By Aleksandra Bliszczyk
AN organisation in the City of Whittlesea that supports members of the Stolen Generations and their descendants reflected on the 13th anniversary of the Federal Government apology to families impacted by the country’s former child removal policies.
Staff at Connecting Home in Epping, a state-funded not-for-profit organisation, gathered virtually on Saturday – 13 years after former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s historic apology on February 13, 2008.
As Victoria entered a snap five-day lockdown, their livestream anniversary event was recalibrated at the last minute to be COVID-Safe, and welcomed hundreds to its virtual audience.
But despite the forward step the apology symbolised, Connecting Home chief executive Lisa Zammit said their workload was growing, especially in regional areas where reaching survivors was more challenging.
“We have no doubt that there are still people out there who are still not sure about their identities and may not even know about their background,” she said.
Many survivors, particularly those who were forcibly adopted by white families as young children, are still unaware of their cultural identities, which Ms Zammit said was in part due to the lack of education about Australia’s history.
“I have the privilege to work as a part of Connecting Home supporting the Aboriginal community and I guess being the non-Aboriginal CEO and then walking away and participating in the general community, I still get shocked about how many people aren’t aware of the history of the Stolen Generations,” she said.
The Stolen Generations refers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families who were separated between the 1910s and the 1970s under government policies that proposed Australia’s First People ‘die out’ through assimilation and natural elimination.
Children considered more adaptable to white society were forcibly removed from their parents and placed into institutions or forced adoption.
Many never saw their families again. Throughout their childhoods they were taught to reject their Indigenous culture, forbidden to speak their native language, and forced to adopt white culture.
“We’ve missed out on our right to this country and our culture and our identity and our language,” Stolen Generations survivor and Connecting Home advocate Eva Jo Edwards said.
“We allow people to immigrate to this country still practising their religion and their language and their customs, and yet we have never been able to do that … I was denied that.”
Institutionalised children, including Ms Edwards, were also subject to physical and sexual abuse, leading to lifelong trauma, which, without acknowledgment or support, has filtered down between generations.
Member for McEwen Rob Mitchell said Prime Minister John Howard refused, year after year, to apologise on behalf of the government to victims of a ‘heartless policy’.
“In many ways, that refusal perpetuated the original injustice,” he said.
While policies changed decades ago, First Nations children are still almost 10 times more likely to be living away from their families than non-Indigenous children, according to the 2020 Family Matters report.
“It’s still with us. My mother was removed, I myself was removed, and I have grandnieces and nephews that are removed so we’re looking at already three generations,” Stolen Generations survivor and advocate with Connecting Home Eva Jo Edwards said.
“That sorry was meant to mean: never let it happen again. But it does.”
Connecting Home chief executive Lisa Zammit said Indigenous child removal was an ongoing issue in Victoria.
She said one of their survivors was recently threatened with a child welfare check after her grandchildren took her to hospital seeking medical attention.
“She was meant to stay in hospital that day for her health needs and she was so traumatised and was so scared that her grandchildren were going to be removed, she didn’t stay for the treatment, she left,” Ms Zammit said.
“I think the system still needs to understand that people are still very traumatised by what happened to them as children, and that we need to be more sensitive to the needs of Stolen Generations and their children as well, because that fear of losing their children or their grandchildren is very real.”
A lot has changed since the national inquiry in the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in 1997.
Connecting Home, which was founded in 2010, is one of several organisations that supports Stolen Generations retrace their heritages, and in March 2020, the State Government announced a redress scheme to pay reparations to survivors within the state, beginning this year.
Ms Edwards, who is now a redress support services worker, said the next step to break the cycle of child removal and helping First Nations communities heal was better education, and a willingness to embrace and acknowledge all parts of Australia’s history.
“Education is the key. Stolen Generations should be on our educational history agenda. It shouldn’t be something that’s taught for one week a year,” she said.
“In an ideal world, [we’ll] live as one nation and come together and embrace the atrocities and genocide and everything that’s gone with the settlement of this country.”