Aboriginal children in State care and the Stolen Generations
The South Australian Children in State Care Commission of Inquiry
Many years ago, an experienced worker in the office of the Aborigines Protection Board visited a remote Aboriginal community run as a mission by one of the churches and inspected children. The father of these children of a traditional Aboriginal woman was European and had left the family. The children were required by the worker to extend their hands. She turned the palms upwards and as she inspected each child she said, ‘This one is white enough to learn.’
The children were removed from their mother and her extended family. They were taken to Adelaide, separated and placed with different white families who cared for them and saw that they went to local schools. The children were not reunited until many years later. They were deprived of the love and nurture of their mother, and of an upbringing with their people and their culture, stories, traditions and life in their community. The negative affect upon them has been substantial and continues throughout their lives.
This story is shared by many Aboriginal children of mixed blood. The belief of the Aborigines Protection Board was that the children would benefit by being removed and placed in white society with complete strangers who had little or no understanding of Aboriginal life, culture and tradition.
Many Aboriginal people were moved from their homelands to missions and communities from the far north and most other parts of the State and later moved to other locations without consideration of the significance to them of their land and culture. Many were eventually moved to metropolitan Adelaide and regional cities and placed in homes run by government, churches and charities and became permanent residents.
The effects of dispossession and loss of culture and family were usually devastating. This dispossession and movement was considered by the agencies of the white government to be in their best interests. It was assumed that white ways were far superior to the Aboriginal life. The assumption was made with very little, if any, knowledge of the well-ordered, inclusive and protective Aboriginal life.
In the few years prior to the end of 2004, there had been considerable agitation in South Australia about the alleged sexual abuse of children by persons connected with the Anglican Church and other non-government organisations. Allegations were also made about the sexual abuse of children in the care of the State. In consequence, the South Australian Parliament enacted the Commission of Inquiry (Children in State Care) Act 2004, which came into operation on 18 November 2004. This Act established the Commission of Inquiry with the following terms of reference:
2 Terms of reference
(1) The terms of reference are to inquire into any allegations of –
(a) sexual abuse of a person who, at the time that the alleged abuse occurred, was a child in State care; or
(b) criminal conduct which resulted in the death of a person who, at the time that the alleged conduct occurred, was a child in State care,
(whether or not any such allegation was previously made or reported).
(2) The purposes of the inquiry are –
(a) to examine the allegations referred to in subclause (1); and
(b) to report on whether there was a failure on the part of the State to deal appropriately or adequately with matters that gave rise to the allegations referred to in subclause (1); and
(c) to determine and report on whether appropriate and adequate records were kept in relation to allegations of the kind referred to in subclause (1) and, if relevant, on whether any records relating to such allegations have been destroyed or otherwise disposed of; and
(d) to report on any measures that should be implemented to provide assistance and support for the victims of sexual abuse (to the extent that these matters are not being addressed through existing programs or initiatives).
The legislation provided that the Inquiry related only to conduct or omissions occurring before the commencement of the Act. However, there is no time limitation as to allegations of conduct before then and some persons alleging that they were sexually abused as children are now in their seventies and eighties.
I was appointed Commissioner and investigation into matters referred to in the terms of reference commenced in early December 2004. The response to the Commission has been substantial. An extensive outreach programme was undertaken in South Australia and interstate through most aspects of the media and by meetings in regional locations. This outreach included Aboriginal media and there were meetings with Aboriginal groups and leaders. The work of the Commission was publicised in many organisations including prisons, detention centres and those concerned with the past and present care of children. Also there was a focus upon persons with a disability and the elderly. So far, information received by the Commission indicates that about a thousand children were sexually abused, most of whom were in State care. There are many other allegations received by the Commission of children having been sexually abused, but the investigation revealed that the majority of them were not State children when the abuse occurred. Of those, 293 are alleged to be Aboriginal children. The information received by the Commission reveals that 720 children died whilst in State care. A small number of deaths of State children are known to be Aboriginal children.
So far, investigations of sexual abuse of Aboriginal children in remote areas have not commenced, except in a preparatory way at Coober Pedy and Oodnadatta. It is planned to undertake investigation of all of the communities in the Pitjantjatjara lands, the Maralinga lands, Yalata, the West Coast, Oodnadatta, Coober Pedy, Nepabunna, Gerard, Point Pearce and the many homelands of Aboriginal people. Already there has been considerable investigation of allegations of sexual abuse of children at Raukkan and Murray Bridge.
I have been asked to write about the work of the Commission regarding Aboriginal children in State care and including those children who might be regarded as part of the Stolen Generations.
It is not appropriate to reach any final conclusions about any matters until the inquiry has been completed and this will not occur before the publication of this book. However, it is possible to mention some matters that appear to be well known and others that have been established by preponderance of evidence at the Commission.
The extent of sexual abuse
The extent of sexual abuse can never be accurately determined, but it is now widely accepted that at least one child in every five will be sexually abused before the age of 16 years. When this estimate is applied to the general population, it may be seen that not less than about four million Australians have been, are being, or will be, sexually abused, of whom not less than 300,000 are South Australians. The application of this estimate to the Aboriginal population, determined by the 2001 census, indicates that nearly 5,000 of them are Aboriginal persons. At the time of writing, the 2006 census information is not yet available. It is likely that the percentage of Aboriginal children subject to sexual abuse is much greater than the estimate that has been mentioned for a variety of reasons.
These matters will be explored by the Commission, but it is anticipated that these reasons include a breakdown of culture in many communities, the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse within some Aboriginal communities and the vulnerability of Aboriginal children when isolated from their families.
It is also widely accepted that, for a variety of reasons, there is a low rate of reporting sexual abuse by adults and children. A recent survey conducted by the Bureau of Statistics indicates that reporting rates for sexual assault of adults is 19.4 per cent. It may be accepted that the reporting rate by, and about, children is very much lower and particularly for Aboriginal children.
For the purposes of the inquiry, I have regarded a ‘State child’ as a child who, at the relevant time, was the subject of care or control by the Minister for Families and Communities, officers of the Department for Families and Communities, and Families South Australia (Families SA) and their predecessors in name, as well as the Aborigines Protection Board when it existed.
Sexual abuse is conduct amounting to a sexual offence within the meaning of s 4 of the Evidence Act 1929, which includes rape, indecent assault, any offence involving unlawful sexual intercourse, or an act of gross indecency, incest, any offence involving sexual exploitation or abuse of a child, or abuse of a child as the object of prurient interest, or any attempt to commit, or assault with intent to commit, any of these offences. All of the allegations of sexual abuse that are the subject of evidence before the Commission fall within this definition.
The investigation of allegations of sexual abuse of children is no easy task. The disclosure by adults of sexual abuse of them as children is difficult. Experience at the Commission indicates that those making disclosures have had to develop confidence in themselves and in the Commission before doing so. The circumstances of the abuse usually involved secrecy, shame, feelings of guilt and powerlessness. Many had made attempts to disclose as children and later in life that were often disregarded or rejected. Many perpetrators threatened children of the dire consequences of disclosure and also made it plain that if an attempt were made the child would not be believed. The experience of many who have made disclosure to the Commission is that, sadly, many of them were not believed. A common statement by persons making disclosure to the Commission is that it was the first time anyone had listened to them and accepted what they had to say.
The willingness to disclose sexual abuse is facilitated by confidentiality, which is a feature of the process at the Commission. Allegations are not disclosed by the Commission without the knowledge and approval of the persons making disclosures. For many persons, that approval is not given because the alleged perpetrator is dead, aged or infirm. There are other reasons. The wishes of the person are respected and disclosure is not made to anyone unless it is adjudged to be in the public interest. Already the allegations made by 132 persons have been forwarded to the police and it is anticipated that many more will be referred in the next few months.
The approach of the Commission to Aboriginal persons
It was appreciated at the outset that it was necessary to demonstrate to Aboriginal people that they could have confidence in the Commission. Many Aboriginal people providing information to the Commission expressed the view that previous commissions and inquiries had not achieved much for Aboriginal people. It is not appropriate for present purposes to make any comment about this assertion except to say that there has been a determination at the Commission to publicise itself widely and to include Aboriginal people in its work.