politics

The year Kevin Rudd gave his 'sorry' speech, 11-year-old Vanessa was removed from her parents.

On February 13, 2008, Australia’s then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stood in front of parliament and apologised on behalf of the Australian government for the forced removals of Australian Indigenous children from their families.

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

“And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.”

Under government policies from 1910 to 1969, Indigenous children were removed from their families in an effort to be assimilated into ‘white Australia’. It’s estimated at least 100,000 children were removed, with siblings separated and irreparable damage done to Indigenous culture.

According to official records, this practice officially ended in 1969. But in the same year Kevin Rudd delivered his apology, 11-year-old Vanessa Turnbull Roberts was forcibly taken from her family and placed in out-of-home care.

 

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Now, she’s 22. And she doesn’t understand how the Australian government can apologise for wrongs that are still being committed.

Speaking to Marlee Silva on Mamamia’s Tiddas 4 Tiddas podcast, the Bundjalung woman, law student and activist says she is part of the ongoing Stolen Generation, which continues to affect Indigenous people.

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“The Stolen Generation has never stopped. Assimilation has never stopped,” she says.

“This Stolen Generation is continued in our policies, it’s continued in the action and it’s continued when we take a look at the rates of incarceration and we just look at why those people are in those places.”

For Vanessa, this started from the moment she was born. The moment her “dark skinned Aboriginal” father appeared at the hospital, and so too did a social worker.

“[My dad would tell me] ‘the moment you were born, bub, and I appeared at the hospital, a case worker was there,'” she says.

“They use this rhetoric that ‘we’re here to help and support you,’ but we didn’t put our hand up for support. We have our aunties and our uncles, our family and our kin.”

Listen to Marlee Silva’s eye-opening conversation with Vanessa Turnbull Roberts on our Tiddas 4 Tiddas podcast:

At 11, Vanessa was forcibly removed from her family, under what she calls “falsified allegations of neglect,” and placed in the foster care system. Over the next few years, she would be cycled through over a dozen homes.

“They came in and they intervened and it took them 11 years to remove me. Nothing was even wrong, and they would have known that had they represented my rights, my voice,” she says.

Instead, Vanessa says at no point did officials ask her if she felt safe or supported in her foster homes.

“I was placed in non-Indigenous homes. And in these homes, some were good people, [but] the majority [were] unsafe people,” she says.

“[But] every time I complained about either an abusive home, or something not being right, it took them months and months to action anything and it would just be the same cycle.”

Throughout her schooling, Vanessa fought another kind of discrimination, which she says a lot of Indigenous children face.

In primary school, her parents were told by teachers she “probably wasn’t going to make it past Year 9”.

“A lot of us didn’t think we would make it past primary school, [or] high school, let alone being in university and having the opportunity and choices that are to come.

“It was something I found really hard to comprehend, [but] I knew that rhetoric was happening behind-the-scenes, because of the way they put the work in with me, which was very limited.

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“The bar is set way too low for what we’re made of and what we can achieve.

 

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Today, Vanessa is about to start her Honours year at university, where she studies law.

More than a decade on from Kevin Rudd’s apology, and Vanessa’s forced removal from her own family, the rates of Indigenous children living in out-of-home-care have nearly doubled. According to a recent report, there were 9,070 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care in 2007-08, with that figure jumping to 17,664 in 2017-18. In February 2019, the National Indigenous Times also reported that Indigenous children are 10 times more likely to be placed in out-of-home care than their non-Indigenous peers.

For Vanessa, her experience with out-of-home-care drives her activism for Indigenous issues like the continued forced removal of Indigenous children, and disproportionate Indigenous imprisonment and suicide rates.

“In my circumstances of being able to be at university… I’m doing everything in my power to give back to young people who just like me, just didn’t have [that],” she says.

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“We have to keep that fight up… it might mean one day, our children can walk through the street and not be judged on their complexity or identity, or targeted by state intervention.

“It’s not a privilege to be speaking the truth, it’s our right to be speaking the truth, and it’s just a shame not many people want to hear that.”

 

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As for what non-Indigenous people can do to help, Vanessa asks us to “be a healthy ally”.

“Don’t try and talk for us or about us, but rather share with us and know what is going on,” she says.

“As a non-Indigenous person you benefit off the structures and oppression that your ancestors committed on my people and you have a responsibility to show up.

“Show up for the suicides, show up for people dying in custody, show up for the kids in care, show up for the policies that dehumanise us as people, and show up for any single person out there that needs you.”

You can follow Vanessa Turnbull Roberts on Instagram and Twitter. You can also follow Tiddas 4 Tiddas and Marlee Silva on Instagram, and subscribe to the podcast here.

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