"The Stolen Generation"


Coral Dow, Analysis and Policy
Social Policy Section

In the early 1990s a campaign by key Indigenous agencies - including the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, the NSW organisation Link-Up, and a large 'Going Home Conference' in Darwin in 1994 - presented their concerns that public ignorance of the history of forcible removal of Aboriginal children was hindering the recognition of the needs of its victims, their families and the provision of services.

In May 1995 the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families was established by the former Attorney-General, the Hon. Michael Lavarch, who announced the terms of reference.  The Inquiry was asked to:

  • examine the past and continuing effects of separation of individuals, families and communities
  • identify what should be done in response, which could entail recommendations to change laws, policies and practices, to re-unite families and otherwise deal with losses caused by separation
  • find justification for, and nature of, any compensation for those affected by separation and
  • look at current laws, policies and practices affecting the placement and care of Indigenous children.

Hearings were held in every capital city and many regional centres between December 1995 and October 1996. The Inquiry received 777 submissions, including 535 from Indigenous individuals and organisations, 49 from church organisations and seven from government.

The Bringing Them Home report

The 689-page Report, Bringing Them Home, was released on 27 May 1997 at the Australian Reconciliation Convention in Melbourne. The full Bringing Them Home report is accompanied by an abbreviated community guide to the findings of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families.

In a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) press release the key findings of the Inquiry were presented:

  • Nationally, between one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities between 1910 and 1970
  • Indigenous children were placed in institutions, church missions, adopted or fostered, and were at risk of physical and sexual abuse. Many never received wages for their labour
  • Welfare officials failed in their duty to protect Indigenous wards from abuse.
  • Under international law, from approximately 1946 the policies of forcible removal amount to genocide; and from 1950 the continuation of distinct laws for Indigenous children was racially discriminatory
  • The removal of Indigenous children continues today. Indigenous children are six times more likely to be removed for child welfare reasons and 21 times more likely to be removed for juvenile detention reasons than non-Indigenous children.

The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families made 54 recommendations

A key recommendation was that reparation be made to Indigenous people affected by policies of forced removal. Reparation should include monetary compensation and an acknowledgement of responsibility and apology from all Australian governments, police forces and church institutions which implemented policies of forcible removal; guarantees against repetition; restitution and rehabilitation.

Since the report all State and Territory Governments have apologised.   In the Prime Minister’s speech to the 1997 Reconciliation Convention he expressed his personal sorrow but stated ‘Australians of this generation should not be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies over which they had no control.’ The Commonwealth Parliament has not apologised, preferring instead to express its ‘deep and sincere regret’ for past injustices in a Motion of Reconciliation on 26 August 1999.

Many non-government organisations and churches have apologised and individuals have signed the more than 400 ‘Sorry Books’ that have circulated since the inaugural Sorry Day on 26 May 1998, the anniversary of the Bringing Them Home report.

The Commonwealth Government’s Response

On 16 December 1997 the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Senator the Hon. John Herron, announced the Government’s formal response to the Bringing Them Home report. The response included a $63 million package over four years in practical assistance for those affected by the former practice of separating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. Part of this package went to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) who in February 1998 set up the Bringing Them Home Taskforce. Funds have been provided for the purpose of funding a single, dedicated Link-Up service in each State and the Northern Territory.

In November 1999 the Senate asked the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee to inquire into the implementation of recommendations made in the Bringing Them Home report, including the adequacy and effectiveness of the Government’s response. The Federal Government’s submission to the inquiry was presented by Senator Herron and included the propositions that ‘there never was a generation of stolen children’ and ‘the proportion of separated Aboriginal children was no more than 10 per cent’. Widespread public debate on the issue of how many children were removed followed publication of the submission. Senator Herron discussed the issue on an ABC Background Briefing program whilst in How many separated Aboriginal children?, historian Peter Read examined the problems of estimating the numbers of children removed.

The Senate Committee tabled its report Healing: A Legacy of Generations in November 2000 and made ten recommendations. The key ones concentrated on the issue of reporting and monitoring of responses to the Bringing Them Home report and the establishment of a reparations tribunal. 

In June 2001 the Government tabled its response to the Committee’s recommendations: 

The Majority Report of the non-government members of the Committee contains ten recommendations, of which nine are relevant to the Commonwealth. The government supports, either in full or in part, five of these nine recommendations. We agree with the Committee's first majority recommendation that it is timely to evaluate the original response to Bringing Them Home by all relevant parties. We agree that it is vital that programmes and services be monitored and coordinated to ensure that the needs of those still suffering the effects of family separations are being met, and we can point to relevant policies already agreed or in place. We agree that it is important that the events of the past and their legacy be acknowledged. In addition, therefore, we are pleased to advise that in the 2001–02 Budget the government allocated funding beyond 30 June 2002 for key family reunion and health services at a further cost of $53.9 million over four years to 30 June 2006.

Recommendations 7–9, regarding the establishment of a reparations tribunal, were not supported.


The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families recommended that reparations be made to those who had been forcibly removed from their families. This was also recommended by the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee.  The federal government did not support this proposal, stating in its response to the Committee’s report: 

The government considers that establishing a tribunal with the comprehensive jurisdiction and extensive powers suggested would neither guarantee a less stressful consideration of matters nor less expense for either party than court proceedings. The same complex and costly legal and factual issues would need to be addressed in order to assess individual claims and such decisions would still be open to further judicial review. The experience of other administrative tribunals, including in the field of immigration and refugees, illustrates that it is not possible to insulate such deliberations from legal challenges and procedures. The Dissenting Report of the Government Senators on the Committee also highlights the fundamental practical problems associated with the operation of a compensation tribunal in this context. This includes the basic question of defining what circumstances and which affected individuals would or would not qualify for compensation.

Additionally, State governments are responsible for the laws which were in place in their jurisdictions during the period that Indigenous child removals took place. No state government has offered to pay monetary compensation or establish such a tribunal. It is a matter for the non-government organisations involved in the removal and care of children to respond to compensation claims addressed to their actions.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), which submitted a detailed proposal for a reparations tribunal to the Committee, has continued, through its report Restoring Identity 2002, to advocate such a tribunal as the preferred means for compensation.

Some individuals have sought compensation through the courts. Most have been unsuccessful in obtaining monetary compensation.  Documented cases can be found in a Chronology of the Stolen Generations Litigation 1993-2003.

The only government to offer compensation is the Tasmanian Labor government which made an election commitment in 2006 to compensate Aboriginal Tasmanians who were removed from their families.  The Stolen Generations of Aboriginal Children Act 2006 was passed by all members of both Houses of Parliament in November 2006. The legislation creates a $5 million fund to provide payments to eligible members of the Stolen Generations of Aborigines and their children. An Office of the Stolen Generations Assessor has been established and claims for compensation will be determined by January 2008. 

Monitoring responses to Bringing Them Home

In a response to the Senate Inquiry recommendation that the Bringing Them Home  recommendations be monitored and evaluated, the Ministerial Council for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (MCATSIA) agreed to sponsor an independent evaluation of government and non-government responses to Bringing Them Home.   The final report, Evaluation of Responses to Bringing Them Home, was published in December 2003. 

The Parliamentary Library’s Research Paper From Dispossession to Reconciliation (1999) includes an analysis of public policy as it has related over the last century to the issue of the removal of Indigenous children.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission through its web site answers frequently asked questions about the ‘stolen children’ and the Inquiry and includes a selection of media releases and public opinion

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) Stolen Generations Bibliography

The National Library of Australia’s Bringing Them Home Oral History Project and Many Voices publication.


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