The Guardian 5 September, 2007

Bruce Trevorrow
waited half a century for justice


Kirstie Parker, Editor Koori Mail

When it finally arrived, in the shape of a landmark decision by the South Australian Supreme Court, he was stunned and lost for words.


He soon found his voice again, though, in the media and public frenzy that followed his August 1 win against the South Australian Government over his forced removal, as a baby, from his loving natural family.

That he chose to speak from the country that had been denied to him for much of his life — Ngarrindjeri country in SA’s Riverland — was a sign that he was finally ready to come home.

Mr Trevorrow celebrated the decision with a traditional smoking ceremony at Camp Coorong near Meningie with his brothers, sisters and other family members, inviting ancestors to join in their happiness.

Duty of care

The ruling by Judge Thomas Gray that the State of SA had breached its duty of care, illegally imprisoned Mr Trevorrow and was liable to compensate him has given hope to other Stolen Generations members.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma hailed the ruling as a "watershed moment for all members of the Stolen Generation".

"It sends a powerful message to other states and territories that compensation is rightfully owed to the victims of these policies which were in place across Australia for most of the 20th century, and impacted badly on generations of Indigenous Australians", Mr Calma said.

With help from Adelaide’s Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement (ALRM), Mr Trevorrow sued the SA Government for pain and suffering, claiming he had lost his cultural identity, suffered depression, became an alcoholic and had an erratic employment history after being taken as a child from his family.

During the ten-year case, the court heard the now 50-year-old was depressed due to chronic insecurity and had been treated with antidepressants and tranquillisers since he was 10.

Forced removal

Justice Gray laid blame for Mr Trevorrow’s problems on his forced removal from his family, and the lack of support from the government both when he was taken and when he was later returned as a child.

"I am satisfied that the conduct of the State, amounting to misfeasance in public office, together with the false imprisonment of the plaintiff, has been a material cause of the plaintiff’s long-term depression", he said.

"It was this conduct that ruptured the bond between the plaintiff and his mother and natural family."

Judge Gray said that, unlike Mr Trevorrow, his siblings who remained with their natural family were able to overcome the difficulties they encountered and achieve their potential throughout life.

He awarded Mr Trevorrow $450,000 for injuries and loss plus $75,000 for damages for unlawful removal and false imprisonment.

However, Mr Trevorrow, who now lives in Bairnsdale in Victoria with his wife and four children, said the case had not been just about money.

"It was for acknowledgement that they did the wrong thing by me," he said. "A lot of records for people were destroyed but my lawyers were lucky in that there were a lot of files about me there and they actually found more and more documents hidden away that showed the government did do wrong.

"I was taken away from my family, and that was a loss of my culture and anywhere I could call home. That was taken from me."

Standing in the back of the court when the judgement was handed down were two families united in their love and concern for him: his natural brothers and sisters, and the white foster brother and sister who knew him better than virtually anyone for the first decade of his life.

Surprise move

In something of a surprise move, SA Premier Mike Rann ruled out challenging Mr Trevorrow’s compensation.

"He (Mr Trevorrow) has been through enough in his life ... the compassionate thing to do is end any further uncertainty for him," Mr Rann said.

"I cannot think of a more tragic case, this is an appalling case of dispossession — it’s an appalling treatment of a family and of a baby and this is a time for justice to be done."

The SA Government is now considering a compensation fund for the Stolen Generations, similar to one established by the Tasmanian Government last year.

Mr Trevorrow’s brother Tom Trevorrow, a respected and high profile cultural educator, thanked the SA Government for not opposing the ruling in favour of compensation.

"I think governments sometimes need that pat on the back when they do the right thing," he said.

"Aboriginal people are used to losing. We were surprised to receive this type of justice in the Australian court system and it sort of gives us a bit of an uplift and hope to carry on."

It was the first time an Australian court had awarded damages to a member of the Stolen Generations. Some believe the case has opened a potential ‘can of worms’ for state governments around the country, who were at the forefront of policies to remove Indigenous children from their parents between the 1930s and 1970s.

But Mr Trevorrow said he wouldn’t recommend to others that they put themselves through similar legal battles.

"I wouldn’t like to see anyone go through what I went through," he said. "The court case has taken its toll on me. I ended up in hospital a couple of times from the stress of it.

"I worry that my case could give people false hope. And there’s a lot about governments that I still don’t trust."

Mr Trevorrow’s lawyer Joanna Richardson said the decision came as something of a surprise.

"It was a legal process and outcomes are according to law and not necessarily according to ‘justice’, therefore I was hopeful but not certain of the outcome we got," she said.

However, Ms Richardson said the case was largely won on the basis of records that backed Mr Trevorrow’s statement of claim, records which were not available in all Stolen Generations cases.

Mr Trevorrow and his family have backed calls for a national scheme or tribunal — rather than litigation — to determine reparations and/or compensation for others who suffered under past government removal practices.

And Mr Trevorrow would like to see a national apology to the Stolen Generations.

"The way I look at it, you can’t have reconciliation without the Prime Minister saying sorry," he said.

Mr Trevorrow was 13-months old when, on Christmas Day in 1957, he suffered stomach pains at the family home at One Mile Camp about 150kms from Adelaide. He was driven by a neighbour to the Adelaide Children’s Hospital.

Hospital notes tendered to the court showed staff recorded that the child had no parents, was neglected and malnourished. All these claims were wrong, the Judge ruled.

Two weeks after being admitted to the hospital, young Bruce was fostered by the Aborigines Welfare Board to a white couple, Florence and Frank Davy, who already had two children of their own but had been looking to adopt.

Mr Trevorrow says he was well cared for by the Davys and treated much like his foster brother Glynn and foster sister Carol.

During that foster period, his natural mother Thora Lampard continued to write letters to the authorities, appealing to them for news of her youngest child.

Letters

In a letter dated July 1958, she wrote: "I am writing to ask if you will let me know how baby Bruce is and how long before I can have him home as I have not forgot I got a baby in there."

The court heard the Aborigines Welfare Board lied to her, telling her that her son was "making good progress" but was not fit enough for him to go home.

In time, struggling with severe feelings of confusion and insecurity, Bruce rebelled against his foster family and developed behavioural problems that made him increasingly difficult to control.

Questions to his foster parents about his darkening skin met with claims that there were "dark" cousins somewhere in the family line overseas.

These lies, although perhaps well-intent­ioned, served to heighten the shock ten years later when the State changed its policy on removed children and he was returned to his Aboriginal mother and siblings for good. His father Joe had died during his absence.

Mr Trevorrow’s return was not an especially happy one. He had difficulty fitting in and was in and out of institutional care.

"I had had nothing to do with Aboriginal people while I was in foster care," Mr Trevorrow explained to the Koori Mail. "I was still having problems identifying and I thought ‘I’ll just run away from home’.

No connection

"I did that when I was in my late teens, probably because I just didn’t fit in here. I hadn’t been able to build that connection with my family.

"I hitchhiked, jumped trains, and stole cars. I used to move around, break into cars and steal money. I think the aim behind it all was to try to connect with someone.

"I drank a lot of alcohol to sort of numb my feelings. I felt happy when I was drunk so I kept on getting drunk. I was depressed; I actually cut myself a few of times. I didn’t feel good about myself or where I came from."

Remarkably, Mr Trevorrow bears no malice towards his foster parents whom he believes were also lied to, something backed up by his foster sister Carol.

"He was just our brother", she told media after the judge’s decision was handed down. "We were told that he had been abandoned, which was a lie, but we didn’t know that, of course. He was just a person who needed a home."

Judge Gray’s ruling has prompted widespread calls for measures to a national compensation scheme, rather than lengthy and costly litigation in Stolen Generation cases.

Compensation calls

Mr Calma called for all governments to "collegiately establish a national reparations and compensation scheme", in line with the recommendations of the Bringing Them Home Report.

"Australian governments have cherry-picked recommendations from the Report, but we are still waiting for an accessible, fair and just national compensation scheme, as well as the all-important, and long-overdue, national apology from the Australian Parliament," he said.

Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) National Director Gary Highland echoed Mr Calma’s calls. "The experience of Bruce Trevorrow was repeated tens of thousands of times over across Australia," he said on August 2.

"Many members of the Stolen Generations will now wish to seek justice following (this) ruling", said Mr Highland.

"Instead of adding to the suffering of these people, governments should negotiate a settlement with the Stolen Generations that avoids ongoing litigation."

Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement CEO, Neil Gillespie applauded the SA Government’s decision not to challenge the compensation awarded but said more was needed to heal the hurt for others.

"ALRM would like to see the State Government establish a form of tribunal to addresses any further claims through a compensation fund", he said.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser said the judgement should serve "as a wake-up call to the government as a whole" and he hoped positives would come from the judgement, such as an apology or monetary compensation. Mr Fraser’s Co-Chair Lowitja O’Donoghue said it was now time for governments to "accept the history of this country".

"It does have a dark history and of course the Stolen Generations are just part of that", she said. "The history wars, they need to stop, the denials need to stop. We cannot go on spending money on court cases. With the costs of all of the cases that have been run already, compensation could already have been paid."

The National Sorry Day Committee (NSDC) described the decision as a win, not only for Mr Trevorrow but also for all members of the Stolen Generations.

Democrat MP Sandra Kanck urged the Rann Government to develop a Stolen Generations compensation package, and Reconciliation Victoria CEO Frank Hytten said the SA ruling should stand as a lesson for the new Victorian Cabinet.

Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough quickly ruled out a Commonwealth compensation fund.

"No one has litigated against the Federal Government," he told ABC Radio. "The majority of the cases, if not all of the cases, revolved around states as well as church organisations.

"And I think that is a fairly longstanding understanding of the consequences and the circumstances, and hence the sort of litigation that has occurred has not been against the Commonwealth."

The Commonwealth’s response to the Bringing Them Home report, tabled a decade ago, focused on counselling and link-up services for Stolen Generations members and their families.

Tom Trevorrow said his younger brother was still struggling to come to terms with his Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal side, a connection that the rest of his family had been able to take for granted.

"This day is about very mixed emotions and that’s what Bruce has been putting up with for years," he said.

"This is what is affecting all the other Stolen Generations out there: that mixed emotion of where and how do they fit in? They don’t fit into the white man’s world and they’re not fully fitting in with their Aboriginal side. They’re in limbo world until something happens that allows them to feel free and to fit into their Aboriginal lifestyle.

In the maelstrom of media and public interest in his case, Bruce Trevorrow was frank but optimistic about what the future holds for him. "I still feel down sometimes. Over the years, I have had medication and I’m still on depression tablets. It’s going to be a long-term thing because the doctors feel that a lot of the scarring is from years ago.

"So I have to just manage it. It’s going to be all the time stress for me. It won’t go away but hopefully that’ll be a bit easier now that I’ve had this decision.

Before heading back to Bairnsdale to rejoin his family, he said he saw himself as a book in chapters.

"One chapter closes and another one opens so I will just work on that chapter", he told the Koori Mail. "I think that book will have a happy ending, with my family around me, a very different ending to what it might have been."

Koori Mail

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