Stolen Generations

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Personal Statement

In my experience, the sense of loss and grief from being removed as a baby has left a scar so deep, that recovery seemed almost impossible. We find forgiveness to allow our own healing to begin, but that should not give qualification or sanitisation of these wrong doings and injustice. My mum and dad I am sure would have loved me very much and the pain they must have had to endure is unimaginable. My strength of spirit has been challenged many times as has keeping the anger and frustration at bay. We share our stories so that others may understand what the legacy of child removals has left behind. It is not about blame or guilt now, as that takes us to a negative space which I consider produces destructive behavior. It is about considering the ways we can make sure this never happens again. If we become forgetful, the injustices of the past could very well be repeated. Listening to these stories which I consider are so generously shared with all, may seem hard and confronting for some, but just remember, it has been even harder to live the journey.

Transcript

Debra Hocking

Duration: 30:27

My name’s Debra Hocking. I’m a descendant of the Mouheneenner people from South East Tasmania. I’m a Stolen Generations survivor. I have some academic qualifications that I’ve been to uni’ and studied very hard for in Aboriginal health. Which has helped me understand a lot of the physical problems in our community today but also the spiritual and emotional problems which we all tie in together.

I’m the Chair, Aboriginal Chair, of Stolen Generations Alliance. We liaise with Stolen Generations all around the country to take their needs forward, if they find it difficult to do that. And as far as linking up families and, you know, working with link up services and so on.

[Attitudes in Tasmania]
At that period of time in Tasmania, I’m talking the early ‘60s, it was still this continual act of ‘we have to diminish Aboriginal people.’ No matter how pale they look, they’re still Aboriginal. We’ve still got to bust them up. Split them up. That was the intent of the Government of the day. Now you won’t find any document that will tell you that but I tell you now that is what happened.

And those people going into the homes that represented the Welfare Department were plucked off the streets to do the job. They weren’t experienced. They were ex-teachers, ex-police. They weren’t experienced. They didn’t care. They had no understanding of what it meant, what the impact of removing children actually would have.

All they were, just incessant with, were just busting up the Aboriginal families. And the Tasmanian Government has now recognised that and apologised for it. So it’s --- this is not something that I’m, you know, out there with. It has been --- the evidence has been gathered. And there has been an apology and compensation paid.

So for anybody out there that might sort of suggest - well, you know, perhaps their mum was neglecting them a bit, you know, think again. Because the Government certainly has.

[Being taken]
What I can tell you firstly is what I read in the file. It’s not something I remember as a child because I was just too young. According to my Government file at the age of 18 months I was removed from my family, as were my other siblings.

Illegally we were split up. Now even back in those days it was the law to actually keep children together. Now my eldest sister was six and remembers it very vividly, us being taken away. It was on the grounds of neglect. Now I know we so often hear neglect. Now when I gave evidence to the Bringing Them Home report, Sir Ronald Wilson, the late Sir Ronald Wilson, asked if he could read my file, which I gladly showed him. And as he went through the file he said ‘There’s no evidence of neglect here.’ I said ‘No. That’s what I thought.’

According to my file again, there were several attempts to place me but it wasn’t easy because I was fretful because I was still being breastfed. So yeah. So I looked at the placements and ‘this child is so unhappy’ ‘this child is fretting’ ‘I can’t possibly take this child on.’ So there was a series of that, of being shifted around and again I have no memory of that. Probably a good thing.

I was placed with a foster home in a location in Hobart that were deemed suitable for placement. They were religious people. They had a fairly high standing in the community. They already had four children of their own and yet I was placed with them.

[The foster family]
Over the years there were so many questions, like - why don’t I call you mum and dad? Why are you auntie and uncle? And then of course school time came. I got teased, you know. ‘Do you realise they got you from the gutter? That’s where they got you from.’ And I got nicknamed the gutter child. Now - this high, you know.

And I desperately wanted to see my family. Of course. Naturally I would. I knew I wasn’t --- they weren’t my family. That I knew. But what I didn’t get, what I didn’t really get, is that what right did those people, particularly the father have the right to take my innocence at the age of five? What right did he have to do that?

You know they’d go to church on Sunday and then rape you on Monday. And the welfare authorities would --- you’d have to meet with them and they’d say ‘Now are you happy?’ Of course you’d have to say you were happy. If you didn’t you got a flogging. I got many floggings I can tell you. It was a --- oh, ghastly foster home. And I was desperately lonely and wanting my mum. Of course. As you would. But there were no --- there was no allowance of any contact at all. There was deliberate separation and a deliberate, I guess, stripping of identity.

You know, when I was 15 the welfare said ‘We need you to sign your adoption certificate.’ I said ‘What do you mean?’ They said ‘Well you need to adopt yourself to this family. Legally you can’t be a ward of the State any longer.’ I said ‘No. I can’t sign myself to that family.’ ‘What’s your alternative?’ I thought - what is my alternative? I didn’t have an alternative. I had to sign my own adoption papers and at 15. And I said ‘What about my own family?’ ‘No, they don’t want you. No, no.’ Oh. So I signed it and I regret the day I did. I hated it. And my mother must have seen that. What must she have thought?

So I spent nearly 15 years in that foster home. Desperately unhappy. Sick of the abuse and so on. So I took to the streets for a little while. Ran away. Do you know what? They didn’t even look for me. I think they were sort of glad. But they were worried --- there were attempts over the years of trying to perhaps place me back with my family but the foster home that I was in very much opposed it. And you know why? Because of the abuse. And they didn’t want anybody to know because they were, you know, high standing in the community.

But be that as it may the authorities left me in this home, you know, and looking back as an older person, looking at my file there were suggestions of inter-family relationships. There was this and there was that and yet they left me in this home. I don’t get it. I don’t understand. That made me a little bit angry. And I think rightly so.

So when I was 20 I got myself through school and yeah I’d lived on the streets but then I didn’t do that for very long because it was just too hard. I was hungry and cold and thought - this is not for me, I’ve got to get above this. So I actually applied for a job with a bank. Imagine that. Straight off the streets. Yeah, straight off the streets and applied for this job and got it. With the bank.

And I was so proud of myself, you know, no one was there to help. So I worked my way through those few years and then it was then I had the urge to see my mum. And I don’t know why. I had a dream one night that she was sitting on the end of the bed. I think it was a dream. And she was motioning like this to me. And I couldn’t see her face because I didn’t know what she looked like. Didn’t even know her name. There’s something urging me to find her, you know, so I thought - where do I start? I had no information on my family at all. I didn’t know my brothers’ and sisters’ names. I had no idea. Where does one go?

[Finding mum]
It took me nearly two years because I had to do it in isolation. There was no link-up then. There were no services to help, you know, but then I got smart and I thought - righto, go to the authorities that took you. Surely they’ll have it on file. You’d think so.

So I went to that address where I used to go as a child. Walked in as an adult and I stood at the enquiries desk and I explained my situation. I said ‘Now I need some assistance here, see I want to find my family, okay?’ And they said ‘We’re sorry but that’s privileged Government information.’ Right. Is that right? And she said ‘Yeah.’ And I said ‘So you won’t help me?’ She said ‘I’m sorry we can’t.’

So I did a sit-in protest. [laughs] I went along every day to that office and I sat in the foyer just with a bit of attitude. Every day for two weeks until finally this gentleman came out. Tall and big and he was a bit scary. And he came over to me and he said ‘Come with me.’ So I followed him and we went into what looked like some kind of filing room or library or something like that. And on the desk there was a pad and a pen and a file saying ‘Debra Anne Cooper.’

And I thought - god, that’s it. And he looked at me and he said ‘I can only give you half an hour.’ And he walked out and closed the door. Now what that man did was totally illegal. He could have lost his job.

So I’m opening the file thinking - oh god! Who’s this, who’s this? I don’t know. And I’m trying to rush and I made all these scanty notes on this piece of paper, which I’ve still got. Still got that piece of paper. But it did give me --- my brothers’ and sisters’ names and dates of birth. And some names didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t know. But I got my mum’s name and my dad’s name. And I thought - ah. So I took my piece of paper and like a little detective I started putting the pieces together. Finally located my mum. And do you know what? She only lived five minutes away from where I was. And I’d gone through all that hardship. All that red tape and the brick walls.

Anyway but nevertheless I found her. Didn’t mind about all that. So --- I had an address for her now. Then I had to go through the moral consciousness of it because one thing I didn’t add was in this foster home I was told that they were no good. She was no good. Didn’t want you. Okay? So bearing that in mind I’m thinking - am I doing the right thing here? And I thought - I have such a strong urge, whether it’s right or wrong I need to do this.

So I walked up the pathway to the house, which is one of the biggest things I’d ever had to do in my life. I had the wobbles and I’m thinking - going to see my mum for the first time, you know, as an adult. And I thought - oh --- I was really scared about it. But do you know I knocked on the door - bang, bang, you know, and the door opened and there was my mum. Standing in front of me.

Do you know what, I looked at her and she said ‘I knew you’d come.’ And that dream that I had, I’m not sure it was a dream. I don’t know about that. It was very emotional as you can imagine, you know, I just didn’t have the words. She didn’t have the words. We were both so traumatised at seeing each other. And so the first meeting that we had was pretty emotional and not much was said and I thought - don’t rush it Deb. You’ve got time, you don’t have to do the mother-daughter thing instantly like that, because it doesn’t happen that way. People think it does but it doesn’t. Well not for me.

So anyway we talked about some stuff and then I left her, reluctantly. I told her I’d go back to see her. And yeah, a week later --- I just needed time. Because this threw a whole new thing in for me now, like - wow. And my brothers and sisters were there too. And they said - oh she’s come back to the family. I didn’t know whether I had, you know, it was just too quick for me to --- I couldn’t take it all in. So I needed time.

So about a week later I thought - oh, okay I probably need to go back and sit with her. Because I just needed to know about her. I needed to know about my brothers and sisters and about me. And about their lives, you know, what had happened to them.

But yeah, I had a call from the hospital, as I was about to go and visit her, asking me to come quickly because she was ill. And now I thought back and I thought - now when I met her she looked awfully thin and awfully sick. And I’m thinking - oh no. Anyway I went to the hospital to see her and I had about two minutes with her and she died. Yeah. So we never really had the chance to --- well I didn’t get to learn about her and I never will, sadly. And yeah, for the first time in my life I called somebody mum.

I said ‘See you mum.’ Yeah, which was --- and my brothers and sisters were going down to the chapel to pray --- do you want to come? And I said ‘No, I need to stay.’ So I was with her, you know, and I was privileged in that. And you might sort of say oh that’s really sad, but look, hey I got to meet her. And I got to be there at her death, which I know might sound a little bit macabre to some people but it was certainly a moment that I treasure.

[Discovering her Aboriginal heritage]
When I was told --- I was told on my mother’s death actually, about my heritage, you know, it just seemed to --- it wasn’t something that I had to run and tell the world about but by gee it gave me an inner peace straight away. Oh gosh. It’s amazing. And that’s why when you, not fight so hard for something but when something’s beyond your grasp for a long time, you finally get it - don’t ever let it be taken away.

I never understood why as a younger person or even as a child I had this obsession to get a hole, make a fire. Always. And I used to get into trouble for it. Oh gosh yes. And it wasn’t until I came in contact with my mum did I learn that she used to do the same thing. And that’s why she was victimised in her housing because she would literally take to the front lawn with a crowbar [laughs] and make a fire pit. Stones, and make the fire. And there was I, the next generation, doing the same thing and never understanding why. I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand why I had to do it but it was very soothing and therapeutic and it was almost my time for talking to ancestors, sitting at the fire. That was the time.
   
[The learning years]
For 20 years I stood back carefully, listened respectfully. Didn’t go in gung-ho. Learned about my culture and learned about my heritage, which all came very easily to me anyway. Some of the elders down there mentored me, which was just beautiful. It wasn’t a very easy road but it was one that I, you know, I felt very much a part of and knew that I had to do it.

Actually it was reclaiming my identity. That’s what it was. It wasn’t something new it was just something that was always there but I needed to reclaim it and it was a good 20 years for me to do that.I guess you know where you fit now. I know where I fit. To some mainstream people they don’t know where I fit.

About having fair skin and being an Aboriginal person, you know, the concept of blackness. I know some very dark skinned Aboriginal people who actually don’t care about their Aboriginality. I think - oh god, you know, but I don’t see it as a fault. I’m no reject, you know, I am who I am and I’m very proud of it. Very proud of my family. I’ve got four children who also identify. It was hard for them because in a challenging community like Tasmania, and indeed like around the country as well, you have to be very strong if you’re going to stand up and say who you are.

It may take three generations to take the colour but you’ve got 40,000, 50,000 years of inherent values and culture and custom. Now never mind about skin colour. Your culture is deeper than your skin, you know, it’s deeper. Your customs are deeper than the skin and yet society tells us that we make an opinion or a judgement when we lay eyes.

[The strength of Aboriginal spirit]
Now I guess the Government’s plan was to remove the kids, put them into mainstream, they’ll never ever think about their family again. What didn’t come into the plan of child removals was - it was a skin thing. Get the pale ones out, quick, you know. They’ve got a better chance of slipping into mainstream than what the darker child has. And that’s why it was the skin thing.

But what I don’t think came into their plan, what they didn’t know, was the strength of Aboriginal spirituality and how it prolongs and how the spirit might be a bit bent but it never gets broken. Never gets broken. And so that’s why we are the longest surviving race in the world. That’s why, you know, because I think we do have an inherent strength. As my mum did, I reckon. That’s very misunderstood or perhaps not even taken into account by the mainstream. They didn’t expect that. See I don’t think it was in the plan that I’d be sitting here talking to you today about this. I should have just gone away and lived my life in mainstream. So what is it that makes people not relinquish who they are?

[Learning about mum’s experiences]
I think she was stuck in two worlds, you know, I think this digging a hole in the front lawn and kids without the shoes and all this kind of thing. I look at my Government file and look at how it all happened and how tragic it must’ve been for her and how she wanted to continue her culture and the authorities said no, you actually can’t do that because if you do --- if you continue to, you know, raise your children in this way we’d say it’s neglect.

It was a deliberate, again, stripping away of culture. Well she either does it the way we do it or the kids go. Now that’s a very blatant way to say it but that’s actually what happened. So I read in the information where she really tried to do things the way they wanted her to do. And they would inspect and they would do all these things and they’d walk in with all the power and say - no, not quite happy yet. Keep working. Keep going.

My older sister said, she said ‘Oh it was just awful,’ because, you know, there’d be --- they had to keep all the curtains open and the minute they saw a car pull up, you know, she said she’d run around and she’d try and make sure that everything --- there was always something that she hadn’t done. She was so scared because she knew they found anything --- anything -- a box of matches in the wrong place. ‘What happens if the kids get hold of them?! You know Jean. You’ve been told about this. You know you’ve got to put that away. You know you’ve got to have more food in your cupboard. Otherwise we’re going to have to take your children you know.’

Poor Jean. There she was. Poor old mum, you know, running around. Making sure everything was alright. And she’d had a bottle of beer. Or half a bottle of beer. And she put the top on and put it in the griller. [laughs] And they came in. Searched --- they search. They don’t just come in and look around, they actually search. Open cupboards. They actually look for things. That’s what I’m saying before see. Open the griller. Why would you open the griller? Why would you do that? And there was half a bottle of beer. ‘Jean. Tsk tsk. Dear oh dear. What have we told you about the drink?’ You know? And so yeah, they threatened then. Diane said ‘I remember.’ They said ‘If we find any more alcohol your kids will be taken.’ And she said mum didn’t drink a lot. It wasn’t the fact that was the reason for neglect or anything like that.

[Neglect]
When I did access my proper file the first page I saw on it was a conviction notice for me and it had something --- I’d never seen a document like it and I didn’t know how I felt about it. It had something like - to whit this day of such and such --- it was an official Government document. This child aged one is convicted of neglect. And I thought - what does that mean? Convicted of neglect. And therefore made a ward of the State.

Well what were the expectations of welfare? What were the expectations? What made a good family? What made a good family, you know --- here you were, removed from your love, the love from your family. You were placed with what welfare considered to be a “better” family that actually belted you and raped you. Would your own family do that? I don’t think so. No. So this business of the neglect, it was a determination. It’s almost like --- neglect was almost like a determination of law, you know, it’s only how it’s interpreted. Neglect was the same thing and it was used in its rarest form to actually do that. To take children away.

They would actually look for things to be wrong. They wanted things to be wrong. Never mind about the --- you know the thing that was overlooked? In no reports did it say that the kids are happy, you know, to them it didn’t matter that the kids were happy. It was the material things they saw. And in most cases the kids were happy. We were oblivious to washing on the couch or to no shoes or runny nose or not much food in the cupboard. Who cared? They were together. They loved each other. They were a family. And this is where I think, you know, people have to have an understanding of the, again, the impact of taking all that away from a mother. I mean, goodness, I can’t even imagine, having four children of my own - I cannot imagine watching my children disappear into a car.

[Letter from Debra’s mother]
[Debra reads]

‘Dear sir, I am writing once again for you to consider letting me have my babies. Please sir if there’s anything else I have to do to prove myself could you tell me what it is. I’m just waiting to give my whole life in making up to my babies for the past but sir the waiting is almost unbearable. I have paid dearly for my mistakes a hundred times over by being parted from my children. My daughter is very nervous and I have had a talk to the doctor and he said that the upset she has had in her life has made her nervous but she would settle down when they were all together again.

‘Please sir my husband comes home in September and I would like to have them home and settled before he comes. Please sir could you give me some hope and let me know if that would be possible. If I can’t have them all now can I at least have one of them? It would be cheering my daughter up and it would help me to carry on a bit longer until I can have them all. Please sir I do beg you with all my heart to hear my plea and sir, I tell you from the bottom of my heart that you will never regret it for one moment.

‘If our Lord could speak to you he would tell you what is in my heart and that I want only to love and care for my children and give them a good and happy life for as long as I shall live, which God willing will be long enough to make up to my children for what they have suffered. I do hope that you will be able to give me some good news. I shall be waiting every day to hear from you.’

[Debra was instrumental in the move by the Tasmanian State Government to provide compensation]
The first suggestion of compensation came from the Bringing Them Home report and it was going to be a Federal responsibility. Now for years down in Tasmania I’d run the Sorry Day events we’d have huge community interest. Huge, huge, huge. And at a community meeting one day it was sort of thrown --- this is years ago, it was sort of --- we were talking about Stolen Generations and I think there was a general consensus that why wait for a Federal one. Why can’t our Government do it?

So we took it to the Government. We took it to the then Premier, who certainly didn’t shoo us away, you know, got him really, really thinking. But as he pointed out we have a very conservative Government who don’t even acknowledge Aboriginal people, that we have Aboriginal people here, so I don’t know how we’re going to do it. And I said ‘Well surely the fact of the attendance at Sorry Day activities, doesn’t it send a message to them that the Tasmanian community are very aware and sympathetic to the issues of Stolen Generations. Do you think it’ll be that hard?’ ‘Yep. I do.’ And I said ‘Well, let’s do hard then.’

As you know it got through both Houses, which was, you know, fantastic for Tasmania. Who would’ve thought one of the hardest hit areas of our country as far as Aboriginal history, could actually stand up and do that for their, you know, Stolen Generations?

With these schemes it’s never ideal in the eyes of some people. It will never be enough. It’s all too late. It shouldn’t have happened. All these things. And for some people in the wider community it’s - why give them money, you know, what’s that all about? So we had to deal with all that. And so we got to the final stage of it being passed in both Houses. It was publicly announced there was going to be compensation paid.

We talked about what the compensation is going to mean for people, you know, it is --- will it --- and we had to be quite honest about it. Will it give people money that they’ve never had before? Will it further addictions? Gambling, drinking. These unfortunately are the --- and that would be the same for both communities, not just for the Aboriginal community. It’s a very real thing in all communities.

So we took that into consideration. And I thought about it on a personal level and thought - do I feel okay accepting money? Is that what it’s all about? But you know Governments don’t know how to heal. They just don’t. The way they heal is financial and that’s it. So you can either reject it or accept it.

[Debra was successful in her application for compensation]
A good friend of mine said --- I was talking to her about it one day and I said ‘Look I don’t know what to do with this money. I just…’ you know, the letter was more important to me that came with it, than the actual money. Because the words that the Premier used were meaningful and heartfelt.

And so my friend said to me ‘You know Deb over the years you must have so many unhappy memories.’ And I said ‘Yeah, I suppose I have. Not many happy ones.’ Apart from four children. They’re four very happy memories. Yeah and she said ‘You know maybe what you could do is create a happy memory with it, you know, out of all the unhappiness create a happy memory.’ And I thought - that’s it. That’s what to do with the money. I know there are those in our community that sort of say well, you know, money’s the root of all evil and why give money. And I sort of agree but as I say, it was the capacity to create a happy memory. Yeah. And so if that’s what it was about, so be it.

You know we talk about Stolen Generations with an ‘s’ on the end and it really is about generations, you know, because my loss has impacted on the children now because of my removal and because of my not living with my family, being taken away - they don’t have grandparents. They’ve never met them. They don’t have aunties. They don’t have uncles or cousins. So it just doesn’t stop with one generation. It does impact and I feel their sense of loss. I know at Christmas time, you know? We’d sit there and there’d be my husband’s family and there’d be nothing.

I ended up dividing some of the money between my children because --- which they didn’t expect. And again I use the words of the Premier ‘this is not to replace. This will never replace what you’ve lost. No money can do that.’ But certainly how about you create a happy memory for yourselves too.

[Debra’s great grandmother]
You know we’re looking at something that has gone over generations and generations. We sometimes refer to Stolen Generations as being a fairly recent thing. My great great grandmother was taken away at the age of eight and placed --- she’s my tribal elder, and she was placed with a Christian family and stripped of all her culture. And I’m talking about back then. And here is the great great granddaughter sitting talking to you about the same thing.

I have photos of my great great grandmother and for a while I just looked and smiled and thought - oh she looks so gorgeous. But then I looked further and I thought - I can see what’s happening here. Okay? She was wearing a European dress. She had wattle in her hair and she had a possum skin belt on. Wow. And she had a shell necklace on, which I have, as well. But --- and at first I thought - wow, but that’s a blending see. That was the blending of the two. See how she wouldn’t relinquish? It wasn’t totally --- she didn’t have earrings or anything, curls or anything. That was part of her culture. And she never ever let that go and that taught me - never let it go. Doesn’t matter when the chips are down or how hard it gets, never let it go. She never did.

And I think that’s totally beautiful about her, you know, that --- and I mean I’m talking about the late 1800s, you know, back in a time when racism was just, wow, rampant. Blatant racism. And she was treated very badly by the mainstream community where she lived. Very badly. Some of the community, the wider community, raped her children. Gave them syphilis. Yet she was a Methodist. She had religion. And she would open her home on a Sunday afternoon and cook for the whole community. And she’d sing to them, you know, now what --- is that a generosity of spirit? When you’ve had all this stuff happen. What makes people like that?

END TRANSCRIPT

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