Skip to Content

What was lost in the Stolen generation?

The Stolen Generations refers to the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families and communities from the early 1900s up until the 1970s. It was part of government assimilation policies that sought to eliminate Indigenous cultures and assimilate Indigenous people into white Australian society.

Children were taken from their families without consent and placed in institutions or with white families for adoption or fostering. It is estimated that between 10-30% of Aboriginal children were forcibly removed, though the exact number is unknown. The forcible removal of children caused untold grief and suffering, broke family ties, severed cultural bonds, and caused lifelong trauma.

The Stolen Generations policy resulted in catastrophic losses for Indigenous Australians at both personal and community levels. This article will examine some of the profound losses suffered by the Stolen Generations and their communities.

Loss of Family and Identity

The most devastating impact of the Stolen Generations was the loss of family. Children taken from their families often never saw their parents, siblings or relatives again. They lost their connections to kinship systems, which are the foundation of Aboriginal societies.

Along with family, children lost their identity. Their names were often changed and their language and cultural practices suppressed in institutions and non-Indigenous homes. Without family and culture, children struggled to develop a strong sense of identity and belonging.

“We weren’t allowed to speak our language, we had to speak English. We weren’t allowed to practice our culture, or our Dreaming or take part in any cultural ceremonies. We had white ways drummed into us.” – Joy Williams, member of the Stolen Generations.

The loss of identity had profound effects on mental health, with many descending into depression, addiction and despair. Not knowing who they were or where they came from caused deep existential crises for members of the Stolen Generations.

Case study: Coral Edwards

Coral Edwards, a Mutthi Mutthi woman from Balranald NSW, was taken from her family at age 5 in 1968. She was fostered into a white family where she was physically and sexually abused. Coral never saw her mother again, who died while Coral was still a teenager. She only met her father weeks before he died.

Without her family and culture, Coral struggled with her identity growing up. “I didn’t know I was Aboriginal til I was 15,” she said. Coral battled alcoholism and depression, spending time in prison and mental institutions. She credits reconnecting with her culture later in life with helping turn her life around.

Coral’s story demonstrates the deep psychological wounds caused by losing family and identity at such a young age. Hers is just one of thousands of similar stories in the Stolen Generations.

Loss of Childhood

The stealing of children not only severed family bonds, it also robbed children of a happy and carefree childhood. Life in institutions was often harsh and abusive. Children were subject to punishment for speaking their languages or practicing their culture. Many suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse with no family to protect them.

Those fostered out into white families also experienced trauma from being disconnected from all that was familiar. They lost the freedom of growing up with their communities and living a traditional outdoor lifestyle. Aboriginal childhoods revolved around kinship, culture and connection to Country – all lost when children were taken away.

“We didn’t have toys or anything, so we’d go down to the creek and swim and have a good day. That was what it was like for us, just living off the land…That’s the life we knew, and we were happy.” – Archie Roach, singer-songwriter and member of the Stolen Generations.

The theft of their childhood had profound effects on their adult lives. Many battled mental health issues related to their trauma. Being denied a proper childhood impacted their ability to live happy and functional lives.

Case study: Margaret Tucker

Margaret Tucker was taken from her family in Victoria at age 4 and sent to live at the United Aborigines Mission Home in Adelaide. In her biography *If Everyone Cared*, she wrote about the harsh conditions there:

“This place was little more than a prison for children.”

She describes being punished for speaking her language, having her mouth washed out with soap, and being beaten for minor infractions of the rules.

Margaret suffered further trauma when she was sent out to work for white families from age 12. She was poorly fed, mistreated and used for slave labor.

Margaret’s account makes it clear how Aboriginal children were denied a happy childhood by being stolen away to harsh institutions. There was no freedom to play and explore their natural environments. Only loneliness, punishment and trauma.

Loss of Spirituality and Connection to Country

Indigenous spirituality was interwoven with the land, known as Country. Children taken from their lands lost their spiritual roots which connected them to their ancestral belief systems. Their knowledge of sacred sites, songlines and lore was cut off.

Children were also denied access to their traditional foods and medicines found in their homelands. Aboriginal people had – and still have – a deep spiritual and physical connection to their land. This was severed when children were stolen and taken far from their Countries.

“I lost my culture, my land and my identity…We weren’t allowed to speak our language, we couldn’t share our stories.” – Zena Armstrong, member of the Stolen Generations.

This spiritual disconnection had a profound impact on their wellbeing. It left a gaping hole in their belief systems and knowledge. For Indigenous cultures, spirituality and land are intricately interwoven with everyday living practices. Being forcibly removed from their Countries caused deep trauma and dislocation for generations of Aboriginal children.

Case study: Pansy Neelie

Pansy Neelie was born around 1915 in the Kimberley, Western Australia and taken from her family at about 6 years old. She was sent to the Beagle Bay Mission near Broome.

In an oral history recording, Pansy describes the trauma of losing her connection to her Ngarinyin Country:

“I lost my own ground, my own land…kids taken away too early don’t know enough…They took all that from you.”

Pansy reflects on the isolation from her ancestral spirits as well as her aching homesickness for her homelands. She was prevented from speaking her language, practicing culture and severed entirely from her spiritual roots.

Pansy’s story gives insight into the spiritual desolation felt by so many Stolen children. The loss of their profound connection to the land and lore affected them the rest of their lives.

Loss of Language and Culture

The Stolen Generations policy set out to deliberately eliminate all traces of Aboriginal culture and assimilate children into white society. This meant Aboriginal languages, cultural practices, music, art and all forms of traditional knowledge were suppressed.

Children were punished for speaking their languages or engaging in any cultural practices. Over generations, this resulted in many languages being lost as fluent speakers were dramatically reduced. It caused incalculable damage to Indigenous arts andmusic, storytelling, ceremonies and other intangible cultural knowledge.

“I lost my language and I lost my culture…We were not allowed to speak our language. We couldn’t tell Aboriginal stories or sing Aboriginal songs.” – Lorna Cubillo, member of the Stolen Generations.

The cultural damage continues to be felt today, as many Stolen children were alienated from their heritage and unable to pass language and culture onto the next generations. Repairing and resurrecting lost languages and cultural practices remains an ongoing struggle.

Case study: Northern Territory languages

The Northern Territory was disproportionately affected by the Stolen Generations. Children were regularly taken from remote communities to bigger institutions down south.

This led to smaller Indigenous language groups being badly disrupted within just a generation or two of mass child removals.

For example, the Anmatyerre, Alyawarr and Anindilyakwa peoples in the NT were already struggling to maintain their languages and cultural practices after years of European invasion. The removal of their children delivered a crushing blow to those efforts.

By the 1970s, many Northern Territory languages were on the brink of extinction after the most recent fluent speakers were taken as children decades prior. Even widely spoken languages like Arrernte declined rapidly with children removed.

The cultural losses in the Northern Territory typify what occurred across Australia as language and cultural transmission between generations was brutally interrupted by child removal policies.

Loss of Wellbeing and Life Expectancy

The trauma of the Stolen Generations has had ongoing effects on the health and life expectancy of Indigenous Australians.

Being disconnected from family and Country, the source of spiritual wellbeing, led to widespread issues like depression, addiction and mental illness.

Physical ailments resulting from abuse and poor nutrition also took their toll. Unsurprisingly, many had their lives shortened significantly after such traumatic childhoods.

“I blame the welfare for the early death of my people because the welfare failed to look after them.” – Coral Edwards

The premature deaths of members of the Stolen Generations compounded the cultural losses. With them went untold stories, memories, knowledge and skills before they could be passed on.

Early deaths also meant many lived with unresolved trauma and grief at losing their families. The lack of closure had a cascading effect on the generations that followed.

Case study: Life expectancy

Year Aboriginal life expectancy Non-Indigenous life expectancy
1890 ~35 years 47 years
1930s ~49 years 59 years
1960s ~55 years 70 years
2000s ~67 years 79 years

This table shows how over the 20th century, Indigenous life expectancy consistently lagged behind non-Indigenous Australians by 12-20 years or more.

The gap remains linked to higher rates of stress, mental illness, chronic disease, infant mortality and suicide in Indigenous populations – symptoms of the intergenerational trauma passed down from the Stolen Generations.

Today, the average life expectancy for Aboriginal people is still about 8-10 years less than non-Indigenous Australians. Healing the trauma of the past remains vitally important to closing this gap.


The generations of Aboriginal children taken from their families suffered immense and irreparable losses that resonate through the years.

They lost their families, their childhoods, their sense of identity, their spiritual connections, their languages and cultures, their wellbeing and their lives.

The waves of trauma stemming from these losses continue to impact Indigenous communities today. Healing is a long and ongoing process, aided by retrieving language and culture and reconnecting with Country.

Society also has a role to play in understanding what was lost and supporting Indigenous-led health and wellbeing programs. While we cannot change past wrongs, we can help restore what was taken. This will allow Aboriginal people to move forward in health and strength, sustained by recovering their heritage stolen long ago.