National Sorry Day - 26 May

We acknowledge National Sorry Day each year on 26 May.

National Sorry Day is a day to remember the members of the Stolen Generations and the parents, siblings, families and communities from whom they were stolen.

The first Sorry Day was held on 26 May 1998, on the first anniversary of the handing down of the Bringing Them Home Report. This report contained the findings of the landmark Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families.

National Sorry Day is sometimes confused with the Anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations, which commemorates the Apology given by Kevin Rudd on behalf of the Australian Government in 2008, which is marked on 13 February each year. The Apology given by Kevin Rudd was one of the 54 Recommendations made in the Bringing Them Home Report.

The Report documented the experiences of hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who had been removed from their families and communities and placed in institutions, foster homes or adopted into non-Aboriginal families.

Not only was the process of removal brutal and traumatising, the experiences in institutions, foster or adoptive homes was also often extremely abusive and traumatic. The report found that people who had experienced this trauma often carried it with them throughout their lives, to the extent that it impacted their children and grandchildren, otherwise known as intergenerational trauma.

While Wattle Place was not established as a result of the Bringing Them Home Report, it could be said that the Report paved the way for a later Senate Inquiry into Australia’s out-of-home care system more broadly, which did lead to the establishment of Wattle Place.

Wattle Place was established in recognition of the horrific experiences children suffered in institutions and foster care – environments that should have been places of care and safety. We work with members of the Stolen Generations as well as Forgotten Australians, Former Child Migrants and other Care Leavers in the context of their childhood trauma.

We know that trauma such as that experienced by children who were separated from their families and suffered abuse, neglect and degradation, greatly impacts their developing brains and has neurological and physiological impacts that can remain for the rest of their lives, in multiple ways. This is complex trauma, which is associated with feeling ashamed and unworthy, never feeling safe (fight/flight mode always activated), unable to trust, unable to regulate emotions, difficulty in relationships and self care and poorer physical and mental health, as well as greater use of coping strategies such as alcohol or other drugs, self-harm, eating disorders, etc. In fact, many behaviours that we might consider “anti-social” can be manifestations of trauma responses.

Intergenerational trauma can be partly explained by the understanding that trying to be a parent while dealing with these impacts would raise many challenges, especially if there are no supports available to you that recognise those challenges and can help you manage them. It is also a fact that people who did not have loving, nurturing parents when they were children, and were not able to form strong, positive attachments to carers, would have not had modelling on how to parent in a safe and nurturing way, which can also have significant impacts on their own parenting, through no fault of their own.

So, living with complex trauma is not just a case of “mind over matter” or “getting over it” – it is embodied within a person. Complex trauma often requires extensive work and support to help manage it, such as the work we do at Wattle Place. It is important, too, to understand that there are multiple factors within each person’s life that will help or hinder their ability to heal from this kind of trauma. Some people have been able to make very successful lives for themselves after experiencing very traumatic childhoods, while others struggle, in different ways, for the rest of their lives.

On this National Sorry Day, we remember the Stolen Generations. We welcome the focus that this day brings to the wrongs that were perpetrated against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the suffering that the stolen children endured, as well as the trauma and grief of the parents and families from whom they were taken.

We acknowledge the remarkable strength and resilience of the survivors, in spite of the ongoing impacts they deal with.

We also take this opportunity to advocate for wider understanding and recognition of childhood trauma and it’s very real, physiological, long term impacts on survivors. Remembering this devastating aspect of our history is vital but in remembering, we need to strengthen our understanding of the link between that history and the trauma that remains a heavy burden on so many.

Each of us can contribute to the healing by showing greater understanding and compassion. Recognising that anti-social or challenging behaviours may, in fact, be trauma responses, is not only a more compassionate response, it may also help us, as a society, to more effectively deal with those behaviours and our pre-conceived ideas, while also helping to heal the trauma of the individuals.