Psychiatrists have a professional as well as a moral and social obligation to comment on social practices and policies which are harmful to mental health. In May 1997 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission published “Bringing Them Home” the report of an investigation into removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. Removing Indigenous children started in the nineteenth century and became public policy for most of the twentieth century.
The consequences of this policy for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia has been catastrophic, both for individuals and for the Indigenous community as a whole. The Commission’s report documents terrible abuses. Generation after generation of Indigenous Australians have faced the terror and grief of having children taken from families and communities. Thousands of children suffered grave psychological injury by being deprived of their parents and culture, by being confined to institutions, by beatings, sexual abuse and exploitation. Some children may have been killed. Children were often lied to and told that their parents or siblings were dead. Parents were told that their children were dead.
The rationale for removing the children was that it would benefit them and that they would be assimilated into ‘white’ society. However, evidence cited in the report suggests that the children were more likely to suffer ill health, be arrested, abuse substances and die younger than those who were left with their families and communities.
The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) wishes to state that past practices of state sanctioned abduction of children from parents and from their culture are cruel and wrong. The psychological trauma involved has life-long mental health consequences and significant inter-generational effects. As a result of this practice, many Indigenous Australians suffer severe emotional distress including continuing disruption of family relationships and secondary social, psychological and psychiatric problems have arisen from the disruption of culture and community.
It is probable the medical profession was, to an extent, involved in the planning and implementation of these policies. Psychiatrists, along with many others in mainstream Australia, generally failed to see and understand the destruction and suffering caused by the taking of Indigenous children.
The RANZCP wishes to apologise to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for our failure as a group of doctors and psychiatrists to act early and effectively to try and prevent and reverse these disastrous practices.
The RANZCP recognises that Australia, as a nation, needs to take the steps to put right what can be put right and to provide appropriate restitution or compensation to the communities and individuals who have been injured by these policies.