The Stolen Generations

The Stolen Generations



Stolen Generations - the definition
Maps of places mentioned in text
Introduction – Overview
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
How many ‘forcible removals’ in Australia? PDF Print E-mail

We can never know the exact number of children of Aboriginal descent removed from their families in Western Australia.

— Anna Haebich, Broken Circles, 2000[1]

It is now virtually impossible to determine how many Aboriginal children were removed from their families during the assimilation era.

— South Australian Government, A Brief History of the Laws, Policies and Practices in South Australia which led to the Removal of Many Aboriginal Children, 1997 [2]

Rather than emulate the Human Rights Commission and pronounce ‘with confidence’ how many children were in the Stolen Genera­tions, most investigators have been more circumspect and have shied from a specific figure. The conspicuous exceptions have been Prime Minister Rudd, the SBS television series First Australians, and histo­rian Peter Read, who have each supported a total of 50,000 stolen children. None of them have backed their figure with any solid evi­dence that could be analysed for its accuracy, or even a methodology that could be debated for its relevance. The total is just a guess.

Table 13.1: Approximate numbers of Aboriginal children
taken into
care, Australia, 1880–1970




State or territory



Approximate period


Approximate number of Aboriginal children in care





New South Wales









South Australia



Western Australia



Northern Terri­tory

















Sources: Tables and estimates compiled from earlier chapters of this book.


On a topic of this kind, however, where the total number is a matter of great public interest, historians have a responsibility to pro­duce their best numerical case, make public the reasoning behind it, and thus put the onus on critics to show if and where they are wrong. Throughout this book, I have examined as many of the available records as possible and offered a tally of the likely numbers in each of the institutions that produced them. I have also given an idea of the scale of removals in each of the states and territories. It is true that none of the data are perfect and that continuous series of statistics are the exception rather than the rule. Estimates occur at many places along the way. Nonetheless, to have avoided the total number would have been an evasion.

I will now draw together the data earlier chapters have produced. Table 13.1 presents my estimates of the number of Aboriginal chil­dren taken into care by the various institutions of government, church and charitable organizations that assumed this responsibility from end of the nineteenth century to about 1970 — although in some cases the time series data only go to the Second World War. The numbers are not minimums but are the best estimates I could make from available data. They include estimates of children fostered or adopted into non-indigenous families. The children counted include those sepa­rated from their parents for good reasons and bad, and forcibly and voluntarily. Some went with their parents’ consent to hostels, mis­sions and homes to be educated and trained; others were taken from parents who neglected and abused them. Table 13.1 pre­sents both state and terri­tory estimates and the national total. The total of 8250 Aboriginal children taken into some form of extended care represented 5.2 per cent of the Aboriginal population at the 1976 census of 160,000.

Let me emphasize that the estimates in Table 13.1 are not a record of the numbers of the Stolen Generations. As I have demonstrated throughout this book, no state or territory in Australia ever wanted to steal Aboriginal children from their parents in order to eliminate the race or to put an end to Aboriginality. No Aboriginal children were removed as part of an agenda driven by racism or genocide. There were no Stolen Generations.

The totals presented here and the proportion of the population they represent are much lower figures than others have claimed. They confirm another theme of this book. Rather than being over-zealous in their removal of children, most states and territories did not do nearly enough, especially in the period from Federation to the Second World War. There were many more Aboriginal children who should have been removed on grounds of health and welfare, or who would have benefited from an education away from their immediate surroundings, than governments were willing to fund.

Our one genuine national shame is that this is still the case today, although the reason now lies not in government parsimony but in the demonstra­ble failure of the policy of self-determination that has pre­vailed over the past four decades. Aboriginal children are Australian citizens. They deserve nothing less than the same opportunities pro­vided for all other children in this country. Most of the people dis­cussed in this book who worked in Aboriginal child welfare in the twentieth century thought the same. We should not apologiz­e for their actions. For the most part, they did the right thing, both according to their own moral values and the best interests of the children and families they served.


[1] Haebich, Broken Circles, p 228

[2] South Australian Government (writer Andrew Hall), A Brief History of the Laws, Policies and Practices in South Australia Which Led to the Removal of Many Aboriginal Children, Family and Community Services, South Australia, Ade­laide, 1997, p 12