Taking the Children: a Commentary

Mbantua Grandmothers Against Removals.

Living in California during the roll-out of the zero tolerance to border crossing migrants policy has been a very interesting experience as an Aboriginal Australian and Fulbright researcher working on the bodily impacts of and outcomes for Indigenous child removals. One of the interesting aspects of this time has been observing Americans’ recognition that the zero tolerance policy of removal and incarceration of children has precedents in their country. This includes the past incarceration of children during the two world wars as well as the removal of First Nations children.

Australians also recognise that we have a history of removing children, but the reaction to the separation of children at the US border has seemed greater than our own response to the treatment of refugees, children from minority backgrounds, and Indigenous children. It is striking to me though that people recognised the precedents at all.

Recently, the President of the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband, stated that the US President’s policy had led to the use of ‘baby jails.’ On the day I wrote this blog post, a federal judge ordered that 34 migrant babies be reunited with their parents. The US government argued in response that it couldn’t meet this target due to a lack of records. In the same week an American streetwear company, KNYEW, saw fit to reprint the image of Dylan Voller as a juvenile inmate of Australia’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre on a t-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Faded Youth.’

Milliband suggests, and I agree, that these actions require ‘a dehumanisation.’ It is dehumanisation that allows us to think that the image of a person bound and hooded in a chair is commodifiable as a t-shirt. Both the t-shirt and Miliband’s term ‘baby jails’ made me react in a visceral manner.

My work sits at the heart of that space of dehumanisation, concentrating as I do on how legislation, policies and processes have treated children as bodies and not valued people. My social justice orientated mind wonders how it is conscionable to put a baby in gaol at all. Is it seen as acceptable to lock up babies, children and teenagers like Dylan Voller because these are the ‘rules’ and it is not personal? Should we forget that there have been at least three occasions in Australia’s history, when apologies were extended for harm done to innocent children? Paul Keating in his Redfern Park speech: ‘we took the children…We failed to ask- how would I feel if this were done to me?.’

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Bringing Them Home Speech and Apology:

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.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

Another apology was issued in 2009 to the British child migrants shipped to Australia from the UK between the 1920s and the 1970s. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd again said, ‘We are sorry… Sorry that, as children, you were taken from your families and placed in institutions where so often you were abused. Sorry for the physical suffering, the emotional starvation and the cold absence of love, of tenderness, of care.’ So it would seem that we already know what locking up children does to them, their families and communities.

Another aspect to this debate is highly concerning. Many believe that the zero tolerance policy of incarcerating migrant children is correct because people should not attempt to cross borders ‘illegally.’ These people overlook the human right to seek asylum. In the face of the Universal Human Rights Declaration, nation states cannot renege on their international legal obligations towards asylum seekers.

In the US, images such as that shot by John Moore of a Honduran asylum-seeking 2 year old child and her mother triggered a swift and massive public response.

One commentator observed the difference in the Australian public response to the fate of the Thai soccer team and to children on Nauru. He argued that the visibility of the soccer team is what makes the difference. While the Thai children were shown on our screens, we see little of the sites where refugee children are being held by Australia, either on the mainland or elsewhere. The response in Australia to the separation of children at the US border was similar to the response of many in US, so it begs the question, why don’t Australians raise the same objections to the treatment of refugee children by our own government?  Perhaps it is easier to dehumanise people if you don’t see them.

The unique position of Indigenous children then, can be better understood by putting some of these reflections together. Australia was imagined from the outset as a white country.[1] So Aboriginal people were not wanted or valued as part of this new nation. Unlike refugees though, there was no other ‘home,’ imagined or otherwise, for Aboriginal people to be sent back to. A series of legislation and actions in both the states and the Northern Territory, throughout the 20th century, treated Aboriginal people as if they were all children, controlling movement, education, cultural practices etc. Until 1967, the federal government did not pass laws for Aboriginal people due to the constraints in the Federal constitution. Child welfare is under the jurisdiction of the state governments. Guardianship of Aboriginal children was uniformly removed from their parents in most States. This Aboriginal-specific legislation, sitting outside normal child welfare provisions, left little room for the individual assessment of parents or children. It was only when children were taken into general child welfare provisions that Aboriginal children were treated according to child welfare policies. This became standard practice in the late 1960s in most legislative areas when much of the Aboriginal-specific child welfare and education legislation was phased out.[2]  My examination of the removal of Indigenous children sees these as acts upon Indigenous people who were treated as nameless and faceless bodies. The Indigenous body itself bears the brunt as the site of state intervention. It is embodied Indigeneity itself that is policed. When the Bringing Them Home report was released in 1997, though, many citizens claimed to be unaware of the removal legislation and its impacts.

The fact that people are treated as they were not individuals is not new. My research looks at the way that these histories have played out over generations and asks if it is possible to inherit memories in our epigenetics. Much of the research base in this area was generated in the aftermath of the Second World War and the Holocaust. The Holocaust and war crimes are examples of the ways in which humans have dehumanised others for their own aims. My own sense of horror comes from an awareness that the actions of the 19th and 20th century against minority and Indigenous children are continuing, with little regard to what we have learnt from the past. The Bringing Them Home report acknowledged removing Aboriginal children as a form of genocide.[3] The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide recognised genocidal acts as including ‘forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.’ As Ban Ki-moon states ‘We know more keenly than ever that genocide is not a single event but a process that evolves over time, and requires planning and resources to carry out.’ To be deemed as genocide though there must be an intent to destroy a group either in whole or in part, as the legislation underpinning Australian Indigenous child removals, does.

In examining trauma, memory and epigenetics in the context of Indigenous child removal we must consider what policies or processes might colonise a body and why? One way is through the incarceration of our children. Is it possible for people to inherit the memory of this incarceration? Those who are now adults live with Indigenous heritages in their minds and bodies. In Australia, we have experienced multiple generations of removals and so we have forebears who may have handed down memories in our epigenome.

In both Australia and the US there is continued silence around the removal of Indigenous children. In the US there is also the added complexity of Indigenous people attempting to cross borders that are newer than the cultural relationships and traditional transit areas. In the US, Canada and Australia, the number of Indigenous children being removed is at an unprecedented high, yet there is no equivalent outcry to that responding to the separation of parents and children at the US border? Dylan Voller was a teenager at the time the photograph used on the t-shirt was taken; an Aboriginal teenager. In Australia, in 2018, 100 percent of the youth in juvenile detention centres in the Northern Territory are Indigenous.

Whether it is the US border separations or Indigenous removals, there will be long-lasting implications for these children and their families. Recent research demonstrates the poor outcomes for reunited children. Research is currently being carried out across Canada, Australia and the United States into the poor treatment of Aboriginal children, including instances when they have disappeared from the record. In the face of the separation of children at the US border, will we need to add a new category: those removed with no record held of these actions? Could this be the latest form of colonisation with a new generation of targets?

Over the period of my Fulbright fellowship in the US, it has been extremely noticeable that the US economy is greatly contributed by the labour of people, many of whom have migrated from south of the US border. We know that 700-800 of the children have been deemed ineligible for reunification, but we do not know where have they gone? Many appear to have disappeared. I am justified in fearing that this is a means to train them for the labour force the US requires? Is it a way of justifying the removal and management of First Nations children? The US has a history of enslaving First nations people, Mexicans and south Americans as well as the more well-known slavery of Africans. It has also more recently had extensive systems of peonage arrangements of both Mexican and native peoples. The current removals against the political-economic history of the US should alert us to the alarming nature of these children’s disappearance. [4]

I know three things: 1) that children should enjoy the benefit of growing up within their own culture; 2) that communities who have children removed from them should know where those children are; and 3) there should always be an avenue to reunification. These challenges remain unmet in some of these current forms of removal.

[1] Jayasuriya, Laksiri, Transforming a ‘White Australia’: Issues of Racism and Immigration (2012), New Delphi: SSS Publications.

[2] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, (1997) Sydney: Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

[3] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. (1997) Sydney: Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

[4] See for instance: Resendez, A., The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America  (2016), Boston: Haughton Mifflin Harcourt


Dr Stephanie Gilbert is currently on a post-doctoral Fulbright Scholarship at the American Indian Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, exploring body memory, dysphoria and the possibility of the inheritance of memory in our epigenetics. Dr Gilbert writes from within the Aboriginal and Stolen Generation communities. She is usually Senior Lecturer at the Wollotuka Institute, University of Newcastle.

Leave a Reply


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
%d bloggers like this: