On Christmas Day 1957, Bruce Trevorrow’s father Joe was concerned about his baby son’s incessant crying. He knew little Bruce wasn’t well.
Joe was an Aboriginal man, who had no way of getting from his home in South Australia’s Coorong region to Adelaide Children’s hospital, a two-hour drive away. He walked in the blistering heat, cradling his feverish son, into the nearest town and pleaded for help. A relative of his wife agreed to drive Bruce to hospital, to the panicked father’s enormous relief.
That was the last time he ever saw his son.
Fifty years later, Bruce Trevorrow became the only member of the Stolen Generations ever to sue an Australian government for compensation – and win.
Tony Buti, now a member of the West Australian Parliament, was at that time a legal academic and expert on the Stolen Generations.
After reading the judgment on the Trevorrow case handed down in 2007, Dr Buti could not forget it.
“It was an incredibly beautifully constructed judgement; logical and at times poetic,” he said.
“I wanted to bring this story to life.”
Six years of interviewing and research followed, considerably slowed by the sheer volume of material and by his election to Parliament.
“I essentially did it over summer periods and weekends but I could never spend long stretches, because in this job there is always another commitment,” he said
“I considered giving up … but I felt an obligation to the people that I interviewed.
“I also knew this story should be given to a wider audience.”
Buti after a long road to publication. FREMANTLE PRESS
It took ten years to complete A Stolen Life, launched this month to a sell-out crowd just ahead of NAIDOC Week, an account of the ruining of a child that is all the more devastating for the careful precision of its language.
Joe and Thora’s home was a shack Joe had built himself. It was basic, with a swept dirt floor, but clean. ‘Native welfare’ officers had inspected, but not reported it unfit for children. They found no evidence of neglect. None of Bruce’s siblings were ever removed.
Yet on January 6 the hospital allowed a foster family to take the recovered baby ‘Brucey’ home without so much as a fostering licence.
The laws of the time stated that to remove a child from their family, there had to be either parental consent or a government order. Neither happened.
Bruce’s frantic mother, unable to get to the hospital, wrote multiple letters to authorities asking how Bruce was and when he could come home.
They responded that her baby was still not well enough. Thora only discovered the truth when it was far too late to reverse.
Bruce’s foster mother had her own mental health issues, which worsened when he grew older and began to display signs of emotional trauma.
“There was love there, but it was always a problematic relationship,” Buti said.
“She was having difficulty coping, he was being a difficult child and she would threaten to send him away so he felt this great sense of insecurity.”
When Bruce was around eight and his skin had noticeably darkened his older foster sister bluntly broke the news of his Aboriginal heritage, and the boy’s sense of rootlessness deepened.
He eventually met his birth mother Thora on his ninth birthday and soon afterwards authorities abruptly decided he would be better off – after all – back with her.
They told Bruce he was going to Thora’s for the school holidays and removed him from his foster mother without warning or allowing for goodbyes. The 10-year-old, with little experience with Aboriginal environments, who had not been emotionally prepared to leave his foster mother, was thrust back into an Aboriginal environment he had no knowledge of and taken to meet a host of strange relatives.
Bruce’s father had already died. He never bonded with his siblings or mother and adulthood brought full-blown psychological problems and alcoholism.
The adult Trevorrow was always able to work but he grew familiar with psychiatric hospitals and ended up in court repeatedly for hitting his wife. He never connected with his children.
When this lost soul walked into the office of Joanne Richardson, who was working at Adelaide’s then-equivalent of the Aboriginal Legal Service, he was her age but she couldn’t believe how much older he looked.
“He was a man who didn’t feel comfortable anywhere. He didn’t exude warmth. He wasn’t an attractive person to be near,” Buti said.
“But when Bruce told her his story, she felt it needed to see the light of day.”
It took thirteen years for that day in court.
The ALS had few resources. Richardson carried a heavy load, dealing with civil matters, and had a couple of paralegals and another lawyer assisting her but was engaging barristers to help out. Every time she engaged a barrister, that barrister would then get promoted and leave.
Things turned a corner when Richardson’s persistence secured the now-famous Julian Burnside QC, whose initial reluctance to take on such an uncertain case turned into a burning determination to win after meeting Trevorrow and, like Richardson before him, being shocked by his appearance.
The trial went for 38 days. The state threw everything at it; no member of the Stolen Generations had yet successfully sued the state and they were worried about opening the floodgates. There were skilful advocates on both sides and keenly contested expert evidence.
Trevorrow, although he had difficulty communicating, was a good witness in the very truth of how he stood in court: as a broken man. The appearance of his siblings, who had had every success in life, underpinned his case. Their strong family upbringing and connection to culture meant they coped with their ups and downs in life, ending up with important leadership roles in the Aboriginal community. His older brother even lectured at Harvard.
This brother, Tom, told the court Bruce was very quiet, and “different”, from his first visits.
“He’d missed out on – how could I say – our way of life, because he was raised differently and we had to be aware sometimes when we talked, and we’d talk in our language,” he said.
“We’d talk about somebody, or we’d talk about something, that Bruce wasn’t familiar with … even sometimes our actions of what we do with our body language, our Ngarrindjeri ways.
Tom told the court later in life, Trevorrow would sit with family on his intermittent visits, and “tears would run down his cheeks in front of his eyes, he was hurting and didn’t want to show it … everybody knew of what happened to him and it wasn’t fair and we knew that the way he was carrying on is because he couldn’t fit in again, even though we tried helping him fit in, he couldn’t … it’s hard to put into words sometimes; it’s what we feel as blackfellas, as Ngarrindjeri, inside, what we sense about each other.”
It was hard, he said, to put into whitefella words.
“They belonged to a world that Bruce never belonged to,” Buti said.
“Bruce … was caught between two worlds, unsure of who he was, and without the security of a family that would allow him to forge his own identity.
“He was stolen and it just seemed so cruel.
“That they weren’t told what happened to him. That the state lied about it. That he never saw his father again. That he was not prepared to be stolen a second time. That he could not form a close relationship with his mother, or his siblings. That he could never reconnect with his Aboriginal world or the non-Aboriginal world. And perhaps most greatly that he could love or care for his own children.”
Justice Tom Gray awarded damages in respect of injuries and losses, unlawful removal and detention, misfeasance in public office and false imprisonment, totalling $525,000. Bruce Trevorrow died the following year, aged 51, months after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered his famous apology.
A Stolen Life is in bookstores now.