In the 1950s and 1960s, when Cape Barren Islander children came before a children’s court for being neglected, destitute, or in trouble with the law, the magistrate’s first option was not to use the opportunity to confine them to a white institution to eradicate their Aboriginality. Instead, magistrates and child welfare officers normally sought to place them in the foster care. As I demonstrate below from the Tasmanian government’s own figures, foster care was by far the dominant form of placement for part-Aboriginal children removed under the state’s child welfare laws. A small number of islander families customarily took in children in this situation. The person who took the biggest single number was Mary Frances Mallett, better known as Aunty Molly Mallet.
Born on Cape Barren Island in 1926, Mallett moved during the Second World War to Launceston where she spent most of her adult life. She later became involved in Aboriginal education and childcare but her most sustained role was in the foster care of islander children. While her own children were growing up, Mallett became a foster carer for indigenous children who were wards of the state. Child welfare officers placed her first two foster children with her after their mother drowned on Cape Barren Island and there was no one else to look after them. After that, she was involved in ‘fostering so many children that she lost count’. Some of the children she took in were neglected and destitute; others were young offenders placed with her as an alternative to the juvenile corrective institution, the Ashley Home for Boys. Mallett also worked informally with the town’s islander community, supporting those who moved from Cape Barren Island by arranging board and accommodation for them or for those of their children who came to Launceston to go to school.
It was no accident that Mallet became the principal foster career of Cape Barren Island children. There is good evidence that this was the policy of the government at the time. In 1966 welfare guidelines were consolidated in the Procedural Manual for social welfare officers in the then Department of Social Welfare. The Procedural Manual provided specific advice and protocols on matters ranging from departmental administration to children in care, case history recording, wards of the state, foster homes and adoption. The manual noted that ‘the Department is always reluctant to break the link between child and parent’, and that foster care was the preferred option for all children made wards. Quoting from it, the Tasmanian government submission to the Human Rights Commission inquiry said that no explicit direction was given about the cultural or ethnic background of the child. Nonetheless:
A successful foster home was considered to be one in which the child is accepted as a member of the family, and the Manual notes that placements with relatives as foster-parents were to be encouraged. It was also recognized that it would normally be to the advantage of the child to maintain contacts with parents wherever possible and even more so with siblings who may be placed elsewhere.
If, as the theory of the Stolen Generations said, the true policy goal was to remove children on the basis of race so they never returned home, someone forgot to tell Tasmanian social workers. Since all the Cape Barren Islanders were related to one another in some way, Molly Mallett fitted the field officers’ guidelines perfectly. Hence she was given a large number of children to care for. Yet today, the Tasmanian government insists these field officers were really acting to deny removed children access to their community and their culture. Something doesn’t make sense here.
By the time she died in 2005, Mallett’s efforts had been rewarded with an honorary doctorate from the University of Tasmania and the award of Member of the Order of Australia. She was named in the Tasmanian government’s submission to the Human Rights Commission’s inquiry as ‘the liaison person for the Cape Barren Islander community’ from the late 1950s to 1967, so it is clear the inquiry knew of both her existence and her significance. Strangely, though, when the Commission’s inquiry held its Tasmanian hearings, it declined to call her.
Although she remained the community’s most experienced member in the care of neglected and troubled children, the evidence of her life’s work would have posed some obvious problems for the Stolen Generations thesis in that state. The opening passage of Bringing Them Home begins with a description by an unidentified woman about the childhood removal of her and her seven siblings from Cape Barren Island in the 1960s. It is one of the report’s most harrowing scenes:
So the next thing I remember was that they took us from there and we went to the hospital and I kept asking — because the children were screaming and the little brothers and sisters were just babies of course, and I couldn’t move, they were all around me, around my neck and legs, yelling and screaming. I was all upset and didn’t know what to do and I didn’t know where we were going. I just thought: well, they’re the police, they must know what they’re doing. I suppose I’ve got to go with them, they’re taking me to see Mum. You now this is what I honestly thought …
The passage concludes with the following note:
Confidential submission 318, Tasmania: removal from Cape Barren Island, Tasmania, of 8 siblings in the 1960s. The children were fostered separately.
This account would have carried much less political impact if readers had known that when ‘the children were fostered separately’ a common practice of the authorities was to foster them with other Cape Barren Islander families. In its main discussion of Aboriginal child welfare in Tasmania, Bringing Them Home acknowledged that children in this period were placed in ‘foster families’ and ‘group homes’. But it omitted any mention of islander involvement in these placements. It wrote: ‘These children were sent to non-Indigenous institutions and later non-Indigenous foster families on the grounds that they were neglected.’ In other words, the Human Rights Commission misled its readers into thinking that all these families were non-Aboriginal. Hence, any trace of Molly Mallett’s life work had to be airbrushed away.