I hardly knew my mother, but I have learnt from my siblings that her Aboriginal heritage was extremely important to her, and she continued practising her culture right up until her death in 1980. She raised her children in traditional Aboriginal ways learnt from her mother.
However, the welfare authorities viewed her child rearing as unacceptable, and she was accused of neglect. This was a commonplace accusation in Tasmania in the 1950s and 1960s. Aboriginal families were watched carefully. A critical report by a welfare officer, however flimsy, was enough to remove children to foster homes or institutions. Often, all the children were removed and siblings were usually split up. Although there was no racial stipulation in the legislation that enabled the authorities to remove Aboriginal children, we now know that it was the Tasmanian form of the nation-wide drive to assimilate Aboriginal children into the mainstream Australian culture.
Not long after I was born, my father deserted my mother and family. My mother found it increasingly hard to provide enough food for her growing family. In desperation, she approached the welfare department and requested financial help. Sadly, that was a costly mistake. The authorities came to our house with an order to remove all four children: my oldest sister aged six, my next sister aged five, my brother aged three, and myself the youngest. I was still being breastfed. My mother refused to hand us over, so we were taken by force. I cannot imagine what that must have been like for her. I now have four beautiful children, and if anyone had attempted to remove them, I would not be responsible for my actions.
We children were split up and placed in foster care. I have no memory of this but my other siblings do. Only recently did one of my older sisters break silence and tell me what she had experienced in her foster home and her anguish at not knowing where her siblings were. It took a heavy toll on her. My other sister and my brother have never talked about their experience, but it has left them with hurt, trauma, and grief. Even today we have little relationship as brothers and sisters. One day I hope we will all find the freedom that will enable us to build that relationship.
I was placed in a series of foster homes. According to my government file, I was fretful, and foster caregivers found it hard to nurse an ever-crying baby. Finally, after more than twelve months, I was placed with a family who were considered a model for the community—law-abiding, church-going, and active in projects to help the needy.
By then I had been removed for over twelve months. My mother was not told where we were, and this must have been devastating for her. She was told that when she could prove that she could provide for her children in a satisfactory manner, her children would be returned. She located my father and when he learnt of what had happened, he returned to my mother and they worked hard to satisfy the welfare authorities. Their home was inspected at random, and if the officers were not satisfied, they recommended that the children not be returned. The reports in my file state that on one inspection there was washing hanging in the lounge room and they found this unacceptable. That was enough for authorities to deny parents their children. In many cases the welfare officers were untrained and had little experience, so they made judgments that they could never make today. Even the language used in their reports was archaic.
As I grew a little older and became aware of my surroundings, I began to wonder at my situation. This family I was living with, who were they? I knew they were not mine because I was told to call the mother and father “Aunty” and “Uncle,” whereas their children called them “Mum” and “Dad.” So what was I doing there? Where were my Mum and Dad? Now and then I had to go to a strange office where a lady would ask all sorts of questions. Before this visit, I was told to say that I was happy and wanted to stay with this family. The truth was that I was not happy and I did not want to stay with them, I wanted my Mum and Dad and whatever family I had.
When I began to ask these questions, I was told that my Mum and Dad were “no good” and this new family would give me a better life. Both my foster parents and their children constantly said that I was from “the gutter” and they had saved me. They told me little about my family. If I mentioned them, they said that I would be sent to a children’s home where they bash kids. I then became really unhappy. I guess I was still fretting for my Mum. The other children resented me. Now, as I look back, I can understand their feelings.
At the age of four and a half I began kindergarten at the local school attended by my foster siblings, who by then were aged ten, eight, six, and five. Beginning school brought new problems. My name was different than the others in the family, and children being children had no problem in letting me know it. I hated them for it, but there was nothing I could do. I very quickly inherited the nickname “gutterchild.” Again, there was nothing I could do.
On my fifth birthday, I think there was a party for me, but then began an era of abuse that took my innocence. My foster father began sexually abusing me,1 and I was so scared. What was this man doing? Is this what fathers do? Maybe I have to do this, but if so, why did it make me feel so frightened? This abuse happened regularly. I did not tell anyone, I was so ashamed. I knew it must have been wrong because of the sneaky way he set it up. I then looked forward to going to school. Although I had to endure the cruel taunts, at least no one touched me, and I was safe in that sense.
The visits to the welfare office continued. I had to select my answers carefully as my foster mother was always present and threatened me with punishment if I said the wrong thing. How I wanted to tell them what her husband was doing to me. But I feared for my life. The welfare officers were scary, and I knew they had the power to take children without saying why. At each time they promised me that I would return to my family soon when they were satisfied there would be no issues of neglect. I kept hoping month after month, year after year that I would go home to where I belonged, no matter what the situation. Every Christmas I had only one request, to see my family. Year after year this request was denied. So I grew to hate Christmas and made damn sure that those around me would not enjoy it either. Now, as an adult I live with feelings of guilt that I would do that to other people. Maybe one day I will explain the cause of my selfish actions, and they might find forgiveness in their hearts.
I was now about eight years old. My eldest foster brother started to show interest in me, and not in a healthy way. My foster father was still abusing me, and now I had the two of them to deal with. I felt a sense of worthlessness and disgust at what I was enduring. The many incidents of rape left me helpless and hopeless, knowing there was nothing I could do. At times I was threatened with my life if I even thought of telling anyone.
At this time my foster mother became erratic in her behaviour. She would get so angry, and if I was nearby, she would beat me for no reason, punching with closed fists as if she were out of control. No one could stop her. Sometimes I would have to stay home from school until the bruising had subsided. At times, as I learnt from my files, meetings with welfare officers were cancelled, and this aroused their suspicion. They kept a closer eye on this family. Although these suspicions are detailed in my file, they were never acted upon. This abuse was to continue until I reached the age of thirteen.
About this time, my real family moved into the neighborhood where I was living, and my mother enrolled my brothers and sisters at the school I was attending. This alarmed the welfare officers and my foster parents, who informed me that I was not to look or speak to them if I came across them. I did not even know their names or what they looked like. One day, I was walking to school and two kids yelled out to me to wait for them. Oh no, it could not be, could it? I started running away, fearful that I might be seen with them. How I wanted to look at them and talk to them, find out just what on earth had happened to our family. That evening at home I told my foster mother. A big mistake. She rang the authorities and told them my family was “moving in on me.” Next thing I know I am riding to school in a police car, not a good look. Trying to explain that to an already hurtful mob in the playground was impossible. I was laughed at and teased, but I held my head high. Eventually I was moved from this school in the hope that my family would not try to contact me again, but my Mum kept following.
I realized that my brothers and sisters must have been returned to her, so why was I still in that hellhole foster home? It seemed so unfair, and I began to rebel. I got into fights with other students, I wanted to hurt them. How dare they have normal families, how dare they! This did not last long and was not all that bad, but I found myself increasingly bitter about my foster family and what they had done. Why could I not go home? Only when I saw my welfare file as an adult did I read the letters sent from my parents begging for my return. How could they keep one child from a family as a ward of the state until aged fifteen when the other children had been returned? What gave authorities this right?
Being told nothing about my family, I knew nothing of my Aboriginal heritage. My identity was stripped away as if it was something to be ashamed of. This family knew all along of my heritage, but saw it as a disadvantage rather than something to be proud of. Since then, through reading my welfare file, I have realized that the reason I was not returned to my family was that my skin was the palest of all the children in my family, and the authorities thought that I would stand a better chance than my siblings of being assimilated into the wider community. They wanted to do all they could to ensure that I knew nothing of my Aboriginal heritage.
I was now fourteen years of age and dealing with many teenage problems. I decided to run away. I had no plans, but a girlfriend decided to join me. She wanted to get away from the violence in her home—her father was a chronic alcoholic. We set off one day, vowing never to return. We were unprepared and did not even take any food. We did not last long, but promised ourselves that one day we would go far away and escape.
This happened fairly quickly. We both got jobs after school and saved hard to buy a bus ticket each that entitled us to travel anywhere in Australia. We boarded the ferry for the mainland, where we took a bus to Sydney, then Queensland. We were both small enough in stature to sleep in the bus luggage racks, which was fortunate since we had no money for accommodation. We made it as far as Mount Isa in northern Queensland. We then travelled down through the Centre to Ayers Rock (now also known as Uluru). We climbed Uluru, then made our way to Alice Springs, down through South Australia, and back to Tasmania. We had to go home. We were out of money and too young to earn more through employment. This was a great journey, which recharged our self-esteem. I felt so free and happy. We did not have to ask permission to do anything, though being just fourteen, many of our adult fellow travellers worried about what we were doing. We grew up a lot during that trip and learnt a lot about ourselves.
Then a new problem arose. The authorities told me that once I was sixteen I could no longer be a ward of the state, and then I would belong to no one unless the foster family adopted me. As a late adoption, they left the choice up to me. But what was the alternative? Try to find my family and live with them? What if they did not want that? Then what would I do? We had grown up apart. What chance did we have of bonding? I felt I could not go back.
Meanwhile, my foster family was determined not to let me go. I was told that if I did not sign the adoption papers I would “live to regret it,” whatever that meant. I think they did not want to risk the family secrets becoming public. They scared me to the point where I could see no alternative. I signed the papers, but I now regret doing so. For years after I lived with shame, agonizing that I had rejected my family who had done nothing wrong to me.
However, when I was sixteen I moved out of my foster home and found a place of my own. The following years were spent establishing myself in employment. I drank alcohol from an early age. It helped me escape for a little while, but I quickly learnt that when I sobered up the problems were still there and had to be faced. I had many relationships, some bordering on promiscuity, but looking back, I am not ashamed of that part of my life. I found employment in a bank and was soon appointed to a senior position. I was young and outspoken, but I found I was able to hold my own with lions of the business world.
When I was twenty I decided it was time to find my Mum. I was scared that she would not want to see me after agreeing to adoption, but I knew I had to satisfy an incredible urge inside me. I did not even know my parents’ names. After much thought, I decided to go back to the welfare authorities that removed me and my siblings. I remembered the names of the officers who had looked after my case. How could I forget them? Now it was time for payback.
I went to the building that housed the welfare offices. It was just as I remembered. The smell was the same, the carpet, the paint on the walls. I went forward to the enquiries desk and said I was seeking information on my family. I gave details and dates of my history. The enquiries clerk consulted his superiors, then returned to say there was nothing they could do, what was contained in my file was “privileged government information” and I had no right to access it.
I was angry. How dare they bust up families and show no remorse, I thought, and no attempt to help reunite them. I was determined not to give in. Two can play at that game, I decided. I went back to that office every working day for weeks and sat in the foyer, eyeballing the enquiries clerk and anyone else behind that counter. They became increasingly uncomfortable and eventually could not even bring themselves to look at me.
After many weeks I was tired of doing this and was just about to give up when a man appeared and stood over me as if he was about to give me a lecture. He was a big man with scary big, thick, black glasses. He stood and looked at me with arms folded, tapping his foot, but when he spoke, his voice was so gentle. He asked me to follow him and we went into a big room that looked like a library. He asked me to sit down and placed a manila folder in front of me. It was an inch and a half thick and written across the front was “Debra Ann Cooper – Welfare File.” Could this be true? What was this man up to? He placed a pad of paper and a pencil beside me. In his kind voice he said, “You have half an hour,” and walked out.
I flipped through the pages like a madwoman. God only knows what I should look for. Eventually my brain began to operate, and I tracked down my parents’ names. There was a lot of welfare jargon, a language I found difficult to understand. I wrote down dates and names, which at the time meant nothing, but proved useful to me later. Thirty minutes went by so quickly and then the man was walking back through the door. He picked up my file and smiled at me. I asked him who he was, and he explained he was Mr. Bond, the Director of the Welfare Department. I asked him why he had done this for me. He just smiled and motioned me to the door. I thanked him and scurried away. That office did not see me again for another twenty-five years. What Mr. Bond had done was entirely illegal, and he would have been instantly dismissed had he been caught. Somehow I knew this at the time and decided not to say a word.
After sifting through the scanty information I had written, I began an extremely frustrating search. I looked through electoral rolls, telephone directories, and much else. Finally I tracked down the address where my mother was then living. To my astonishment, she was just five minutes away from me.
I then had to decide whether to take the next step. I knew I had to follow it through. One day in October 1980, I arrived at the address feeling shaky but excited. All sorts of thoughts went through my mind. What if they had forgotten about my existence? What if they had no desire to see me? I would soon find out. I wandered up the pathway to the front door, my heart beating so loud I felt everyone would hear it. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door, trembling. The door opened and there stood my Mum, no doubt about it. She was very short and thin and had a great head of strawberry blond hair. I stood there looking, I could not speak. She broke into a smile, and tears streamed down her face.
We embraced for what seemed like a really long time, and she held me so tight I could hardly breathe. She motioned me inside. My two sisters and brother were there too, also another brother and sister born after I had been removed. So many emotions ran through me. We all stood there looking at one another, no words were spoken for quite some time. My Mum looked sick. She was pale and very thin. Her movements were not that of a healthy woman. I did not know how old she was or anything else about her, but that did not matter. We sat down and started talking about the silliest things. Nothing seemed to make sense. I suppose we were in shock. But one thing was for sure, they were damned happy to see me.
Now that I had made contact, I thought, we would be able to get to know one another. I did not realize that my Mum was dying, and there was little time left. Two weeks later I was planning my next visit when one of my sisters phoned, asking me to come to the hospital. Our Mum might not have long to live, she said.
I was in agony. How could she die when I have only just met her? I rushed to the hospital and ran into my brothers and sisters making their way to the hospital chapel. But I wanted to see my Mum. When I reached the ward I saw her, hooked up to several machines. It was evident the end was near. I grabbed her hand and whispered, “It’s me Mum, please don’t go.” That was the first and only time I would call anyone “Mum.” That was very special to me. Within minutes she was gone, but she had such a peaceful expression on her face. A few minutes passed and the family stood in the doorway, realizing she had gone.
We did not grieve much together, we just did not know how. But from them I learnt of my Aboriginal heritage. Although I was suffering the loss of a mother I did not know, I had found a large part of my identity. All of a sudden things made sense to me. The racist comments hurled at me as a child now had meaning. I began another journey.
During the next twenty years I reclaimed my identity, learnt about my culture, and learnt of the injustices my people had endured. It became apparent that the actions carried out by the authorities were deliberately aimed at splitting Aboriginal families in Tasmania and, as I learnt, it happened Australia-wide. The policies differed in each state and territory, but they all led to the same thing—a nation-wide attempt to assimilate Aboriginal people into the wider community and destroy our culture. It was a blatant attempt at genocide.
Like many others of the Stolen Generations, as the media now calls us, I was determined that no matter how hard they tried and how much I was beaten, I would not forget about my family or my identity. I realized that I was one of many thousands of children who were taken, many of whom never returned. How could any country do that to their children?
For some time bitterness and anger consumed me, but I learnt to rise above it. I have seen so often in Aboriginal communities that the transfer of anger from older to younger can be devastating. Past injustices, inflicted mostly by governments, have led us into destructive and addictive patterns of behaviour. Many stay that way for the rest of their lives. But do we have to keep living this way? What of our children? Can we make sure that our children do not suffer from the effects of these atrocities as we have done?
As I came to know our Elders, I saw how some of them are working to answer this situation. One Elder taught me much about compassion. This lady had all six of her children taken from her, and some she never saw for the rest of her life. Although she had endured the most terrible of racist experiences, she maintained that we needed to live in the present and look to the future. She treated everyone as equals, regardless of race, religion, or creed. She won the respect of many white Tasmanians and profoundly altered attitudes toward Aboriginal people.
I realized that there are good people in this world and in our own neighborhoods. If we are going to bring change, they need to be enlisted. So, when I was asked in 2000 to join a national committee, which brought together Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people working for healing and justice for the Stolen Generations, I accepted gladly.
The National Sorry Day Committee had been launched in 1998. It aimed to offer the Australian community the chance to apologize for the tragedies caused by the removal policies at a time when the federal government refused to do so. National Sorry Day is commemorated on May 26th every year, and around the nation events are held to bring recognition and understanding of a part of Australia’s history that many Australians still do not comprehend.
My job was to set up a committee in Tasmania and plan an event for the upcoming May 26th. This was achieved relatively quickly, and before we knew it, we had interest from all over the state. Enquiries came from schools, health centres, and government agencies, and many community groups were keen to be involved. We planned an event on our community land and invited people from all walks of life. We had speakers and performers from both the Aboriginal community and the wider community. Nothing like it had been done before, and it was very successful. It sent a clear message to our state premier that many people were aware of the cruelties of our history and wished to atone for them. It was an awakening moment for many Tasmanians who heard the stories of Stolen Generations Survivors for the first time.
After the first Sorry Day, the Journey of Healing was launched to offer all who had apologized the chance to take part in healing the wounds. We continued planning events year after year, speaking in schools at all academic levels. We realized that what we had started could enable Tasmanians to look truthfully at our shared history, and this was vital if we were to build a new relationship.
Two years ago our state premier died of lung cancer while in office. His dying wish to his successor was that he should do justice to the Stolen Generations of Tasmania by offering compensation. His successor has fulfilled this wish, and the legislation for a compensation scheme has now been approved by both Houses of our State Parliament. Tasmania is the first state to do so, and its action is thereby challenging other states and the federal government to do likewise for their Stolen Generations Survivors. I have no doubt that the work we have done, year in and year out, has helped our premiers and our Parliament to take this step.
Through my involvement in these matters, I have developed a keen interest in human rights, particularly social justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. As a child I was powerless, but as an adult I am not. To repair self-esteem and self-worth can be incredibly hard, but I decided I was not prepared to remain a victim all my life. I wanted to work for both healing and justice.
This meant that I was ready for leadership. In 2006, I was elected Indigenous Chair of the National Sorry Day Committee. Sadly, over the previous year we had seen much divisiveness within the committee. This centred on the issue of an apology to the Stolen Generations from the federal government. Some felt that our main task was pressuring the government to offer this apology. Others felt that to keep asking for an apology from a cold-hearted government was demeaning, and we needed to get on with healing regardless of the government.
The growing division threatened to destroy the movement, and I was determined that would not happen. The only solution I could see was to go our separate ways. I spoke to many people around the country and was urged to create a new movement, not in opposition to the National Sorry Day Committee, but to work alongside it. Those who wished to focus on an apology were welcome to do so. Those who wished to focus on healing would form a new organization.
We met in Sydney in early 2007 and formed a new committee, which we called the “Stolen Generations Alliance—Australians for Healing, Truth and Justice.” Many people have joined us in this, including former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and Lowitja O’Donoghue, one of Indigenous Australia’s most powerful leaders, who are now our co-patrons. All states and territories are represented in this alliance, and there is much positive energy among those involved.
I believe this energy comes from our determination to offer everyone, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, a part in shaping a new society, free of the racism that has scarred our nation. We invite everyone to work with us: the Stolen Generations, the whole Aboriginal community, federal and state governments, and the wider Australian community.
There is much work to be done. Many educative structures are needed to enable Australians to understand the hurts and traumas that Aboriginal people in this country have endured so that the wounds may heal. There is also much forgiveness and understanding needed within the Aboriginal community, as so often the frustrations and injustices from the past are internalized, leading to division among Aboriginal people. This needs to be understood by the wider community. And we, Aboriginal people, need to take responsibility for our emotional and social well-being.
Reconciliation is far from dead in this country. Sometimes it seems we are struggling up a series of mountain ranges, reaching one only to find there is another right behind it. But our mountainous terrains can flatten out, and we can walk on common ground as one people. There is a conscious effort by many of all races to seek healing in this country. Reconciliation can become a way of life in this country, rather than a political tool used by government for its own purposes. Until then will we create for our children a country of healing, truth, and justice.
Debra Hocking is from Tasmania, an island state of Australia lying approximately two hundred kilometres south of the mainland. She is a Stolen Generations survivor and descendant of the Mouhenneer people. She is Indigenous co-chair of Australia’s National Sorry Day Committee and Indigenous chair of Achieving Reconciliation Tasmania. Debra has worked for many years on Aboriginal community health issues. She is a recipient of the United Nations award for the International Year of the Culture of Peace and the Human Rights Award for Humanitarian Activities in Tasmania.
Debra’s contribution to this collection, Reconciliation: An Indigenous Australian Perspective, is a moving personal narrative of struggle and reconciliation. Raised in an abusive foster home, the search to find her birth family led to the discovery that she is member of the Stolen Generations, the term used to describe the thousands of Indigenous children in Australia who were removed from their families and placed in mission schools and foster homes. We follow Debra as she battles government bureaucracy in a determined effort to reunite with her family, and we watch her initial bitterness and anger transform into compassion and political activism. Her work with groups such as Australia’s Sorry Day Committee and Achieving Reconciliation Tasmania support her growing optimism that reconciliation can become a way of life for all people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. ↩
- My personal story has been recorded in a number of public forums including the following online newsletter: Caritas Australia (Catholic Agency for International Aid and Development) (2006). News from the field: 04 December 2006. Retrieved 9 October 2007 from: http://www.caritas.org.au/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Caritas_at_glance&Template=/CM/HTMLDisplay.cfm&ContentID=1738 ↩