The brutal legacy of Sister Kate’s, a children’s home with a mission to ‘breed out the black’
It started out as an ordinary day.
Mary was collecting eggs from the bamboo growing on the fringes of the camp, and her daughters, Doreen and Hilda, were playing games together.
Then she heard her children screaming.
WARNING: this article contains graphic content that may be confronting for some readers, including descriptions of sexual abuse. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised it also contains the images of people who have died.
By the time Mary got out of the bamboo, they were locked in the back of the black government car, faces pressed against the window. Her girls were gone.
Of course, no days were ordinary in 1933 if you were Aboriginal and living under the reign of Western Australia’s notorious Chief Protector of Aborigines, A.O. Neville.
If you were Aboriginal, you lived in perpetual fear of this moment; your guard always up, ears pricked, children routinely hidden. Because at any time, anywhere across the vast state, with no warning and no valid reason, Native Welfare could take your children.
And if your children, like Mary’s, had lighter skin, you had to be extra cautious.
Mr Neville was on a mission to “breed out the black”, by removing “half-caste” Aboriginal children from their cultural ties, educating and raising them as white, and ensuring they married men with lighter skin.
‘The legal right to remove any child’
Western Australian legislation in the 1900s allowed extraordinary intervention into the lives of Aboriginal families, some of the most extreme in the country.
Under the Aborigines Act 1905 (WA), Mr Neville was the legal guardian of every Aboriginal child.
“He had the legal right to remove any child from their mother,” says Hannah McGlade, a senior Indigenous research fellow at Curtin University, and a former resident of Sister Kate’s, a home for “half-caste” children.
“And he could do so with no case of any neglect and that is how they facilitated the widespread removal of Aboriginal children.”
Mary didn’t know it then but between that day in 1933 and the early 1950s, every single one of her 12 children would be taken from her, for no other reason than the fairness of their skin.
Doreen and Hilda were taken to the Moore River Native Settlement just north of Perth, where Mr Neville was collecting “half-caste” children from across the state.
If you’ve seen the 2002 film Rabbit Proof Fence, you might remember the scene where Mr Neville visits the settlement, lifting the children’s shirts to check the fairness of their skin.
This happened to Mary’s girls. They were called up in front of their peers. Their skin was checked and they were chosen as two of the first seven children to be transferred from Moore River to Sister Kate’s Children’s Cottage Home.
A home for ‘light-skinned children’
Sister Kate Clutterbuck was an Anglican nun well-known in Perth for her humanitarian work caring for children in need.
She wrote to Mr Neville in 1932 wanting his financial support for a home for “half-caste” children.
Her vision was a compassionate one. She wanted “the most poorest and neglected children”.
“Not those who have mothers who love and care for them … but those who are the most unwanted in the state.”
That might have been what Sister Kate wanted, but it wasn’t what happened.
Mr Neville leapt at the chance to further his biological absorption plan. The Children’s Cottage Home opened in Buckland Hill in 1933, before moving to its permanent home in Queen’s Park the following year.
“Sister Kate’s was identified specifically as a home for light-skinned Aboriginal children,” says Hannah, who lived at the home in the 1980s.
“The idea was that you could turn Aboriginal people into white people and that would be the end of the Aboriginal race.”
The children at Sister Kate’s were educated at their local suburban Perth state school, a rare opportunity for Aboriginal children at the time.
They were trained to be domestic servants and labourers. Their Aboriginal identity was actively ignored, erased. Contact with family was not allowed. The children were encouraged to believe they were white, to live as white people.
Albeit misguided and naïve, Sister Kate’s rule was a loving one. The home kids called her Gran and many of them grew up happily here under her care.
A hotbed of abuse
But in 1953, years after Sister Kate’s death in 1946, her beloved home was taken over by the Uniting Church and conditions slowly began to deteriorate.
By the time a policeman knocked on the door of Sandra Hill’s Point Samson home in WA’s Pilbara in 1958, Sister Kate’s Children’s Cottage Home was a hotbed of abuse and neglect.
Again, it was an ordinary day when that policeman’s knock shattered Sandra’s life.
He came with a piece of paper in hand, and the offer of a drive in his big car to get some lollies. Sandra and her three siblings clambered in, the image of their mother collapsing as they drove away incongruous with their excitement.
But when the policeman turned right towards Roebourne, away from home, the Hill children knew something wasn’t right.
“They took us to hospital, they chloroformed us and I have no idea to this day what they did that for,” Sandra says.
“Then they took us to the Roebourne Police Station and the four of us kids slept in a locked cell. A few days later they flew us to Perth and we were taken to Sister Kate’s orphanage for half-caste kids.”
She describes Sister Kate’s as “a disgusting place”.
“The cottage mothers were cruel; they beat us and they tortured us emotionally,” she says.
“The house mother’s sons held my arms behind my back and forced milk and cream and junket down my throat until I vomited and then I’d have to clean it up — that happened daily.
“I saw girls being sexually molested by the house father … and we just had to back out of the room because we didn’t want it to be us.”
The guilt of not helping those girls still breaks her.
The Hill siblings had been separated into different cottages and rarely saw each other. But one day, Sandra and her older sister saw their younger sister Trish and raced over to hug her.
She winced and cried out and the sisters lifted her shirt to find her back covered in welts. Trish had been belted with a stick. She was six.
Although Mr Neville had retired many years earlier, his policy of assimilation lived on.
Welfare workers told Sandra her mother had left her kids under a pile of tin in the bush. She hadn’t. They said her father was dead. He wasn’t.
But after a while, she began to believe the stories.
Sandra grew up in a white foster family, thinking her mother had abandoned them, deeply resentful of her.
She didn’t learn the truth until her 30s, when she first heard about Mr Neville’s assimilation policies and the Native Welfare Act.
‘My worst nightmare began that day’
Glenys Collard was only three but she remembers the day she was taken as a series of vivid snapshots.
A man arriving at her nana’s humpy up the hill near Kondinin. The eight kids clambering into his car to go for a short drive. The excitement giving way to fear. The wailing. Then the realisation they were not going home.
“Donald, Darryl, Bonnie, Bill, Beverley and me, Eva and Wesley. All eight of us kids were taken to Sister Kate’s that day. I think it was the 6th of December, 1961,” she says.
“My worst nightmare started that day.”
Glenys speaks slowly, flatly, as if each word might pierce the armour she’s built around herself.
She says abuse didn’t just come from inside the house, it came from outside too.
It’s a story Hannah has heard repeatedly as the founder of the Sister Kate’s Home Kids support group.
“Any white people could put their hands up and have the children come and live with them on the weekend and this is when a lot of the abuse happened,” she says.
“There were no screening procedures; there was no common sense. They even allowed single men to come and say they wanted children.”
Glenys remembers lining up with her sister Bev in front of prospective host families so they could choose which children they wanted.
“We always got chosen and we couldn’t say no we didn’t want to go. We were told we had to smile and appreciate this,” she says.
But a weekend out of the home almost always meant a weekend of sexual abuse for Glenys.
“One man took us out and he had a wife and baby. He would say ‘oh let’s sleep outside tonight under the stars’. But we were sleeping outside so he could sexually abuse us,” Glenys says.
“And that man took us out about seven or eight times easily.
“One time we snuck inside to go to the toilet and we went in and pinched the baby. We thought if we made the baby cry, his wife would wake up and the abuse would stop. We didn’t know what else to do.”
By the time she was 11, Glenys had had enough of Sister Kate’s.
Her parents had been banned from visiting and welfare wouldn’t allow her to go home. So she ran away, walking several hours to a park where she knew Aboriginal mob lived. She lived there for three years until, at 14, she fell pregnant.
For many who were residents at Sister Kate’s from the late 1950s on, the legacy is a brutal one.
Siblings lost. Parents lost. Culture lost. Identity lost. Lives lost. Family relationships wrought irreparable. The ripples of abuse ever present.
“Many have passed on and we recognise they died young in tragic circumstances and that this abuse was a causal factor,” Hannah says.
“But it wasn’t just the physical, emotional and sexual abuse, it was this attack on their very identity as Aboriginal children.”
But for the children who lived at Sister Kate’s under her care, the establishment of an aged care facility on the former grounds has been a healing one.
This generation may not have experienced the abuse of later child residents, but it still experienced fractured and lost family, disconnection from culture and country.
Many of them never found their families again.
For them, coming back to Sister Kate’s is coming home.