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Sorry Day

Lovers of the television series CSI might be pleased to hear of the latest spin off series coming to free to air television, CSI: Cyber. Starring Patricia Arquette as Special Agent Avery Ryan, this series explores cyber-crime. When I saw a recent advert for this show I declared to my household that this is a show we will most definitely never be watching. I quite enjoy some of the police procedural drama type shows, but some of them I find are just too easy to identify with and I prefer not to entertain the thoughts that they provoke. The first episode of this series definitely meets this description for me.

With adoption processes becoming increasingly difficult, clever criminals have discovered that some unscrupulous, or perhaps desperate, individuals can be convinced to ‘purchase’ babies on the black market for six figure sums. Cyber criminals have managed to find a way to hack into Nato-cam baby monitors and are auctioning babies online before kidnapping them and delivering them to the highest bidder.

That someone could even conceive of a crime like this sends shivers down my spine. As a mother and a grandmother it makes me feel physically sick to imagine the torment involved in losing a child in such a way. I find myself questioning just how far a TV series would go to entertain people; surely such a horror could never be reality? I haven’t even watched the show and it has disturbed my sleep. I have to keep reminding myself ‘it’s just a TV show’. However the sad truth is that for some of our nation’s first peoples the concept of children being stolen was in fact their living nightmare.

A nightmare that sounded like another movie script, only this one was not for television ratings, this one was for real:

“I was at the post office with my Mum and Auntie [and cousin]. They put us in the police ute and said they were taking us to Broome. They put the mums in there as well. But when we’d gone [about ten miles] they stopped, and threw the mothers out of the car. We jumped on our mother’s backs, crying, trying not to be left behind. But the policemen pulled us off and threw us back in the car. They pushed the mothers away and drove off, while our mothers were chasing the car, running and crying after us. We were screaming in the back of that car. When we got to Broome they put me and my cousin in the Broome lock-up. We were only ten years old. We were in the lock-up for two days waiting for the boat to Perth. “ [i]

May 26, known to Australians as National Sorry Day, serves as a stark reminder to us that such a horror did in fact occur, and not necessarily at the hands of people we would consider ‘evil’ or ‘criminals’. First held in 1998 it reminds us about the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families.

“The reason for the origin of national sorry day can be traced back to the Aboriginal Protection Act, 1869. According to this children of the indigenous peoples of Australia and children of mixed descent were forcibly removed from their parent’s homes. The government took over guardianship powers of these children and they were placed in government housing and raised away from their families. The government justifies its action in the name of the protection of the children and assimilating them into European Society.”

A. O. Neville, Chief Protector of Aborigines, in Western Australia (1875-1878) argued that biological absorption was the key to 'uplifting the Native race. Speaking before a Royal Commission in 1934, he defended the policies of forced settlement, removing children from parents arguing that "they have to be protected against themselves whether they like it or not. They cannot remain as they are… Half-caste children have been gathered up and brought [to mission stations] to give them the benefit of everything our culture has to offer. For if we are to fit and train such children for the future, they cannot be left as they are, and in spite of himself, the native must be helped”.[1]

The Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (April 1997) makes sobering reading. Here are a couple more excerpts:

“In the name of protection Indigenous people were subject to near-total control. Their entry to and exit from reserves was regulated as was their everyday life on the reserves, their right to marry and their employment. With a view to encouraging the conversion of the children to Christianity and distancing them from their Indigenous lifestyle, children were housed in dormitories and contact with their families strictly limited.” (P 23)

“During the 1950s and 1960s even greater numbers of Indigenous children were removed from their families to advance the cause of assimilation. Not only were they removed for alleged neglect, they were removed to attend school in distant places, to receive medical treatment and to be adopted out at birth.” (P28)

“In Queensland and Western Australia the Chief Protector used his removal and guardianship powers to force all Indigenous people onto large, highly regulated government settlements and missions, to remove children from their mothers at about the age of four years and place them in dormitories away from their families and to send them off the missions and settlements at about 14 to work.” (P25)

I cannot pass judgement on Episode 1 of CSI: Cyber, it is after all just a television show, but I can tell you that as I read accounts like the ones above I remember that as a Nation we still have much to be sorry for. Still today it seems that decisions are made without adequate consultation with those whose lives will be directly affected. Children and their families are still threatened with forced removal from the places they call home. Sometimes it appears as though we have failed to learn from our history.

Will you join me in commemoration on May 26? Perhaps you might even take the time to read the ‘Bringing them Home Report’? 

The pain and trauma Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were subjected to requires an apology and a commitment to do all we can to make sure that we learn from the mistakes of the past and work in any way possible towards reconciliation.


Sandy is the Territorial Social Justice Secretary for The Salvation Army.



[1] (Zalums, E (Elmar) and Stafford. H. (1980) A bibliography of Western Australian Royal Commissions, select committees of parliament and boards of inquiry, 1870-1979 Blackwood, S. Aust. E. Zalums & H. Stafford)

[i] Confidential evidence 821, Western Australia: these removals occurred in 1935, shortly after Sister Kate’s Orphanage, Perth, was opened to receive ‘lighter skinned’ children; the girls were placed in Sister Kates. (Bringing them Home Report. 6)