The Bringing Them Home Committee (WA), the major advocacy organization for the Stolen Generations in WA, has called for Commonwealth and State Governments to ensure that the plight of the Stolen Generations is not forgotten as the Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is analysed and policy responses developed.

“The significant level of sexual abuse suffered by Stolen Generations children over many generations was confirmed when the Bringing Them Home Report was tabled over 20 years ago yet little has been done to implement the many recommendations in that landmark Report!” (Refer extract below), according to Tony Hansen, the Co-Chair of the Bringing Them Home Committee (WA).

“The recent Royal Commission Report indicated that approximately 15% of people who gave evidence to that Inquiry were of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and it is likely that the majority of those people were forcibly removed from their families as part of Government policies that became known as the Stolen Generations. This is five times the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the broader population!”

“The Bringing Them Home Report contained 54 recommendations that can be broadly summarised under the headings of Truth, Justice and Healing, which is ironically the name given to the Catholic Church body established to oversee the Church’s response to the work of the Royal Commission.”

“The Bringing Them Home Report recommendations have largely been ignored by Governments. There is little acknowledgement of the Truth about the forcible removal of Aboriginal children form their families; there has been little in the way of Justice apart from some outrageously low compensations payments under the Redress scheme in WA; and the Healing is only just beginning through the Bringing Them Home Committee’s innovative Yokai: Healing Our Spirit initiative.”

“We will be looking to Commonwealth and State Governments and the various Churches who failed our children to commit to the proposed Redress Scheme and to the implementation of the recommendations in the Royal Commission Report but also to review the recommendations in the Bringing Them Home Report which acknowledge the specific plight of Aboriginal children”

“If we want our families to heal and end the cycle of intergenerational trauma, the solutions are to be found in the recommendations of the Royal Commission Report and the Bringing Them Home Report – it is time for action!” Tony Hansen concluded.

For further comment: Tony Hansen on 0417 610 412


EXTRACT: Bringing Them Home Report (pp 193-195)

Chapter 11 The Effects

The effects of abuse and denigration

In institutions and in foster care and adoptive families, the forcibly removed children’s Aboriginality was typically either hidden and denied or denigrated. Their labour was often exploited. They were exposed to substandard living conditions and a poor and truncated education. They were vulnerable to brutality and abuse. Many experienced repeated sexual abuse.

The social environment for all Indigenous Australians and the physical environment for many remain unacceptable. It is pervaded by racial intolerance and a failure to deliver adequate or appropriate basic services from housing and infrastructure to education and hospital care. Ill-health, poverty and unemployment are worse than third world levels. The 1991 NSW Aboriginal Mental Health Report (Swan and Fagan 1991) identified the factors increasing the vulnerability of the Aboriginal community to mental ill-health.

  • [I]nstitutional and public racism and discrimination
  • the continuing lack of opportunities in education and employment
  • poverty and its consequences including stress and environments of normative heavy drinking
  • inter-cultural differences in norms and expectations
  • problems associated with long family separations and the issues associated with family reunion
  • poor physical environments
  • high levels of chronic illness and high rates of premature death (Swan and Fagan 1991 page 12).

This makes it almost impossible to pinpoint family separations as the sole cause of some of the emotional issues by which Indigenous people are now troubled (Professor Ernest Hunter evidence 61, Michael Constable evidence 263). However, childhood removal is a very significant cause both in its distinctive horror and in its capacity to break down resilience and render its victims perpetually vulnerable. Evidence to the Inquiry establishes clearly that the childhood experience of forcible removal and institutionalisation or multiple fostering makes those people much more likely to suffer emotional distress than others in the Indigenous community.

The psychiatric report concerning one witness to the Inquiry illustrates the persistence of vulnerability.

She told me of her mother’s death very shortly after she was born, and how when her father came to collect her from the hospital a few days later, she had already been removed as per the Indigenous Family Separation Policy. She was brought up in Colebrook Children’s Home away from her father and siblings. She remembers him coming to visit her on occasions and being devastated when he had to leave. She also remembers being sexually abused by the wife of the Superintendent at Colebrook, on several occasions, giving rise to a distrust of so-called caregivers, especially females … While she was still at school, she worked as a housekeeper for a local Minister and alleges that during this time, he regularly and deliberately exposed himself to her. Not having anyone to turn to, this was a confusing and frightening experience. Following leaving school, she was placed in domestic service with a lay minister also associated with the Children’s Home. This man raped her but she did not feel able to tell anyone as she felt profoundly ashamed and frightened. She was fifteen years old at the time. After this she was placed at Resthaven Nursing Home, which she believes was a strategy to get rid of her.

Ms S developed problems with depression and alcohol abuse following the death of her father in 1971. Her difficulties were also compounded by her unhappy marital situation, which was characterised by her alcoholic husband’s physical and sexual assault of her on a regular basis. [Diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder 1979. Hospitalised for the first time 1985.]

Unfortunately, the effects of ongoing alcohol and substance abuse contributed to frequent short-lived depressive episodes with suicidal ideation. Her substance abuse was the result of the difficulty she experienced coming to terms with the diagnosis of manic-depressive disorder, her significant family problems and the effects of a childhood where she was dislocated from her family of origin, thus leaving her vulnerable to the events which followed (document provided with confidential evidence 248, South Australia).

Sexual Abuse

Many children experienced brutality and abuse in children’s homes and foster placements. In the WA Aboriginal Legal Service sample of 483 people who had been forcibly removed, almost two-thirds (62.1%) reported having been physically abused (submission 127 page 50). Children were more likely to have been physically abused on missions (62.8% of those placed on missions) than in foster care (33.8%) or government institutions (30.7%) (submission 127 page 53).

Witnesses to the Inquiry were not specifically asked whether they had experienced physical abuse. Nevertheless, 28% reported that they had suffered physical brutality much more severe, in the Inquiry’s estimation, than the typically severe punishments of the day.

Stories of sexual exploitation and abuse were common in evidence to the Inquiry. Nationally at least one in every six (17.5%) witnesses to the Inquiry reported such victimisation. A similar proportion (13.3%) reported sexual abuse to the WA Aboriginal Legal Service: 14.5% of those fostered and 10.9% of those placed on missions (submission 127 pages 51-53).

These vulnerable children had no-one to turn to for protection or comfort. They were rarely believed if they disclosed the abuse.

There are many well recognised psychological impacts of childhood sexual abuse (Finkelhor and Brown 1986). They include confusion about sexual identity and sexual norms, confusion of sex with love and aversion to sex or intimacy. When the child is blamed or is not believed, others can be added including guilt, shame, lowered self-esteem and a sense of being different from others. Wolfe (1990) concluded that the impacts amount to a variant of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. They reported effects including sleep disturbance, irritability and concentration difficulties (associated with hyper arousal), fears, anxiety, depression and guilt (page 216). Repeated victimisation compounds these effects.

People subjected to prolonged, repeated trauma develop an insidious progressive form of post-traumatic stress disorder that invades and erodes the personality. While the victim of a single acute trauma may feel after the event that she is `not herself,’ the victim of chronic trauma may feel herself to be changed irrevocably, or she may lose the sense that she has any self at all (Hermann 1992 page 86).

Post-trauma effects can be mitigated for children with a strong self-concept and strong social supports. Few of the witnesses to the Inquiry who reported sexual abuse in childhood were so fortunate. The common psychological impacts have often manifested in isolation, drug or alcohol abuse, criminal involvement, self-mutilation and/or suicide.

There is no doubt that children who have been traumatised become a lot more anxious and fearful of the world and one of the impacts is that they don’t explore the world as much. Secondly, a certain amount of abuse over time certainly causes a phenomenon of what we call emotional numbing where, because of the lack of trust in the outside world, children learn to blunt their emotions and in that way restrict their spontaneity and responsiveness. That can become an ingrained pattern that becomes lifelong really and certainly when they then become parents it becomes far more difficult for them to be spontaneous and open and trusting and loving in terms of their own emotional availability and responsiveness to their children (Dr Nick Kowalenko evidence 740).

Oliver (1993, reported by Raphael et al 1996 on page 13) `found that approximately one-third of child victims of abuse grow up to have significant difficulties parenting, or become abusive of their own children. One-third do not have these outcomes but the other third remain vulnerable, and, in the face of social stress there was an increased likelihood of them becoming abusive’.

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