A lot of the women from here, if you’d talk to them they’d probably say that they were all fed and that they got an education and all that. What they don’t say is that they missed out totally, emotionally on family. What it’s like to belong somewhere. I mean, anyone can feed or educate someone, but it’s not everyone who can give the love that you need.
— Coral Edwards, discussing the Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls’ Home
In Anne Deveson’s 1984 seven-part ABC television series, Faces of Change, she devoted an episode to the Stolen Generations. It comprised interviews with a small number of ex-inmates of the Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls’ Home. When she was a baby, Coral Edwards was found by a court to be a neglected child and was sent to Cootamundra with her two sisters, aged ten and four years old. Edwards became the home’s longest inhabitant. She spent her entire childhood there, from infancy to adolescence. She never forgave those officials who devised the policy that led to her removal. In 1980 she and the historian Peter Read founded the social welfare agency Link-Up, which became the progenitor of the campaign that made the Stolen Generations a public issue. In her interview, Edwards told Deveson that whatever her family circumstances had been when she was a baby, nothing justified her removal.
Anne: Do you think you gained anything from coming here?
Anne: And yet Mate [Matron] said that when you came here you were almost dying from malnutrition.
Coral: Well, if I was, I should have had the right to die. I should have been allowed to stay with my family and live through whatever I was going to live through. Not for other people to take us and try to save us by their own values …
Anne: But you mightn’t have lived?
Coral: Then that was my right to die.
Anne: Or you might have become an alcoholic?
Coral: Might have. Then again, I might not have. We were taught that Aboriginals were drunks. But that’s a white person’s values on life, how they saw us.
This is a dilemma faced by many officials responsible for child welfare. They are sometimes confronted with a choice between two evils and know that whatever decision they make will have tragic consequences. If they knowingly leave a child with a culpably irresponsible or violent parent, and the child suffers gross abuse or dies, then they are partly responsible. If they remove the child, they deprive it of the possibility of parental love and family association. Although she recognized this dilemma, Edwards still insisted those whites who opted for removal were wrong.
I think my feelings now about the Home is mainly anger. It was genocide! Split up families — what right did they have?
Edwards’s resentment and her interpretation of the policy as genocide eventually turned this issue into a major national scandal. Despite the now widespread acceptance of her views, however, there remain two problems with them. The most obvious one is that the removal of white children confronted authorities with exactly the same dilemma. Faced with any child, white or black, that was so neglected it suffered malnutrition, welfare officers would have to weigh up the known emotional costs against saving the child’s life. They would invariably take the latter option. Edwards is understandably bitter at the hand life dealt her but wrong to assume that things were any different for neglected Aboriginal children than for those who were white.
The second problem for Edwards’s case is that there were very few Aboriginal girls institutionalized for as long as she was, and some of those who spent shorter periods at Cootamundra, and hence less time away from their family, did not find their position tragic at all. In fact, some thought Cootamundra improved their prospects in life. In the same television program, Deveson interviewed an unidentified Aboriginal woman who had only positive things to say about the girls’ home.
My mum and dad split up back in 1957. My mum was workin’ at the cannery in Leeton, to keep us going. She had nine of us. But then after two years she found that she couldn’t manage going to work at the cannery and supporting nine kids. So, there was nothing else for Mum. She put us into the girls’ home at Cootamundra. I thought it was pretty good. There were ups and downs there, like any other home. I think if I’d have been on a mission or something, probably wouldn’t have been educated. I got a job, got me certificate. Went to work at the telephone exchange at Cootamundra, transferred down to Sydney, and done a few other clerical jobs since. So, I’ve got no regrets about being in there.
Two other interviews that provide a balance to Edwards’s jaundiced views were made by Merryl-Leigh Brindley. Cootamundra obviously could provide no substitute for parental love but it nonetheless did a reasonable job of caring for its charges. And contrary to Edwards’s claims, both interviewees were fully aware of, and able to discuss, the family relationships they had missed out on. A woman who had been at Cootamundra in the 1950s said:
The whole problem with the place was that it was an institution — cross between an army camp and a boarding school — but at least you could go home to your family in between. I was reasonably happy there. We were looked after, fed and clothed and I think it gave me a chance in life. But to call it a ‘Home’ is wrong — not the sort of home I hope my kids will remember. It was an institution, but for me it was the only home I can remember and perhaps it wasn’t so bad at that.
Another woman who was there in the 1940s was asked by Brindley:
Were you happy at the Home? I suppose I was, looking back. We were certainly looked after, well fed and that. But it was an institution, after all — not the same as your own home. I can understand why they took me — mum and dad were terrible when they were on the grog — in fact we were dead scared — used to bash us up. Drink’s the curse of our race — just can’t seem to handle it. So I suppose I was better off — lived to tell the tale as they say.