food as needed. At Sister Kate’s, the children were treated for trachoma, vermin and ringworm.
# An official file note from 11 January 1968, included:
“On the 8-1-68 I saw Mrs Sylvia Rachael Collard in Narrogin. She told me that a few days before her husband had given her a severe thrashing, and had beaten her up so much that she had spent three days in the Pingelly Hospital. She stated that this sort of thing had now been going on for 20 years or so, and the time had now come when she was scared to go back to him…”
# Don had nine convictions between 1955 and 1973 for drunkenness, one for assault, one for drunken driving while under suspension, one for disorderly conduct (yelling, fighting and screaming with his wife), one for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, one for stealing and receiving, and one for driving under suspension. Sylvia had three convictions including one for drunkenness.
As an illustration of cognitive dissonance, while concerned people condemn the WA welfare fieldworkers and policies of half a century ago for insensitivity, today’s removal situation is seriously worse.
Despite Rudd’s 2008 demand that “the injustices of the past”, i.e. forced removals, ‘never never happen again’, about one in 19 Aboriginal children nationally are removed and in care. All-up, there were 12,385 Aboriginal children removed and in care in 2010–11. Moreover, nearly a third are in care with non-Aboriginal carers.[v]
In Victoria in 2011-12, nearly one in ten Aboriginal children were removed from their families, at least temporarily.[vi]
Tony Thomas is author of Stolen Generations: The Pocket Windschuttle. Macleay Press, Sydney, 2010. He blogs at [email protected]
[i] [i] http://www.findandconnect.gov.au/ref/wa/biogs/WE00472b.htm. Gare was extensively interviewed by the National Library oral history project. His quoted comments are at Session Two, from 36min
[ii] Windschuttle, K, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. Vol 111, The Stolen Generations 1881-2008. MacLeay Press, Sydney 2009. P560
[iii] ibid p103
[iv] ibid p 608