What was Australia's Stolen Generation?

By: Alia Hoyt
Aborigine Image Gallery Aboriginal women show this young child how to make a turtle design out of string. Members of the Stolen Generation weren't privy to aspects of Aboriginal customs and culture. See more pictures of Aborigines.
Belinda Wright/National Geographic/Getty Images

History is rife with examples of flagrant human rights violations, and even picturesque Australia is not immune to the occurrence of these injustices: Between 1910 and 1970, roughly 100,000 Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their homes [source: European Network for Indigenous Australian Rights]. Known to many as the Stolen Generation, these children, most under the age of five, were taken from their birth families because the Australian government decided that their race lacked a solid future.

The government believed that the children would fare better if raised by white families [source: The Independent]. This rationale was due to the hard truths that the Aborigines are at a much higher risk -- even today -- for alcoholism, infant mortality, criminal behavior and drug addiction than other Australians. In fact, the average Aborigine life expectancy today is 17 years shorter than the rest of the country's population [source: The Independent]. But it wasn't just a few overzealous rulers who forced this removal policy upon the nation; rather, numerous state and federal laws were drafted and passed with the express intention of "breeding out" the color of Australia's indigenous race and helping the young members fit into mainstream society [source: The Independent]. The hope was to phase out Aboriginal culture.


­A variety of deceptive means were used to whisk Aboriginal babies and children from their families. Some children were simply removed from their homes by government officials. Too young to remember their family histories, the children were told that they were orphans. One mother was given a consent form for what was supposedly a routine vaccination, when in fact she authorized her baby, Leonie Pope, to be sent to foster care. She was then told that Leonie had died; Leonie was alive and well and residing with a white family [source: The Independent]. Other children were taken for treatment to hospitals, never to be seen again by their families, who were also led to believe that their children had died. The majority of them were placed in more affluent foster homes with white families, or they were taken to orphanages or church missions.

How were these injustices finally brought to light?


Making Reparations for the Stolen Generation

Members of the public and of Australia's Stolen Generation applaud after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered a formal apology to the Aboriginal people.
Mark Baker/AFP/Getty Images

The organizations and foster families who took in Aboriginal children believed that they were being benevolent. Defenders of Australia's actions claim that some children were saved from terrible and impoverished home lives [source: Times Online]. Others, however, point to the grieving birth families and numerous abuses inflicted upon the adopted children (sexual and mental abuse, identity crises and other persisting psychological problems) as clear evidence that the government failed these children miserably [source: Culture Wars].

It wasn't until 1995 that a national investigation was launched, culminating in the release of the "Bringing Them Home" report by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in 1997. The report detailed more than 50 recommendations as to how the Australian government could help remedy the pain caused by the removal of Aboriginal children from their homes. The report delineated that the four most critical steps were restitution, rehabilitation of the wronged parties, compensation and a guarantee against future violations [source: Amnesty International].


Australian Prime Minister John Howard refused to make a formal apology, citing his fear that it would open the Australian government to lawsuits and demands for financial compensation. The issue went largely ignored until the election of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who made a formal apology to the Aboriginal people on Feb. 13, 2008. The nationally broadcast apology, while long overdue, has helped to begin the healing process [source: Amnesty International].

Financial compensation to wronged individuals has yet to be delivered. Although Tasmania has established a reparations fund, no other state has -- what's more, Rudd has rejected outright the establishment of a national fund [source: The Independent]. The Australian government has refused reparations on the grounds that the children were removed from their families with their best interests in mind [source: ENIAR].

To date, only one member of the Stolen Generation has been compensated for the trauma inflicted on him. Bruce Trevorrow, who was taken to the hospital on Christmas Day in 1957 for stomach pains when he was just 13 months old, was falsely listed by the hospital as having no parents and suffering from neglect and malnourishment. Bruce was sent to live with a white foster family and never seen again by his father, who died eight years later. He wasn't reunited with his mother until he was 10 years old, after suffering through a childhood filled with self-doubt and discrimination at school. In 1998, Trevorrow filed a lawsuit against the South Australian government, alleging that his alcoholism, depression and loss of cultural identity were caused by his deceitful upbringing.

While many other Aborigines can make the same case, what helped Trevorrow succeed in his lawsuit was the paper trail left by the Aboriginal Control Board and his mother, who attempted numerous times to find out how her son was faring in the hospital. In addition, his legal counsel was able to compare Trevorrow with his three biological siblings who weren't taken from their family. They've lived successful lives, compared to his existence fraught with addiction and identity issues. In 2007, nearly 50 years after being taken from his family, Trevorrow was awarded A$525,000 (equivalent to $447,000 U.S. dollars) in compensation for his suffering [source: BBC News].

Several organizations, including Reconciliation Australia and the Australian Human Rights Commission, are currently in place to advocate for the indigenous people of Australia. The purpose of these groups is to protect the rights of the Aborigines and other groups, ensure nothing like this widespread removal program happens again and fight for the ongoing reparations process.



Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links

  • "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice." Australian Human Rights Commission. (Oct. 15, 2008). http://www.hreoc.gov.au/Social_Justice/index.html
  • "The Agony of Australia's Stolen Generation." BBC News. Aug. 9, 2007 (Oct. 15, 2008). http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/6937222.stm
  • Appleton, Josie. "Australia's Stolen Generation and the Extinction of Aboriginality." Culture Wars. Nov. 6, 2002 (Oct. 15, 2008).http://www.culturewars.org.uk/2002-12/stolengeneration.htm
  • "Australia apologises for abuses of Indigenous." Amnesty International. Feb. 13, 2008 (Oct. 15, 2008). http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/good-news/ australia-apologises-abuses-indigenous-20080213
  • "Australia's Stolen Generation: To the Mothers and the Fathers, the Brothers and the Sisters, We Say Sorry." The Independent. Feb. 13, 2008 (Oct. 15, 2008).http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/australasia/australias-stolen-generation-to-the-mothers-and-the-fathers-the-brothers-and-the-sisters-we-say-sorry-781543.html
  • Busari, Stephanie. "Australia's Stolen Generation Finds Its Voice." CNN.com. June 30, 2008 (Oct. 15, 2008).http://www.cnn.com/2008/SHOWBIZ/Movies/06/25/aborigine.cinema/index.html
  • L'arter, Paul. "Australia's Stolen Generation to Accept an Apology." Times Online. Feb. 11, 2008 (Oct. 15, 2008).http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article3346263.ece
  • McMahon, Barbara. "Snatched From Home for a Racist Ideal. Now a Nation Says Sorry." The Guardian. Feb. 11, 2008 (Oct. 15, 2008).http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/feb/11/australia
  • "No Stolen Generation: Australian Govt." ABC News transcript. March 4, 2000 (Oct. 15, 2008).http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/stories/s115691.htm
  • "Rabbit-Proof Fence." Internet Movie Database. Feb. 21, 2002 (Oct. 15, 2008).http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0252444/
  • Reconciliation Australia. (Oct. 15, 2008) http://www.reconciliationaustralia.org/i-cms.isp
  • "The Stolen Generations." European Network for Indigenous Australian Rights. (Oct. 15, 2008).http://www.eniar.org/stolengenerations.html