Wounds still run deep on Sorry Day, writes Charmaine Clarke

The Standard [Warrnambool, Australia]

May 26, 2021

By Charmaine Clarke

When Sorry Day comes around each year it is a day of reflection for me, as the wounds which are still healing, resurface along with the memories of my immediate family whose lives were displaced and cut short.

The promise of self-determination was not around in my parents’ time, nor did they get to hear former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd give the apology in parliament on February 13, 2008. Like many across the nation, I watched and listened, my tears turning to sobs, partly relief of finally being recognised, and part deep sorrow and anger for losing my family.

I was two-and-a-half when I was removed from my family, along with five other siblings. All of us ended up in Ballarat’s Catholic homes, where some of my siblings endured unimaginable child abuse, of which they are forever scarred and broken. I too endured child abuse while being shunted around between holiday parents and later foster care. In all that time, I never lost sight of going home to my family, but it came at a price.

Since the establishment of national Sorry Day back in 1998 to commemorate the handing down of the Bringing Them Home report, the rate of Aboriginal children being removed from their family and kin has risen.

As at February 2020, there are 20,077 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children living in out-of-home care (an increase of 39 percent from last year’s Review on Government Services report). The rate of Aboriginal children removed from their families is 9.7 times higher than non- Aboriginal children, putting them at greater risk of permanent separation from their families.

Many people are curious as to why children often get removed. Much is cited as neglect, family violence and physical abuse. Many Aboriginal communities still contend with high unemployment, poverty, lack of housing and racism. Alcohol and drug abuse are also compounding factors, sometimes leading to mental health issues in communities already suffering from intergenerational trauma.

These issues and trends require broader and connective solutions, from crisis responses to prevention programs. Resourcing one aspect still leaves a number of gaps. In Victoria, the implementation of the Family Led Decision-making process, is making inroads by assisting families and children to be both safe and to work towards reunification. The framework builds on the strengths of family and kinship networks, empowers families to provide safe environments for children and to ensure their wellbeing. It actively involves Elders and the child’s family in life decision making

The long-term effects of being removed from your family cannot be overestimated. I know, as it is a life burden that continues to impact my family. I’ve wondered all too often if we had not been removed, taken, how would our lives have been different. I know for sure, we would not have endured the child abuse that we were exposed to and like my siblings are still working to heal.

I think of this often, as an Aboriginal Australian, of my people’s story. It’s a country whose efforts and actions towards nationhood meant the near destruction of so many ancient ones, whose hearths burned for over 60,000 years, from which came the longest living culture of songs, dance, art, knowledge and stories. She was to us and still is our blood, our mother, our country and home.

I think of my country especially through the eyes of my parents and their families. Raised on missions in south-west Victoria after being herded off their lands through massacres, wars of resistance and soldier settlements. Clearing the land was code for killing the blacks and many country towns hold the history of these atrocities close to their chest. They still live in the memories and haunt our relationships. The launch of the Yoorrook Truth Commission in Victoria, seeks to give a platform to speak about these histories, to listen to our accounts, acknowledge our truths and to heal.

A photograph of Charmaine Clarke (second right) with siblings Peter, Selina (deceased), Paul, George (deceased) and Laurie at St Josephs Catholic Home in Ballarat, 1972.
A photograph of Charmaine Clarke (second right) with siblings Peter, Selina (deceased), Paul, George (deceased) and Laurie at St Josephs Catholic Home in Ballarat, 1972.

My parents were a young couple whose efforts to provide for their growing family required them to travel regional Victoria, following the picking seasons, with their children packed up in an old Holden. Social services was not available to them or any Aboriginal programs of support. They bore the brunt of a racially divided country while trying to provide for a family of their own. Weary from their labours up along the Murray river, they took refuge at a relative’s place in Melbourne. Adult time of socialising and stories. Unfortunately, the welfare saw our wanderings as no fixed abode, therefore neglect. At least that is what is written in my welfare file under my Ward number 87844.

In the ensuing years my parents tried desperately to get us back, but their children were consumed into a system. One that was indifferent, powerful and racist. I’m glad my parents never knew the depth of abuse their children suffered. The mental anguish of separation was enough for our little family to bear.

The long-term effects are still with us today. Two of my siblings died early, as did my father and later my mother, and what is left is trying to heal from mental health issues and chronic health conditions. So on this day Sorry Day, I say to my parents, my siblings and others.

'The long-term effects of being removed from your family cannot be overestimated', writes Charmaine Clarke (pictured right).
‘The long-term effects of being removed from your family cannot be overestimated’, writes Charmaine Clarke (pictured right).

We are still here, we survived, and now it’s our time to heal and thrive.

I hope that by sharing my story and through my work to progress Treaty at the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, we ensure that not a single child needs to endure this pain again.

Charmaine Clarke is a Gunditjmara woman and elected member of the First People's Assembly, representing the south-west in Victorian Parliament.
Charmaine Clarke is a Gunditjmara woman and elected member of the First People’s Assembly, representing the south-west in Victorian Parliament.