While children in the compounds [at Aboriginal settlements] often had some, albeit strictly supervised, contact with adults and family in the adjacent Aboriginal camps, those in the children’s homes were totally cut off from Aboriginal adults. Indeed children at the Bomaderry Infants Home ‘were cut off from the rest of the world — we barely saw anybody’.
— Anna Haebich, Broken Circles
One Annual Report of the 1920s predicted that the children, once institutionalized, would not be allowed to return to any Aboriginal station or reserve, ‘except perhaps those who have parents, on an occasional visit’. In practice, no home visits were allowed at all. Parents received no encouragement to come, and were positively discouraged if they attempted to stay more than a day. Even the Christmas holidays were generally spent in the homes. Letters in and out were censored.
— Peter Read, The Stolen Generations
The information in the above passages is false. Indeed, in New South Wales the Aborigines Protection Board not only allowed parents to visit their offspring in children’s homes, it paid for them to do so. Read’s statement ‘Parents received no encouragement to come’ is untrue. In May 1919, for instance, the board passed the following motion:
All cases where Aborigine children are removed from Aborigine reserves to the Homes under the control of the Board or to domestic service, the parents of such children shall have the right to visit the child at least once a year. Travelling and reasonable sustenance allowance to be paid by the Board. Application for such privileges to be made through the manager who must send same forthwith to the Board with all the necessary particulars.
When he made his claim in 1981, Read also had information from his own interviews with institutionalized children that contradicted it. Two years before he wrote The Stolen Generations, he recorded an interview with Aileen Wedge at Erambie about her time at Cootamundra in the 1940s. Wedge told him the visits she received were regular and frequent.
My father, he always used to come over on pension day, and me birthday. I didn’t really know me mother properly. It was always him.
Another equally false claim is that once the children entered the board’s homes they were never allowed to return to their families. Evidence provided by the children themselves contradicts this. Merryl-Leigh Brindley interviewed one girl who spent some time at both Bomaderry and Cootamundra:
I was about ten, I think — it was just before the war ended. I’d been in and out of Bomaderry Home and then, suddenly, off to Coota. Don’t know why — never told. Used to go back home every now and then but Mum and Dad drank a bit so they’d keep checking on us — the welfare — and in we’d go again.
The minutes of meetings of the Aborigines Protection Board indicate that the return of children from the institution to their parents was longstanding practice. In February 1927, for instance, the minutes record:
Return of F… child now at Cootamundra Home to the care of her mother at Brewarrina. Approved.
Brindley interviewed a woman who entered the Cootamundra home in the 1930s after her mother had gone to the Waterfall Sanatorium for tuberculosis sufferers. Initially, the girl remained in the Griffith–Leeton district with her grandmother. She was later sent back and forth between Cootamundra and her grandmother, depending on the state of the latter’s health:
Thing is, I’d been back twice I think, to my Gran when she got better but then she’d get worse and back they’d bring me.
The practices in the homes for Aboriginal children were, if anything, more considerate of family relations than welfare homes for white children. They were similar to those of boarding schools for white children where it was unusual for parents to visit more than once or twice a year. The main problem for Aboriginal parents who wanted to visit was accommodation. While the board paid for their train fares and food, it did not provide them with shelter. Another interview by Brindley with a former Cootamundra girl described the problem:
Did your family ever visit you? Once or twice, my mother came. Problem was there was nowhere for them to stay. I remember Mate [Matron] smuggled one of the mothers in once, let her sleep in the school, and an Inspector came unexpectedly and boy, was there a row. After that they had to stay in town. One girl’s mother slept in the cemetery when she came to visit — it was just down the hill a bit. Just as well it was summer.
As Chapter Two recorded, when girls were apprenticed to employers they often returned home for the holidays. One girl who entered service in June 1928 was taken home by one of the board’s female officers for a holiday with her parents in December 1929. Another girl spent three weeks holiday with her parents on Brungle Aboriginal Station before returning to her position as a domestic servant in Sydney. Margaret Tucker, the central figure of the apocryphal film Lousy Little Sixpence, retained personal contact with her parents and sisters throughout her apprenticeship in the late 1910s. She and her mother exchanged letters and both her parents visited the Sydney household to which she was first apprenticed and met her employer. In her second job in Sydney, her mother, sisters and aunt visited her several times. Tucker also went home for two weeks’ holiday at Moonahcullah Aboriginal Station, and then returned to her job. There is no truth in the story that government policy made such things forbidden.