The core of Read’s case is that separation was meant to be permanent. The board intended to destroy Aboriginality by permanently removing children from their families and their race. Read said this in his Stolen Generations pamphlet in 1981 and he has been repeating it ever since. Clearly, if the board permitted a large proportion of its wards to return home and be reunited with their families and relatives, it could not be fairly accused of a policy to steal them from either their kin or their race.
In Read’s 1981 pamphlet he twice emphasized how permanent the separation of children from parents was intended to be. At one place he compared the fate of black children to white children. ‘White children too were charged with neglect, and removed from their parents,’ he said. ‘But the Act under which white children were charged was a good deal more generous in the alternatives it offered to permanent separation, for it was framed with a different purpose.’ Read said white single mothers could apply for a pension to care for their children themselves, or white children could be temporarily committed to a suitable relative, or white children in institutions could return home for the holidays. He said all these options were denied to Aborigines: ‘No such provisions existed under the Aborigines Protection Act, for its intention was to separate children from their parents (and their race) permanently.’ Read also discussed the board’s aims in placing children in institutions:
The most important factor in the view of the Board was that Aboriginal children had to be separated from the rest of their race. 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.
In 1989 in the book The Lost Children, Read described the consequences of the amendment to the Act in 1916 (actually 1915), which gave the board the power to remove children without the need for a hearing before a magistrate. ‘From that time,’ he said, ‘the Board’s officers were at work removing hundreds of children — 1500 by 1934 — from the camps to which they were never to return.’ In 1999, in A Rape of the Soul So Profound, he wrote: ‘I can think of many instances of parents asking unsuccessfully for their children to be returned, but not of a single instance where the child actually was returned.’ Similarly, in 2002, in an article where Read responded to the critics of his thesis, he called on other historians to support him:
We need to proclaim, and demonstrate, to the doubters all over again, that larger truth … that welfare officers, removing children solely because they were Aboriginal, intended and arranged that they should lose their Aboriginality and that they never return home.
Other academic historians have concurred. In Invasion to Embassy (1996), Heather Goodall declared:
The Board stated quite openly in its reports and minutes that it intended to reduce the birthrate of the Aboriginal population by taking adolescent girls away from their communities. Then it intended that the young people taken in this way would never be allowed to return to their homes or to any other Aboriginal community.
Henry Reynolds in Nowhere People (2005) repeated an assertion that by this time had remained unchallenged for almost 25 years:
The break from family, kin and community must be decisive and permanent, otherwise the whole exercise would be jeopardized. If young people could return to their families the effort had been wasted.
The Link-Up submission to the Human Rights Commission inquiry said that, although a few stolen children might have been eventually reunited with their families, the great length of time they were separated had ruined their lives:
We may go home but we cannot relive our childhoods. We may reunite with our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunties, uncles, communities, but we cannot relive the 20, 30, 40 years we spent without their love and care, and they cannot undo the grief and mourning they felt when we were separated from them.
However, anyone who reads all the way through Read’s pamphlet The Stolen Generations will find something strange. Towards the end, Read discusses policies that permitted children to return home. Indeed, he admits that not only could children return home, but many of them actually did. He wrote:
At the age of eighteen, wards and foster children were free legally to do what they wished. A good many went home to an emotional reunion, only to find, if the family lived on a managed Aboriginal station, that they were subject to a whole new set of Regulations.
This part of Read’s pamphlet is accurate. In New South Wales, once Aboriginal children had turned eighteen and completed their apprenticeship, they were free citizens. The contract they entered into by being apprenticed was then terminated. Of course, acknowledging this weakens Read’s case considerably. Returning home to ‘a whole new set of Regulations’ is obviously far less traumatic than never finding your parents again, never knowing who they were, or grieving for them for 20, 30, 40 years.
How many children were there, then, who did return home? Read does not discuss this in The Stolen Generations, but in a later account of his oral history of the Wiradjuri people he indicated that the proportion of Wiradjuri girls who returned home was substantial.
At the end of their training period, about half returned to their communities. A quarter did not return, or married white men, and there is no record of what happened to the others.
If he had tallied all those children that the Ward Registers recorded as returning to their families or communities, he would have found they confirm the same story. My own count of the registers revealed that between 1907 and 1932, a total of 214 separated children were recorded as being reunited with their immediate family, mostly parents or in a small number of cases siblings, while another 223 were recorded as returning to an Aboriginal station, mostly the one they came from. That is, a total of 437 of the wards, or 54 per cent of them, returned to Aboriginal communities. The real number was likely to have been significantly higher than that because many forms were incomplete about the wards’ subsequent life experiences.
At least one other investigator has found the same. In an earlier study of Aboriginal girls and domestic service in New South Wales, Inara Walden counted the same forms and, although pursuing the familiar ‘stolen generations’ agenda, she reported that 287 out of 570 female apprentices, or just over 50 per cent of them, were recorded to have returned home when their time was complete. She also found that the forms, though obviously incomplete, recorded only 10 per cent did not return home.
If, throughout the 25-year period from 1907 to 1932, more than half the wards returned to either their families or their communities, the board cannot accurately be accused of administering a policy for the permanent removal of children. On this issue, Read, Goodall, Reynolds and Link-Up have all seriously misled their readers.