Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission

The Stolen Children
Julie's Story


In November 1958 a baby girl was born to an Aboriginal mother in New South Wales. The mother knew her child for only three weeks. Then she was taken. At the moment of her taking, the baby - later to be known as Julie - became a statistic. A ‘second-generation removed’. We can only imagine the grief of her mother. Twenty or so years before, she too, was a stolen child. 

Julie was placed in a Barnardo’s home and, at the age of six months, was ‘deemed suitable for adoption’. 

She was placed with a loving family on Sydney’s North Shore. Julie grew up with everything. An excellent education. Piano lessons. Swimming lessons from Olympic coaches Forbes and Ursula Carlisle. But at the beach, while the other girls ran around in the sun, Julie was made to sit under an umbrella because she was getting too dark too quickly. With her friends, she would fantasise about her origins. Perhaps she was the child of an Italian grocer? Spanish buccaneers? Tahitian perhaps? In her class, in her street, in her world experience, there was no-one who looked like her. She was different, and did not know why. But she never imagined herself as a ‘coon’ - a word she herself remembers thinking and using. As she explains, even those children taken away are educated and shaped to belittle and disparage even their own, unknown heritage. 

Yet despite the love, the education and the tremendous eloquence that is the legacy of the education, Julie never knew who she was. 

Many of us winced as we grew up when well meaning relatives would exclaim: "Oh darling, you look so much like your mother!" Julie has never heard those words. 

Never did she feel her own mother’s arms around her. And never did Julie’s mother hear that her daughter was growing up to be an accomplished student, nor that she was growing increasingly distressed at the realisation that she didn’t know who she was. 

Julie had everything. And she had nothing. She had the love of an adoptive family. But she had no identity. 

Julie is now a mother with two children of her own. In the early 1990s when the adoption laws were changed Julie decided to trace her mother. Until that time she had no idea she was even Aboriginal. If coming to terms with her own heritage was not hard enough, within six months she had news ... the death certificate of her mother had been traced. Her mother had passed away three years before Julie started her search. 

A short time ago Julie heard that there was a man in western New South Wales who was claiming to be the son of her mother. Her brother. She has not yet met this person. 

As she tells her story, Julie weeps for her past pain. For her mother’s desolation. For her present pain. And for the need to be reassured absolutely and for all time, that her own two children will never been taken. She weeps for the brother she may have but is yet to meet. For the future. 

She stands accused by some of telling her story in order to get money. There will never be enough money to compensate Julie for the loss of her culture, her language, her family, her mother, her identity. And Julie is but one of thousands and thousands of children just like her. But compensation is not just money. Julie does not want money. She wants recognition. Acknowledgement for herself and all her people on whom pain was inflicted, on whom pain remains and on whom pain will continue in the future unless and until reparation is made. 

Each year our community remembers the soldiers of Gallipoli - those who died as a result of appalling military leadership. We remember those who fought in successive wars, and those who died. 

Today we commemorate the loss of lives at Port Arthur at the hands of a sad individual and a misconceived policy on guns, and we share the pain of those whose family members were taken from them. 

Remembering - in a symbolic way is a sharing of pain, a joint acknowledgement of past wrongs and a sign of hope for a different and renewed future. 

This is the meaning of compensation. Compensation is also finding a few dollars for a headstone on a child’s grave. Or for an elderly man, before he dies, to travel back to the country from where he was taken. Or to provide groups with the funds to help with problems of mental health, abuse and other legacies of dislocation. 

Almost every Indigenous family in this country has been affected by the past policies and practices examined in this Report. The numbers are staggering. Since removal policies began, around 100,000 children were removed from their families. The organisation was immense. No expense was spared. Planes, buses and trains took children from one side of the country to another. Mothers never learned where their children had gone. Staggeringly, the adoption rates for Aboriginal children during these times was about 1:6. 

People today claim they didn’t know anything like this went on. Yet voices raised against the policies went unheard. Parliamentarians denounced schemes to place Aboriginal children in domestic and other work as slavery. 

Those telling their stories today are the same people who sit with you in the school P&C; they are not only the older men and women, representative of a different era, but the young mothers and fathers of today trying to raise their own families. 

Mick Dodson was a Hearing Commissioner for the Inquiry along with Commission President Sir Ron Wilson. Although Mick lost his parents when he was young, and was raised by an aunty and uncle, his family too was deeply affected by the policies of assimilation and removal. His mother was a removed child. His two older sisters were taken from her. 

In the hundreds of hours during which more than 500 witnesses told their stories to the Inquiry; in poring over hundreds of pages of documents outlining the laws and practices implemented against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families; in reading the submissions provided to the Inquiry by churches, governments and other organisations, Mick and his colleagues have pieced together a history that needs to be told, a past that must be acknowledged; a legacy that means today many Indigenous families are unable to cope with family life because family life was never the common experience; that today, individuals like Julie are learning that they are Aboriginal, that they are members of a culture and people whose history stretches back into time as one of the oldest living cultures on earth; a legacy that means the future is uneasy unless people are reassured that the taking of children will never happen again. 

We urge you to read the Report with the lives of people like Julie in mind. We remind you that the dispossession of children from their families forever dispossess children from their culture, language, history, spiritual identity and land. We urge you to remember that while the policies and practices of the past can never be undone, the pain of the present and the uncertainty of the future can be addressed today. 

Copyright © 1997 HREOC