I was interested to read the recent case of Trevorrow v State of South Australia (No. 5) (2007) SASC 285. Put briefly, the plaintiff was taken from his parents as an infant, and consequently had a troubled childhood and adolescence. He succeeded in his efforts to sue the South Australian government. I think that this was a just result.
It’s a sad story. The plaintiff was cared for by his mother and his father. His mother separated from his father, and left three of the children with the father over Christmas. When he was a little over a year old, the plaintiff contracted gastroenteritis and his father did not have transport by which to get him to hospital. The police could not help. So the father got the local garage proprietors to take the boy to hospital. The plaintiff was cured, but instead of being returned to either parent, he was then fostered out with a non-indigenous family. Neither parent knew what had happened to the boy. The mother tried to get the boy returned to her, but was told that there was nothing she could do. Meanwhile, the plaintiff was fostered out to a non-indigenous household and brought up as a child of the house. Once the plaintiff found out that he was not related to his family, he began to act up and steal things. He was returned to his mother when he was 10 years old, but found it extremely difficult as he did not know his family and did not know Ngarrindjerri language or customs. He then got into trouble with the law, and became an alcoholic. In comparison, his brothers and sisters who were not taken from their parents seem to have overcome childhood difficulties and poverty. One brother of the plaintiff is a respected Ngarrindjerri elder.
The Court was prepared to extend the limitation of actions period in the circumstances. Gray J found that the plaintiff was not removed from his parents in accordance with prescribed statutory processes. There was a foreseeable risk of harm to the plaintiff. Accordingly, the South Australian government was liable for a number of claims:
- tort of misfeasance in the public office;
- tort of false imprisonment;
- tort of negligence
- possible breach of fiduciary duty (for which damages would be the same as for common law actions;
The plaintiff was awarded $450,000 damages for the breaches of the duties above, and $75,000 in exemplary damages.
It seems to me that this case is a fair one. As I’ve outlined in a past post, I don’t take a hard and fast attitude towards the Stolen Generation. There are at least two conflicting motives at play. I’m sure that some probably did have the best interests of children at heart. But there was also an explicit desire to “Westernise” indigenous children and a racist aim of “wiping out” indigenous culture. Both motives were often combined.
As I have also explained, I have known indigenous people who were taken from their parents or had relatives who were taken from their parents. Their stories lead me to believe that great pain has been visited on these people, but that in some cases there were valid reasons for them being taken from their parents. The scenarios are complicated and not well suited to the adversarial arena of the court room. In one instance, a student’s mother was taken from her tribe because the majority of the tribe wanted to kill the baby (a “half-caste” child who was the product of a rape). The mother of the child did not want her to die, and so she relinquished the child to authorities after it transpired that she could not protect the girl. Another friend was taken from her mother because her mother was physically abusive. Her mother lacked parenting skills, in part presumably because she herself had been taken from her parents. However, unfortunately, my friend was also abused in the foster homes in which she was subsequently placed. She has suffered lasting psychological damage.
I agree with Julian Burnside QC that there can be no blanket response to this issue: it all depends on the facts of each case. For example, in the Cubillo case, the plaintiffs failed in large part because their factual allegations could not be made out. In comparison, in this case, the plaintiff succeeded because he could point to the fact that his removal was not authorised, and he could also establish that his psychiatric problems arose because of his placement in a foster home. I presume that it was highly relevant that his siblings seem not to have had these kind of problems, even though they also had a difficult upbringing.