The Stolen Children: Their Stories (1998) edited by Carmel Bird, is a deeply affecting collection of testimonies and personal stories by Indigenous Australians gathered from the Bringing them Home report (1997) that examined the racist assimilation policies 1922 – 1970s whereby mixed-race Indigenous children, some just tiny babies and toddlers were forcefully separated from their families with the intention of absorbing them into mainstream white culture.
The vast majority were sent to far-flung parts of Australia, siblings separated by inhumane policies known as ‘split the litter.’ Frequently they were exploited as domestic servants and manual labourers bullied, humiliated, under-nourished, abused, often denied the promised education while stripped of their own language and cultural knowledge. This is a deeply sorrowful story of the mental anguish of a people, of broken despairing mothers and fathers who lost their children forever and of the emptiness felt by the children who were told their parents were dead or had rejected them. And we learn, the trans-generational grief continues today when families are re-united but not always re-integrated as a result of the loss of tribal knowledge, family history and language.
The Appendix continues the story with compassionate and shocked responses from writers, journalists, religious leaders, thinkers and politicians, juxtaposed with John Howard’s appalling non-apology. An unembellished submission by a white policeman’s son stands out. He remembers his father returning from his job, accompanying welfare officers to bodily remove children from their homes and sitting on a stool outside the kitchen ‘crying and sobbing like a child.’
This is an important, unforgettable book for spreading awareness of the terrible human cost of misguided racist policies and attitudes and for giving voice to those who suffered irreparably. It will make you weep at the perpetration of abuses and gasp at the courage and quiet magnanimity of those who survived.
This was first published for New Zealand Book Month 2011,
Deborah thanks Rangimarie Kelly and Pikau Digtal for website design and artist Karen Jarvis for her image ‘Writers at the Devonport Library,’ (2023)