The new stolen generation

Kevin Rudd offered an apology and a pledge he couldn't keep

Clementine Cuneo | The Daily Telegraph | 25th August 2009

Click for larger image and description In his best-known speech, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered an apology many felt was overdue - and made a pledge he couldn't keep.

Speaking in February 2008, Rudd told the Australian people: "We apologise for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

"We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

"For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry."

All good so far. But Rudd continued: "This Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again."

Move ahead 20 months. Far from "never happening again", 2009 has seen some 4300 Aboriginal children taken from their parents in NSW alone.

This number, supplied by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, is greater than the numbers said to have been removed in the 1920s and 1930s.

In northwestern NSW communities, children are being taken from their Aboriginal parents every week.

Welfare workers are said to have removed more than 40 children in Lightning Ridge in recent months.

Critics describe them as a new Stolen Generation. A group established to support Aboriginal women in Lightning Ridge and surrounds - the Wirringah Women's Group - believes welfare workers are being over-zealous and are almost "spooked" into taking any child even remotely at risk, to avoid trouble "if something happens later on".

The group's Helen Howlett said residents in the area's opal mining towns were horrified that welfare workers would come in and strip families of their children.

Ms Howlett said it seemed in some recent cases that welfare workers were taking children almost as a precaution, rather than because the children were legitimately at high risk.

The problem for welfare workers is that they are caught between conflicting aims: The need to rescue children on one hand and the desire to avoid creating a modern-day Stolen Generation on the other.

One Walgett welfare worker, who spoke to The Daily Telegraph on the condition of anonymity, said taking children from their families was a heart-wrenching decision.

"Unless you see for yourself the way these people live, you can't judge," the welfare worker said.

"Some of these kids live in absolute squalor, they are sick, malnourished and they lack basic standards of care . . . sometimes we find them barely alive."

Welfare workers adhere to very strict guidelines before removing a child.

"It isn't a haphazard or hit and miss thing we do," the worker said. "You don't just see an unclean child and decide it's not good enough."

Drawn-out procedures are followed. "Families are assessed. It's often quite a lengthy process . . . and the last step is that the child is removed."

Inevitably, no matter which decision they make, welfare workers are criticised.

"If we don't take a child, we get rubbished and then if we do, we are the worst people in the world."

Walgett mayor Ian Woodcock denies a "new Stolen Generation" is in his midst. He said children were only taken in "drastic" situations.

"I don't think there is a problem here, no, but it is obviously something that needs to be looked into a bit further," Mr Woodcock said.

Aboriginal rights advocates say these families who have had children removed are good parents who would never cause them any harm.

And that is very likely so. But what means are used to judge these cases?

Indigenous communities live worlds apart from their white Australian counterparts in other areas of the state.

Parenting styles in the bush are incredibly different from those familiar with city living, but that doesn't necessarily make them wrong.

Yet the desire to not interfere should never mean sacrificing the health and safety of a child.

The Australian Government made a commitment to indigenous families in April this year when the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children was endorsed.

The policy recognises indigenous children's over-representation in child protection systems and seeks to address it.

Most importantly, the framework is mindful of the child's best interests, which in most cases lay with parents.

"Maintaining connection to family, community and culture is essential within a framework that respects the physical, mental and emotional security of the child," the policy states.

Reconciling that with Rudd's "never, never again" pledge remains something of an unbridgable reach, however.

The New Stolen Generation

Caroline Overington | The Australian | August 22, 2009 + RELATED ARTICLES

Welfare workers have swooped on the opal mining town of Lightning Ridge in northwest NSW, removing more than 40 Aboriginal children from decrepit homes in shanty towns.

Those removed included a four-day-old baby who had barely learned to suckle when taken from his mother's breast, while she was still in the local hospital, recovering from giving birth.

Aboriginal women, stunned by the removals, say it amounts to a "modern-day Stolen Generation", but the most recent statistics on child removals show Aboriginal children are being taken from their parents in numbers much greater than the Stolen Generations.

Official figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show there are now more than 9000 indigenous children in state care -- a figure that far outstrips the number that were taken in the 1920s and 30s.

Both NSW, with 4316, and Queensland, with 2085, have this year set records for the number of indigenous children taken from their parents.

In both states, Aboriginal children are being taken at 10 times the rate of white children.

Nationwide, Aboriginal children comprise just 4.4 per cent of all children, and yet make up 24 per cent of all children in care.

Vanessa Kirk, of Queensland's newly formed Aboriginal Women For Change, said: "The Stolen Generation hasn't stopped."

She argued that children are being taken today for exactly the reason they were last century: poverty.

Helen Howlett helped to form the Wirringah Women's Group in Lightning Ridge after local mothers counted 41 children removed from the opal fields, and the surrounding towns of Walgett and Wee Waa. "The effect of the removals is just shocking," Ms Howlett said. "Everybody is just stunned."

The group believes that welfare workers "have heard all the stories about sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities (and experienced the outrage at the death of an Aboriginal toddler, Dean Shillingsworth, whose body was found in a suitcase in a duck pond) and now they are spooked into just taking all the kids".

The Wirringah group has demanded a meeting with the NSW ombudsman's office, which will send four workers to Lightning Ridge on Monday. They will meet parents, and lawyers attached to the Walgett Children's Court who are likewise concerned about the number of children being taken. The meeting has been convened under the banner "Bring Our Children Home".

The Ombudsman's office would not comment, citing concerns about the privacy of the parents who had lost their children.

Ms Howlett said the mother who had an infant taken from her breast, who cannot be named for legal reasons, has dozens of supporters in town, including nurses, lawyers and elders. They say she and her husband are "wonderful people who would not harm their children".

There is no doubt they lived in what urban Australians would call squalor.

The children's father, who is not indigenous, staked a claim outside Lightning Ridge and digs for opals.

Their home was a hand-built shanty-style dwelling. They had no running water, just a garden hose pipe attached to a water tank and there were serious hygiene problems, particularly in the kitchen.

The mother told The Weekend Australian welfare workers got in contact with her family when one of her daughters, who also can't be named, told a teacher her father had hit her with a stick. He has since been charged with assault.

The teacher reported the assault to the Department of Community Services, as is required under mandatory reporting guidelines. Welfare workers went to the site where the family lived and saw they did not have water or sewerage, and the rooms were filthy. They asked the other children if their father ever hit them; two of them said yes.

The five children were immediately taken and separated into different foster homes, many hundreds of kilometres apart.

The mother, who was pregnant, went into labour soon afterwards. Two days after the baby was born, welfare workers turned up to remove him, but The Weekend Australian understands nurses turned them away, saying it was inhumane to remove a suckling baby from its mother. The workers returned on day four to take the child. The baby is now with foster parents in Dubbo. His parents are making the eight-hour trip three times a week for access visits, and to deliver him fresh breast milk.

"It really is the most outrageous case because these are wonderful people," Ms Howlett said. "It is the case that has really pushed the community over the edge."

The NSW Children's Care and Protection Act specifically says poverty alone is not a reason to remove children. There must be abuse, neglect or an "immediate risk" of harm.

Vaughan Bryer, a community volunteer in nearby Walgett, said: "They are taking babies from their mothers because they don't like the way they live. That's the reason they were removed (during the last Stolen Generations)."

Mr Bryer said it was not clear to anyone who worked on the most recent case how the child was at "immediate risk" of serious harm. "They are a very loving, supportive and well-liked pair," he said.

"It is safe to say that all the people in their community who have had dealings with them find this situation incredible. There is no drugs, no alcohol, just an alternative lifestyle."

He agreed there were "serious social problems" in Lightning Ridge. "Some children do need to be removed, and that's what the department is for, but the recent examples have amazed the community."

The parents in the most recent case are understood to have sworn affidavits that they did not hit their children and to have consented to the children going into care, but their supporters say they did so only because they believed they stood a better chance of getting them back if they agreed their standard of living was poor and moved from the opal fields. They have since taken a place in town.

In Queensland, where a record 2259 indigenous children are in state care (compared with 660 in Victoria and 467 in South Australia), opposition child safety spokesman Jack Dempsey said he, too, feared "another Stolen Generations being created".

"Time and time again we have heard of families who have asked for help from child safety workers only to have their child removed and put into care," he said.

Children removed following 'smack'

Angus Hohenboken | The Australian | August 22, 2009

Click for larger image and description>You step out of the car, and there is not a soul around.

The landscape is bare but for six mining shacks, each of them held together with a few nails.

This is a mining camp, outside the town of Lightning Ridge, north of Walgett, in NSW.

Until recently, five children lived on this site with their parents. All are now gone, taken by the Department of Community Services, and they are just five of the 40 said to have been removed from the district in the past 18 months.

Nobody would suggest that the family that once lived here was living in luxury.

There is scrap metal everywhere, car bodies, an old caravan, and empty gas bottles.

They had a long-drop dunny (a toilet seat over a hole in the ground, not connected to any sewerage system).

The father staked the claim many years ago in the hope of finding opals in the district; instead, disease found him, and so did arthritis.

In recent years, he had made a living by chopping wood and raising and slaughtering pigs.

Nobody disputes that something happened on the site on May 18. The father says one of his daughters broke a chair, and didn't respond to requests to help him while he fixed it.

She says he hit her with a stick, and she told the teacher about it.

The teacher told the NSW Department of Community Services. They came and removed the children, and told the couple if they wanted them back, they'd have to move into town, get a place with electricity and sewerage, and not hit the kids.

That was in May.

In August, the mother gave birth to her sixth child.

Welfare workers turned up at the hospital four days after the birth, and took him, too. He was still on the breast.

The couple strongly reject allegations of child abuse.

The mother says DOCS justified the removal of her children not only with claims the infant was in "physical and psychological danger" but also because they didn't approve of her lifestyle.

The father was charged with common assault and assault occasioning actual bodily harm on May 18. He describes the contact as a "smack".

The girl went to school and lifted her shirt and she had a couple of red marks.

The father said his daughter may have been confused when he hit her because he was carrying a piece of the broken chair at the time. "I hit her on the bum with my hand, I had the stick in (the other) hand -- whether she thought I hit her with the stick, I don't know," he said.

The five children missed the birth of their sixth sibling, who is now two weeks old and being cared for near Dubbo.

The mother wears an absent expression when remembering the day he was taken. "We couldn't eat or sleep for four days after they took the kids. We were just like zombies," she said.

"It's just like they're stolen, like they're dead, they're gone," the father said.

"It feels like we are being kicked in the guts."

'Report altered' as anger grows over removals

Angus Hohenboken | The Australian | August 24, 2009

Click for larger view of imageA child protection order that separated an Aboriginal mother from her 18-month-old son at a northern NSW hospital stated she had shouted abuse at the child and slapped him before throwing him on the floor.

But an affidavit from a Department of Community Services caseworker submitted to the children's court days later said the slap had only been heard and that the mother had handled the child roughly, "almost dropping him on to the floor".

"After they gave me the first affidavit, they came and asked for it back and then gave me another one -- they keep changing the story," the mother said yesterday. "It's all bullshit."

Aboriginal women from around Lightning Ridge yesterday told of the agony of losing their children without warning, before a meeting with the NSW Ombudsman today to discuss the high rate of removals in the area.

The women say they are victims of a new "stolen generation", with about 40 children removed from the opal fields area and the surrounding towns of Walgett and Wee Waa over the past 18 months. Many dispute the reasons for the removal and a local indigenous women's group says Aboriginal women are being unfairly targeted.

The town of Lightning Ridge is divided over the issue of child removal, with many locals saying DOCS are doing a good job and saving children from harm.

A 2007 report by Tony Vinson, of the University of Sydney, named Lightning Ridge among the most socially disadvantaged communities in Australia.

The mother of the 18-month-old boy was also written up as a "suspected" drug user who had allegedly told nurses she "cannot cope" after repeatedly arriving at the Walgett Hospital seeking treatment for her baby's dehydration and inability to hold down food. She allegedly left the baby at the hospital for extended periods without returning to check on him.

Standing next to an empty playground on the main street of Lightning Ridge yesterday, the mother said she had been 24 weeks pregnant with another child and was exhausted and cranky when she arrived at the hospital and "needed a break".

But she swears she did not mistreat her 18-month-old child. All three of her children are now in DOCS care.

DOCS are sending children to foster homes as far away as the NSW-Victorian border and the women claim the department has refused to cover transport costs.

Dawn Towney, of the Lightning Ridge Wirringha Women's Talk Group, said while some DOCS removals were justified, the mothers in her group were more than capable of caring for their children and she would press the Ombudsman over the rights of DOCS to intervene.

"It's the stolen generation all over again," she said. "The numbers suggest they are targeting Aboriginal women."

The meeting with the Ombudsman will take place at 11am today at Lightning Ridge Ella Nagy Youth Hall.

Shadow of Stolen Generations still casts pain in Australia: UN rapporteur | | 27th Aug 2009

The United Nations special rapporteur on indigenous rights said here Thursday the shadow of the Stolen Generation still casts a lot of pain in Australia and the wounds are still open.

When answering Xinhua's question on the current taken away of more than 40 aboriginal kids by welfare staff days ago, James Anaya said "the safety of children should be taken seriously and there has to be a priority on protecting children with no question."

At the same time, he said, "not only in a particular sense, but also in a general sense, there needs to be sensitivity to the relationship of children with their parents in aboriginal settings-- the particular cultural aspects of that relationship that are unique of aboriginal people and families."

"The shadow of the stolen generation, I understand, still casts a lot of pain, the wounds are still open," he said, "so there needs to be particular sensitivity when children in any circumstance are taken from their families."

"It is an issue that requires a lot careful considerations." Anaya told Xinhua at a press conference after a two-week visit in Australia investigating the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people in the country.

Leading newspaper the Australian reports earlier that welfare workers in New South Wales (NSW) have swooped on the opal mining town of Lightning Ridge in northwest NSW, removing more than 40 Aboriginal children from their homes, including a four-day-old baby who was taken from his mother's breast.

The story spurred concerns for situation of today's indigenous people in Australia and produced worries that a new Stolen Generation is being created.

Stolen regeneration No2

Caroline Overington and Angus Hohenboken | The Australian | September 09, 2009

Lightning Ridge, near the NSW border with Queensland, is a unique Australian town. Over the years, thousands of drifters and fortune-hunters have gone there, staked a claim, set up a camp and started to dig, hoping to find black opals.

As such, the land around Lightning Ridge can sometimes look like a bomb has hit. Homes are constructed from corrugated iron, wooden posts and, in one case, entirely of old cans and bottles. There is no running water, and no sewerage.

Toilets are old drilling holes, with a make-shift shed around them, and often no door.

Bathing is something that happens when mum fills a bucket and gets out a cup, and splashes it over the young ones.

Local children are often home-schooled, including in an abandoned, now converted van under a Wilga tree. They have no television, so kids amuse themselves by getting pulled around in old carts by camp dogs, or roaming the bush.

Their neighbours are other eccentrics and dreamers, whose approach to life is happy-go-lucky. Among their number include many people from Eastern Europe, and many Aborigines.

There's a dark side, too: alcoholics and firearm devotees in Lightning Ridge share space with scavengers, thieves and wife-beaters. There are drug addicts and people who belt and abuse their children.

It is this last group that the NSW Department of Community Services says it was targeting when it began removing children - in particular, Aboriginal children - from the Lightning Ridge camps and surrounding areas, over the past 18 months.

DOCS says it removed the children - by its count 30 of them, although that's disputed by local women, who put the number at 41 - because they were at "serious risk" of harm.

Many in the community are suspicious, however. The believe DOCS moved on Lightning Ridge as part of a grander plan to wipe Aboriginal children out of the camps and move them into suburbs, in the process creating a new "stolen generation" of black children with no links to the land.

The Wirringah Women's Group, which formed in Lightning Ridge this month specifically to protest the mass removal of children, cites official data that shows that NSW and Queensland have this year set records for the number of indigenous children in state care.

Then, too, there's the fact that Aboriginal children comprise just 4.4 per cent of all Australian children and yet make up 24 per cent of all children in care (in NSW, it's 30 per cent).

While the Wirringah group's Helen Howlett acknowledges social problems in the indigenous community, she believes it's just not possible that Aboriginal families in Lightning Ridge and NSW generally are failing their children at 10 times the rate of white families. There must, she says, be something else at play.

Like many in the community, Howlett believes Aboriginal children are being removed from the camps because welfare workers want to force Aboriginal people into a more Western lifestyle.

The issue is a tricky one for all Labor governments, state and federal, who supported an apology to the Stolen Generations and have pledged to never let it happen again.

The idea that children are being removed because welfare workers deplore their lifestyle is hotly contested by DOCS in NSW, whose minister, Linda Burney, is herself part-Aboriginal.

The department says it removes children from their parents only as a last resort and, while local women from Lightning Ridge say children are being removed mostly for neglect, the department says slightly more than half (or 54 per cent) of the children placed into care over the past year were victims of "physical or sexual abuse" or because of "extreme domestic violence and drug and alcohol use by a carer". Moreover, DOCS says that figures for the past 12 months show that "none of the children placed into care from the Walgett/Lightning Ridge area were removed due to their family's living conditions alone".

The department says it does indeed understand that many of the families on the camps are poor but honest and solid, and although some people believe the department should be more interventionist, that it's not in the business of forcing Aborigines in remote communities into suburban-style housing against their will.

"A factor such as being poor alone would not suggest risk of harm, and is therefore not reason enough to remove a child," a departmental official says.

"The department acknowledges and respects the fact that some Aboriginal communities, especially those living in rural and remote areas, live differently from the mainstream Australian population. It is not the role of the department to dictate how families live in their homes, unless the environment presents a serious risk of harm.

"If a child or young person is found to be living in circumstances where they are being neglected and therefore are at significant risk of harm, then as a last resort, the department will remove that child or young person."

Some experts are concerned that poor nutrition can amount to neglect. David Brewster, professor of pediatrics at James Cook University, says neglect in infancy can have consequences for brain development and, therefore, poor performance at school.

"But even good nutrition with neglect is bad, though it may not have a direct effect on the brain. An unstimulated child will not develop," Brewster says.

Most Aboriginal children do get adequate nutrition and will develop normally, he says. The main problem for the development of children is when the mother drinks during pregnancy.

Some women in Lightning Ridge dispute the DOCS rationale for removing a child or young person because of what the department perceives as neglect, saying they have examples of children removed from loving homes, where the issue is not neglect, but poverty, or else an "alternative lifestyle" where trappings of suburban life are absent.

Patricia Balderstone, who is white, acknowledges the lack of modern amenities in Lightning Ridge.

She moved to a camp in the area in the 1970s, after losing a comfortable house in the Sydney suburb of Woollahra in a messy divorce, and a part-share of a business selling imported French lingerie to wealthy women in Double Bay.

Balderstone raised two children on a camp site with no power or running water for a shower. There was no sewerage connected to the toilet, just a hole in the ground with an outhouse built around it. Their kitchen and dining area was open to the elements, but for a corrugated iron roof, wired to a frame of logs.

Balderstone home-schooled her two daughters, Vanessa and Bianca, in a converted bus with materials sent out by the NSW Education Department. According to Balderstone, it was an idyllic upbringing, and one that taught the children resilience, among other things.

"It didn't hurt my kids, growing up here. They learned about the real world," she says. "They learned about opals, they learned about the bush, they learned about fixing cars and cooking and birds."

Both girls are now grown up. Bianca, who completed a science degree in the US, is now taking postgraduate studies in health science in Colorado.

Vanessa, who works three days a week in the mineral resources offices of the Department of Primary Industries at Lightning Ridge, says she wouldn't have changed her upbringing "for the world" and her mother says all children, black and white, live the same.

The women of Lightning Ridge say the removal of black children from the camps mirrors the Stolen Generations not only in number, but in another important aspect: some have been separated from siblings and sent to live with white foster parents, many hundreds of kilometres from their spiritual homes.

The department says that, of the 30 Aboriginal children who have been removed from Walgett, Lightning Ridge and surrounding areas over the past 18 months, 25 have been placed with Aboriginal carers. Of these, 12 are in kinship placements.

"The other five children were initially placed with Aboriginal carers (two were placed with grandparents) however, these placements broke down and no other Aboriginal carers were available to care for them," the department says.

"While placing Aboriginal children with family or Aboriginal carers is always the first option, nothing is ever more important than a child's safety and the department does not apologise for this.

"It's not always possible. Family members may not want to care for the children or may not be suitable. For example, they may already have the care of several children, they may have a serious child protection history themselves, or they may be dealing with social problems such as alcohol or family violence which prevents them from providing proper care of a child."

Such is the level of concern in the area, NSW Deputy Ombudsman Steven Kinmond, travelled from Sydney to Lightning Ridge earlier this month, to meet women whose children had been removed.

Kinmond says there is "certainly a view (in Lightning Ridge) that circumstances that are seen as "normal in that community were being judged as 'abnormal' by the department, or being judged harshly by the department.

"I think it's fair to say that people were indicating that it's unfair, that children were being removed because of poverty, not abuse."

He says the team from the Ombudsman's office did not visit the dwellings where children had lived before being removed because "that might give you a first impression, but first impressions can be misleading".

"You can't really make a decision about whether the children are at risk by looking (at the camp) and just deciding that they must be (at risk)."

But, Kinmond says, while it seems that welfare workers may have dealt too harshly with at least one family in the area, there are real concerns, including in the Aboriginal community, about how some children in the district are living.

"The point I'd make over and over again is that the safety and welfare of children is not something we are prepared to compromise," Kinmond says.

"It's also not something that Aboriginal people are prepared to compromise.

"You have to remember that Aboriginal women have said (in a government report titled Little Children are Sacred) that they tried to raise the issue of the abuse and neglect of their children in their communities for years, and nobody took any notice.

"I sometimes get the impression that people think Aboriginal people don't want (the problem of child welfare) dealt with, but in my years of involvement with Aboriginal communities, I can tell you, they share concerns around Aboriginal child protection issues and they want something done, too."


Hi Penca. Yes we may be able to help!

Have a look at the play in development that looks at the case of the 'New Stolen Generation' in Lightning Ridge.
you can email at
We may be able to incorporate a cameo

Who can I contact, to enlighten on the current situation...

... at Lightning Ridge and the Aboriginal children taken (The New stolen generation)?

As a student from Griffith, Queensland College of Art, studying 'Contemporary Australian Indigenous visual Art', I am researching Western ideology, the similarities between mining of the black opal (a stone created by earth over a long period of time and removed) and the removal of Aboriginal children from their families. After reading some of the reported cases, I felt the need to demonstrate the logic and similarities through Art. By carving a cameo's profiling a child in black opal and another cameo profiling a mother in Potch (a term used for common Opal, accounts for 95% of the material when finding Opal). I wanted to ask if this ok by the families, as I intend to return the Opal/Potch back to Lightning Ridge carved, to tell a story. Not only am I attempting to carve cameo's, but also larger pieces still encased with Clay, and try to make paper weights - carved Lightning Ridge Aboriginal Child and Mother, together. It seems Geologists use a lot of paper weights!
Please can someone contact me, to help with this project

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