20 years after Bringing Them Home: priorities for community, health, social policy, aged care sectors

The Healing Foundation last week launched a new report into the Stolen Generations, to mark 20 years since the landmark Bringing Them Home report.

Bringing Them Home 20 Years On sets out an action plan to overhaul Australia’s Indigenous policy landscape that raises urgent challenges and concerns for social policy and practice, from mental health through to aged care.

Healing Foundation CEO Richard Weston writes that the report has identified four immediate priorities that are achievable, cost effective, and can reset the policy response to a group of Australians who have been so wronged, at the time of their removal and since.


Richard Weston writes:

In order to change, Australia has to remember

Back in 1997 when the landmark Bringing Them Home report was tabled in Federal Parliament there was great optimism that Australian governments would right an historic wrong.

The report set out 54 recommendations to provide a comprehensive response to the acute needs of the Stolen Generations and their families. But most recommendations have not been implemented.

Australia’s policy response has been piecemeal. Services have been inadequate, or even counterproductive.

Failures like these have increased the burden of need and trauma. The impacts go far beyond the individual who was taken. Trauma is passed on to the next generations, amplifying as the years pass. 

The Healing Foundation has just released a new independent report written by Pat Anderson and Edward Tilton called “Bringing Them Home 20 Years On”.  The report was commissioned to identify how best to meet the current and emerging needs of the Stolen Generations.

Out of that report come four immediate priorities that are achievable, cost effective, and can reset the policy response to a group of Australians who have waited so long for support.

A needs analysis

Australia should carry out a comprehensive Stolen Generations needs analysis. Basic information is missing to adequately address the lifelong impacts of childhood removals. 

We don’t know how many Stolen Generations members are still alive, where they live, or what they most urgently need.

Such analysis will allow governments and service providers to tailor and deliver more effective services for the Stolen Generations. It also maximises the return on investment.

The best information we have on the size of the Stolen Generations comes from a ten year old survey. The ABS National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (2008) estimates that at least 10 per cent of the Indigenous population over 50 years of age were removed from their family.   

Yet despite comprising a significant proportion of the aged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, the needs of Stolen Generations are not being met. Current aged care models are not appropriate. Stolen Generations member have not been an integral part of informing services and facilities. In all but a handful of cases, the trauma of being forcibly taken under government policy is not recognised in the design of Australian aged care.

The Healing Foundation is concerned that due to fear many Stolen Generations members are choosing to suffer at home rather than be reinstitutionalised.

A legal framework for appropriate care already exists. The Aged Care Act 1997 identifies the Stolen Generations as a group with special needs. The same Act requires the provision of care for people with special needs.

Other services also need immediate attention, especially mental health care. The Healing Foundation has significant national and international evidence of what the most effective healing models are. It shows that western styled counselling is inadequate by itself. Instead models need to include building strong cultural identity and recognise the importance of collective healing.

It’s high time that appropriate targeted services are provided to the Stolen Generations in their final years.

Trauma informed training

Australia needs to change the way it trains all professionals who work with the Stolen Generations, their families and communities. 

The Healing Foundation recommends compulsory training about trauma experienced by Stolen Generations members and their families for police, prison guards, welfare services and health and mental health providers. And senior managers need to lead this out so that there are systemic changes to the way services are provided.

These professions need a much better understanding of the origins of trauma for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; how it was caused, what impact it’s had, what retriggers it, and how intergenerational trauma underpins the big health and social problems in communities today.

Current service providers can retrigger trauma for Stolen Generations, especially when those institutions that have caused past harm.

Trauma-informed organisations emphasise the physical, psychological, and emotional safety of clients and staff; and help people affected by trauma rebuild a sense of control and empowerment in their lives.

A national intergenerational trauma study

Most of the health and social problems in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities today can be linked to intergenerational trauma.  This is where a person’s grief, hurt and anger is passed onto their children and grandchildren.

Many members of the Stolen Generations report they are unable to show love to their families, or accept the love of their children.  Sometimes they stayed in difficult or unhappy marriages, as they could not bear their families being broken up. It was common practice to avoid service support, including mental health services, for fear of being judged unfit parents and having their children taken. Some used any means to dull the pain such as alcohol and substance abuse.

Recent research tells us the Stolen Generations, their children and grandchildren are:

  • 50 per cent more likely to be charged by police
  • 30 per cent less likely to be in good health, and
  • 10 per cent less likely to have a job.

Without appropriate access to healing the impact of trauma is being compounded.  We are now seeing an increase in the numbers of Aboriginal people in jails, suicide is on the rise and more children are being removed.  

These are regarded as intractable policy problems in many quarters. The Healing Foundation disagrees. It is a failure to understand trauma and its impacts and to design solutions effectively that is the problem.

A thorough understanding of how intergenerational trauma works in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is urgently needed.  It will allow Australia to develop the right strategies to tackle issues including suicide, domestic violence, substance abuse, incarceration rates and the high numbers of children entering the protection system. 

Addressing the underlying trauma of these issues through healing is the only way to create meaningful and lasting change.

A national scheme for reparations

New South Wales, Tasmania and South Australia have provided some level of reparations to members of the Stolen Generations. Recently the Commonwealth agreed to provide financial redress to sexual abuse survivors of the Retta Dixon home in Darwin. Many are Stolen Generations members.

The Healing Foundation wants to make sure all Stolen Generations members get equal access to financial redress and culturally appropriate healing services. 

We are calling on the Federal Government to co-ordinate this effort.  No other institution can work effectively across state and territory boundaries, and engage with governments, as well as private and religious institutions involved in forcibly taking and traumatising Aboriginal children, to develop this important initiative.

Future support

During the past 20 years Australia’s Stolen Generations have had their hopes of comprehensive redress and policy overhaul slowly whittled away.  

These four initiatives can turn this situation around.  The costs are modest, and yet the impacts are potentially game changing. 

All of these initiatives have a central theme – healing from trauma.  They provide a road map to guide Australia to a better future.

We all have a responsibility to address this unfinished business for the sake of the Stolen Generations, their families, their communities, and for our nation.

The Healing Foundation website has many resources relating to both reports andto its work with the Stolen Generations.

On Twitter, follow @healingourway and @richjweston


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