Although the number of Aboriginal children removed was always the critical issue in this whole debate, in its 689-page volume Bringing Them Home devoted to the question just a little more than one page. The discussion began with a disclaimer:
It is not possible to state with any precision how many children were forcibly removed, even if that enquiry is confined to those removed officially. Many records have not survived. Others failed to record the children’s Aboriginality.
But only seven paragraphs later, its conclusions were crammed with certainty:
forcible removal affected every region of Australia … Nationally we can conclude with confidence that between one in three and one in ten indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities in the period from approximately 1910 until 1970. In certain regions and in certain periods the figure was undoubtedly much greater than one in ten … Most families have been affected, in one or more generations, by the forcible removal of one or more children.
Bringing Them Home made it clear it was not talking about all types of separation. It did not mean any kind of removal. Its discussion was always focused on ‘forcible removals’. At the very least, ‘forcible removals’ were cases where parents, relatives or the children themselves objected to the separation. The meaning of the term excludes all those cases where parents consented to a separation, such as when children were sent away to go to school or hospital, or when parents felt so unable to cope they asked a person or an institution to take care of their children.
As evidence of its conclusion, the Human Rights Commission provided brief accounts of just seven research projects. So brief were they, in fact, that readers gained little idea of the methods used or the reliability of the results. Readers were required to take the report’s deductions from them on trust. Unfortunately, it is not difficult to show that little of what Bringing Them Home said warranted any trust at all. In particular, its claim that up to one in three Aboriginal children were forcibly removed is bereft of any reliable research support, and some of its assertions about research findings are blatant distortions of the original studies.
The extracts that follow, indented in smaller type, are the full text of what the Human Rights Commission wrote on each research project it discussed. My comments on those extracts are in normal sized type. The projects are presented in the same order as in Bringing Them Home.
Peter Read, New South Wales, 1981
Historian Peter Read used official records to number indigenous children removed in New South Wales between 1883 and 1969 at 5625, warning as he did so that some of the record series were incomplete.
Read used some official records but Bringing Them Home was quite misleading to pretend that his whole count of 5625 removals was based on them. In fact, much less than half his tally for New South Wales came from official records. As Chapter Two demonstrated, only 2425 of the removals he counted came from official records. Read described the rest of his tallies as ‘approximate figures due to lack of records’. Moreover, as Chapter Two argued, none of these estimates were credible. They were replete with exaggeration, double counting, historical error, creative definitions and fanciful guesses. My count, based on a reading of the same records as Read, totalled 2600 Aboriginal children in New South Wales removed between 1912 and 1968 from families for any length of time and for any reason. That is, the records did not distinguish between the forcible and the voluntary, which means that even 2600 is an overestimate.
It is still worth observing that, even if Read’s figure of 5625 were to be accepted, it was a long way short of the 50,000 national total of child removals he has claimed. Given that both Victoria and Tasmania in the twentieth century had very small populations of Aboriginal people, then, to reach Read’s total, Western Australia, Queensland, Northern Territory and South Australia would each needed to have made twice as many removals as New South Wales. Given that New South Wales made a far greater expenditure on Aborigines than any other state, Read’s numerical assumption is simply not credible.
Colebrook Home records, South Australia, 1927–1981
South Australian researchers Christobel Mattingly and Ken Hampton found records relating to over 350 children entering Colebrook Home in the 54 years to 1981.
If Bringing Them Home thought Colebrook’s 350 children in 54 years, an average intake of 6.5 children a year, worth mentioning as a major source of child removal, then it still had a long way to go reach the 50,000 removals for which the Prime Minister apologized. Moreover, the Colebrook records did not say that all these removals were forcible. We know that some were not, especially those of Lois O’Donoghue and her four siblings, who, as Chapter Six shows, were voluntarily surrendered by their father. That chapter recorded some other children at Colebrook were fee-paying residents, supported by their parents who from time to time came to visit them. None of the latter could be said to have been there forcibly.
Ernest Hunter, survey in Kimberley district, Western Australia, late 1980s
Professor Ernest Hunter surveyed a sample of 600 Aboriginal people in the Kimberley region of WA in the late 1980s. One-quarter of the elderly people and one in seven of the middle-aged people reported having been removed in childhood.
The results of Hunter’s Kimberley survey were given by him in verbal evidence. Bringing Them Home cited no research paper that discussed the survey’s methodology or any substantial details of its results. The two sentences above are all readers know about it. Hunter is a psychiatrist and, from the titles of his publications listed on the University of Queensland website, it is not obvious which of his published works, if any, record the results of his Kimberley survey. Bringing Them Home provided no indication of what ‘removed in childhood’ actually meant. Did it mean removed from all family members, both parents, one parent only, the local community? There was no indication of who did the removing, where the children went, or how long a period the term ‘removed’ signified. Nor was there any indication of whether the removals were voluntarily — to go to school or hospital — or forcible — to go to prison or to a child welfare institution. This was not a proper way for any commission of inquiry to present research findings. These unanswered questions were important, especially given Hunter’s own frank commitment to the political use of academic scholarship and his belief that the mental health of Aboriginal youth needed ‘psychiatric engagement at a political level’. Moreover, after its treatment of the survey by Max Kamien, discussed below, no one should have any faith in Bringing Them Home’s ability to report Hunter’s research accurately without seeing the author’s own published work on the subject.
Max Kamien, Bourke, New South Wales, 1970s
Dr Max Kamien surveyed 320 adults in Bourke in the 1970s. One in every three reported having been separated from their families in childhood for five or more years.
The above passage is the full text of what the Human Rights Commission said about this study. It was a serious misrepresentation of Kamien’s findings. One in three of those surveyed by Kamien did not say they had been ‘separated from their families’. Kamien’s original publication, The Dark People of Bourke (1978), recorded that while about one in three of those surveyed had been separated from one parent for more than five years, the proportion separated from both parents was only 5 per cent for males and 7 per cent for females. Moreover, very few of the separations Kamien observed were forcible. Most occurred simply because the father was away working. The most common reason why children left the family was to go to hospital. Here is how Kamien himself reported his findings in Bourke:
Separation from their families was a common occurrence in the early life history of Aboriginal children in this area. Between the age of 5 and 14 years 34 per cent of the 320 adult males and females interviewed had experienced the absence of one parent for more than five years. Absence of both parents for the same time period was recorded in 5 per cent of males and 7 per cent of females.
During the period that I was resident in Bourke the main causes of separation were due to the father pursuing itinerant work on grazing, fruit and cotton growing properties, and lesser periods spent in gaol, usually as a result of drunkenness. Ten boys and fifteen girls under school leaving age were also separated from their families by admission to either gaol or reformatories. The most common cause of separation, however, was hospitalization. A survey of admissions of children under the age of five years to the Bourke District Hospital showed that 72 per cent of children were admitted on at least one occasion in the twelve months under survey (1971–1972). Of these 16 per cent were admitted on more than four occasions.
Kamien found only nine people, three men and six women, whose removal was possibly forcible. He said they ‘had spent most of their youth in child welfare institutions after having been declared neglected because their parents were chronic alcoholics’. These nine people accounted for just 2.8 per cent of his sample. In other words, instead of one in three of the sample being stolen children, only one in 36 were child welfare cases and they were removed for good reasons.
Jane McKendrick, Victoria, late 1980s
Dr Jane McKendrick’s findings are almost identical. She surveyed Victorian Aboriginal general medical practice patients in the late 1980s, 30 per cent of whom reported having been removed: 20 per cent to children’s homes and another 10 per cent to foster and adoptive families.
In this case, Bringing Them Home accurately reported the proportion of removals but misreported the nature of the sample. The paper by Jane McKendrick and four others was published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry in 1992. It found that 34 per cent of the sample reported being separated from their families by welfare agencies, with 20 per cent going to children’s homes and 10 per cent being adopted or fostered by non-indigenous families. However, the sample did not come from ‘Aboriginal general medical practice patients’ in Victoria. It came from the patients of only one general practitioner employed by the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service in the inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. The size of the sample was just 112 people — 48 men and 64 women. This was a welfare-based medical practice for very poor Aboriginal people, whose clientele was over-represented in certain areas. Some 27 per cent of men in the sample were unemployed (and most of the rest employed by Aboriginal community organizations), and 33 per cent of women were on the supporting parents’ pension. No less than 54 per cent of the sample had a psychiatric disorder and another 16 per cent showed at least ten psychiatric symptoms — that is, 70 per cent of those interviewed had measurable psychiatric symptoms. In other words, the sample was biased towards welfare dependent and mentally disturbed people who, in their childhood, would have been very likely to have a higher than normal personal history of contact with child welfare agencies. It was not surprising that childhood removals were common in such a group, but this did not mean they were typical of all Aboriginal people. The survey was not reliable evidence of a general removal rate of one-in-three.
National Aboriginal Health Strategy report, 1989
A national survey of Indigenous health in 1989 found that almost one-half (47 per cent) of Aboriginal respondents of all ages had been separated from both parents in childhood. This very high proportion, which contrasted with a figure of only 7 per cent for non-Indigenous people, must be read with some caution. Separation here includes hospitalization and juvenile detention in addition to removal. It may also include living with family members other than parents for a period.
On its own admission, Bringing Them Home should not have used this survey to shore up its estimates. Children separated from their parents to be sent to hospital or to juvenile detention, or who are living with other family members, cannot reasonably be regarded by anyone as stolen. Moreover, the research quoted here may not even exist. The source of this ‘finding’ was not a national survey conducted by the National Aboriginal Health Strategy Working Party in 1989, as Bringing Them Home indicated. Instead, it was a survey conducted by another organization. The Working Party was simply reporting what that other organization said. In its discussion of domestic violence, the Working Party wrote: ‘In one survey (VAHS 1986) 65 per cent of respondents had been separated from a parent during childhood (for non-Aboriginal people the rate is 29 per cent) and 47 per cent had been separated from both parents (for non-Aboriginal people the rate is 7 per cent).’ In other words, the authors of Bringing Them Home did not see the survey they quoted but relied upon the Working Party as a reliable source. On its own, this was unprofessional practice but it also turned out this reference was suspect. In 2000, when Commonwealth public servants prepared a response to Bringing Them Home for the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Senator John Herron, it could not find the so-called ‘VAHS 1986’ survey. ‘Commonwealth officials have not been able to locate the original source of this statement,’ Senator Herron observed. ‘The reference is hardly an authoritative finding.’
Australian Bureau of Statistics survey, 1994
The 1994 Australian Bureau of Statistics survey of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders revealed 10 per cent of people aged 25 and above had been removed in childhood. Such surveys cannot capture the experiences of those people whose Aboriginality is now unknown even to themselves.
This was the only one of Bringing Them Home’s seven sources whose findings it did not distort. In this case, however, the misrepresentation was by omission.
The survey was methodologically sound in that it took a random sample of 5000 Aboriginal households containing 17,500 individuals. Its finding was that 10.2 per cent of persons of more than 25 years of age reported being taken away from their ‘natural family’ during their childhood. The question put by ABS was in two parts:
16. Were you taken away from your natural family by a mission, the government or welfare?
16a. During the time you were taken away, who brought you up?
However, the survey did not ask any questions about the reasons for the removal or the circumstances in which it took place. Bringing Them Home remained silent about the fact that the survey recorded removals made for any reason at all. A Commonwealth Government submission to a Senate inquiry in 2000 observed:
This means that the figure of 10.2 per cent would include the removal of children across the broadest range of circumstances, both voluntary and involuntary of various kinds, having been removed for whatever reason (good or bad) and under whatever circumstances (forcibly or with consent).
Hence included in these of removals would have been children who spent extended periods in hospital, and those sent to board at government or mission schools and hostels with their parents’ consent. As Chapters Nine and Ten recorded, the latter practice was common in the Northern Territory, the far north of Western Australia and other remote outback regions. In short, Bringing Them Home was yet again being deceptive when it presented this survey as a measure of the number of forcible removals.