Tony Thomas

Genuinely Stolen?

sorryHas another “Stolen Generation” case come to light? A first-hand account of removal of an Aboriginal baby girl for non-welfare reasons has surfaced in a booklet of mini-autobiographies produced last November (2013) for university alumni. The 60-page booklet comprises self-written accounts by more than 100 graduates from the 1963 year.

One 1963 graduate wrote, “For a time [I] was a Native Welfare Officer, a title not without irony, for the then Department of Native Affairs. One of [my] duties was to remove a newborn baby girl from her mother for no reason other than the colour of the child’s skin.”

This account therefore seems to fit the paradigm of the Stolen Generation, whereby half-caste children were taken from the Aboriginal community for eugenic rather than welfare reasons. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, in his historic apology of February 13, 2008, referred to up to 50,000 children taken in this way between 1910 and 1970.

I rang the graduate, whom I’ll call Helen, to get the details and this is her account. Readers can form their own judgement,  for example as to whether this example would count   in Andrew Bolt’s challenge to Robert Manne to “name ten” Aborigines stolen purely for racial reasons.

In such a catalogue No 1 would be Bruce Trevorrow, who was “stolen” in early 1958 contrary to SA Government policy by a well-meaning but irresponsible female Aboriginal Welfare Officer, who secretly fostered him out to a white couple, in the incorrect belief the baby’s health would suffer if returned to its parents. Trevorrow won $775,000 damages in 2007-08 in the SA Supreme Court.

Helen recounts:

“I was a Native Welfare Officer at Broome in 1965 when I was 24. I’d previously been a teacher and after 14 months at Broome, I went back to teaching.

I was the only female welfare officer at Broome, and there was a male officer in charge of me plus a secretary.

I was told to collect a light-skinned baby girl, at most  a few days old, from an Aboriginal mother at Derby Hospital, 220km north, and bring it back to be brought up by nuns at their mission in Broome. There was some urgency as I was to remove the baby before the mother was discharged from hospital.

I thought it was puzzling and careless that I should be given charge of this baby. Nobody checked, or they would have discovered that I knew nothing about babies or how to look after them, and I was ill-prepared.

My boyfriend of that time drove me up to Derby in his jeep. It had a roof but no windows and was pretty noisy. Luckily he was a mechanic so that reduced the risk of getting stranded on the rough gravel road. The round trip was probably during a weekend. I can’t remember exactly why we  couldn’t use a department vehicle.

 I used a suitcase as an open cot for the baby. I can’t even recall how I fed the baby, I must have had a bottle or something. The jeep conked with mechanical problems several times on the way back.

“I think the reason for the decision to remove the baby was that it was it was pale rather than black and was the offspring of an itinerant white workman and the Aboriginal mother. The mother was married in a settled relationship with an Aboriginal man, and he would obviously know he was not the father. It was not her first child.

They were one of the families on a local station and I was not aware of any welfare-type issue with them. I didn’t think the baby would come to any harm.

I assume the mother signed a consent for removal of the baby, although being illiterate she would have  just made a ‘cross’. She was very shy and getting her consent I believe would have been a bullying process, because she was in a bed in this strange hospital environment and in no position to put her own case strongly.

There was  also a language barrier .  As I recall, a nun from Derby conducted the bedside interview  putting the view that the husband would not be pleased with this light-skinned baby.   The mother did not seem to see this as an issue. There was no certainty that she understood all that was said, or the significance of her consent.  However as this sort of thing had happened before, it is probable that she knew all too well from  the experience of other mothers what was happening but felt powerless to object. She said very little and looked very sad.

 I believe that the Native Welfare Department could  just take a baby on its own initiative, I don’t recall a Magistrate being involved. It seemed to be an agreement between the Catholic organisation and the department. That baby would otherwise have just gone home with its mother. The decision to take the baby was not made with the baby’s welfare in mind, it was implemented by people who had a preconceived view. Obviously the best people to raise a child are its parents, except in exceptional circumstances.

As far as I could tell it was just that the Catholic Church was collecting any light-skinned baby they could. The Catholic Church was quite firm in its policy, they had a clear picture of what they were doing. I think eventually the child would have gone from the nuns at Broome to the Beagle Bay mission where there were quite a number of small Aboriginal children brought up and educated.

I had no further contact with this baby. The Native Welfare Department doubtless kept track of all these children.

I think at my time it (child removal) was the procedure. My case was not the first case, but it was the first and only case on my watch in my 14 months there. I can’t recall any other such cases.

There was one other removal case but it  was completely different and justifiable. An Aboriginal mother had leprosy and her girl was put out to be fostered by another Aboriginal family at Lombadina Mission near Beagle Bay. When the mother was cured of leprosy after a few years she wanted the girl  back with her in Darwin but the foster family didn’t want to part with her. The girl was then about six and didn’t want to leave her foster family. It was a heart-breaking case for everyone. Eventually we arranged for the foster mother to accompany us with the girl back to Broome which dissipated the tension of the encounter.”

Asked if she felt at the time any conscience about the Stolen Generation, Helen says that at the time there was no concept of ‘stealing’ children:

“We were just doing what we did, without fuss. If there was a child removal, it was a case by case situation, although there was a bit of unease about helping the Catholic Church in this way. The ‘Stolen Generation’ theme was introduced retrospectively.

 I didn’t realise how shocking the incident was at the time. I am disturbed by it now in retrospect.”

Footnote: Frank Gare, WA Native Welfare Commissioner 1962-79, says child removal policies were stopped by his predecessor, Stanley Middleton, as soon as Middleton took office in 1948. From the time Gare joined the department in 1949 he saw or heard of no such cases of removal for racist reasons. He was asked whether in fact removals by field officers continued as before into the 1960s but by using the Child Welfare Act as a pretext. This had been alleged to the Wilson inquiry by the WA Aboriginal Legal Service. Gare emphatically rejected the allegation, and said the Child Welfare Act was used only if the life or physical welfare of a child was in jeopardy. Neither Middleton nor himself and other field officers would have condoned such a practice, he said.[i]

Tony Thomas is co-author, with Dr C.G. von Brandenstein, of “Taruru – Aboriginal Song Poetry from the Pilbara” (Rigby 1974) and “Stolen Generations – The Pocket Windschuttle” (Macleay Press, Sydney 2010)


[i] Gare was extensively interviewed by the National Library oral history project. His quoted comments are at Session Two, from 36min


    There is one fact which needs to be restated time and time again. We are currently removing more children of Aboriginal decent, and taking them into care than at any time during the “stolen generation”. Why, because if we didn’t, the relevant government agencies would have their socks sued off in twenty years time. During my time in Derby we had a visit of a woman of Aboriginal decent who had been sent by her white father to Sydney at the age of fourteen. She had come back to try an reconcile, after a life in Sydney which saw her educated, married and employed by a number of organisations as a highly skilled secretary. Her father, a hopeless alcoholic ex-stockman was in a nursing home. He wanted nothing to do with her. A few months later an article appeared in a Sydney church newspaper trumpeting her cause as a member of the stolen generations. What we remember of our childhood may not actually be what happened. Oral history without verification is actually worthless.


    it seems naïve to think that the Aboriginal husband would be happy as Larry raising the child of his adulterous wife- I have read that these children were commonly abandoned to die.

  • Ian MacKenzie

    The key to this case is the reason the child was taken into care, but on the basis of the testimony provided, it is impossible to reach a definitive conclusion even on a balance of probabilities basis, let alone beyond reasonable doubt. I don’t doubt Helen’s sincerity or her descriptions of actual events (the trip and interview at Derby). However it is clear that she was either never told the reason for taking the child into care or has forgotten this since. This is compensated for in her testimony by personal opinions and conclusions, to which she is entitled, but which may or may not be correct:
    “I think the reason for the decision to remove the baby…”
    “I didn’t think the baby would come to any harm.”
    “I assume the mother signed a consent”
    “As far as I could tell…”

    It is perhaps not surprising that a junior member of staff in the early 1960s might be given instructions without being told the reasons for those instructions. It probably wouldn’t happen now but then, in my experience, it was commonplace. It may be possible to obtain a definitive answer in this case from the records of the time, but not from Helen’s testimony. It is quite clear that her statement that “One of [my] duties was to remove a newborn baby girl from her mother for no reason other than the colour of the child’s skin” is opinion, not established fact.

  • Philip OBrien

    If the baby was stolen, and we cannot tell from this article, then it was likely stolen not because it was Aboriginal, but because it was too white. Helen as good as says so in the 7th para – and gives a solid reason. So maybe not part of the “stolen generations” anyway.

  • Jack Richards

    This sounds to me like a case of “false memory syndrome”. The business about the mechanic boyfriend and the break-downs etc all try to prove too much. I reckon the whole story is bullshit. Apart from that, the paper-work should be available if such a thing ever actually happened.

  • Kaelene

    The half caste, light skinned child wasn’t in any danger? Really?

  • old44

    Is anyone from this generation aware that until the 70’s children of all races not just aboriginals were routinely removed from their mothers for welfare reasons including illegitimacy. The technique was simple, a welfare officer and a minister or priest would visit the mother immediately after birth and harangue her until she signed an adoption release, either that or the expectant mother would “visit her aunt in Queensland” before the pregnantcy became obvious.

  • Alighieri

    I suppose if there were 50,000 fair skinned Aboriginal children removed, we whites could not have been as racist as is claimed.

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