Sorry, says the man who took children

Sorry, says the man who took children

A welfare officer whose work was taking children from families has changed his mind in the past decade about a government apology and now says it is due, writes Andrew West.

LAST Thursday morning, as Harry Kitching woke in his small cottage in the far western Queensland town of Blackall, everyone was saying sorry.

On Radio National, he heard the Opposition Leader, Brendan Nelson, say he would support the Federal Government’s apology to the Aboriginal stolen generation. Nelson’s colleague, Tony Abbott, a favourite of the Liberal Party’s right wing, was telling the AM program that he also endorsed an apology.

Over at Channel 7’s Sunrise, even Mel and Kochie and their guests were putting the case for saying sorry.

But the cheerleading of breakfast television hosts and the bipartisan agreement of politicians pale alongside Kitching’s decision, after almost 60 years, to back the cause.

Because Kitching, now 88, spent 25 years implementing the policy that has led to the official apology the Prime Minister will deliver at the opening of Parliament on Wednesday. He was an Aboriginal welfare officer who recommended the removal of several indigenous children from their families.

"An apology? I support it now, yes," he says. "I feel that it’s about time they did something about it. It had to be done eventually. Things have changed, life has changed, and the background reasons for children being removed, well, most of them have gone."

Eight years ago, when I interviewed Kitching for The Sun-Herald on the eve of the reconciliation marches, as millions prepared to walk across bridges in the nation’s capitals, he was unconvinced about the merits of an apology.

He thought Aboriginal Australians would regard an apology from the then prime minister, John Howard, as insincere.

Now Kitching looks back on much of his career not so much with guilt – because he defends most of the specific cases in which he "committed" black children to group homes or foster families – but with a certain sadness, even anger at a policy that required the removal of part-Aboriginal children from indigenous communities.

"I didn’t like that policy of having to take children just because they were half-caste," he says. "Sometimes it was not necessary and my heart wasn’t in it. You felt they’d be better off staying with their families."

Yet he stayed, convinced that where he saw genuine neglect and privation, he could improve the lives of black children. "I would still have done what I did," he says. "It was better if you kept families together, living as a unit, but you were also trying to improve [the children’s] living conditions."

Kitching recalls he recommended the removal of nine children, usually from single black mothers who had been deserted by their children’s white fathers. But he insists that, in all but one case, the mothers agreed – and sometimes urged him – to place their children in institutions or foster care.

"I did not go in there and say, ‘Right, bang, they [the children] are out.’ That was not the way I worked. I would try to educate the mother to improve the conditions. But families also saw their children had no future [on mission stations] and asked me to get them into a home."

Kitching began working in Aboriginal communities in 1947, when he and his wife, Barbara, took jobs as attendants at Kinchela Aboriginal Boys Home in Kempsey. Recurring bouts of malaria, contracted while serving in New Guinea during World War II, forced him out of his job as a boilermaker for the Maritime Services Board in Pyrmont. His doctor had recommended a warmer climate.

He later became a patrol officer in the Northern Territory Native Affairs Branch, station manager at Jay Creek near Alice Springs and finally welfare officer with the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board at Dubbo.

Until 1999 Kitching was an anonymous figure in what most now admit was a tragic chapter of Australian history. Then came the Peter Gunner case.

In 1956 Kitching had recommended that Gunner, then aged eight and living on the Utopia station outside Alice Springs, be moved to St Mary’s Anglican hostel, where Gunner would later allege he suffered abuse. During a Federal Court case, Kitching swore an affidavit that Gunner’s mother, Topsy Kundrilba, had asked him to send her son to St Mary’s and a controversial "consent form", bearing Kundrilba’s thumbprint, was produced. Gunner ultimately lost his case for compensation.

More clear cut, says Kitching, were other child removals that he recommended.

A young girl suffering polio and living in remote Jay’s Creek was sent to a Catholic home on Croker Island near Darwin. "I kept seeing the mother having to carry this poor kid around," he recalled.

Her legs were buckled and spindly. "She couldn’t walk and they realised that, as she grew older, they would have to move her away."

He also found a permanent foster home with a white family for a spastic boy in Molong in western NSW, who had been shunted between other foster families who could not cope with his condition, and he recommended three children be removed from the Quambone settlement near Coonamble.

But the case he most frequently recalls is that of a young mother living in a humpy by a creek outside Warren in western NSW. "It was one of those cases where you went back every month to check the conditions," he recalls. "One day I walked in and looked across the room and there was this poor little fella sitting in the dirty frypan, flyblown, flies all over him, hadn’t been washed in a week. Well, I went at the mum straight away for neglect."

Kitching left Aboriginal welfare work in the early 1970s, frustrated by what he says was bureaucratic inaction, even in obvious instances of neglect. "They wouldn’t touch a case unless they already had a file on it," he says.

In 1983 he retired to Blackall, more than 1000 kilometres north-west of Brisbane. Last year, his wife died of cancer, after 60 years together and raising three children. He has slowed – a little – in the past eight years, swapping his car for a motorised ride-on scooter.

Kitching concedes the government policy that underpinned his work had harsh consequences for several generations of indigenous Australians separated from their natural families, especially those who endured abuse in institutions. But on the phone later, he tells me that, despite all the pain, "we must have helped some people". And he hopes the Government’s apology will "remove the chip from everyone’s shoulder".

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