From around 1905 through the early 1970s, the federal and state governments in Australia forcibly took aboriginal children, along with Torres Strait Islanders, from their homes and families to bring them up in “Christian” surroundings: they were known as the Stolen Generations. Cubillo was one of those children, carried away from her home as a child, screaming. As in faith-based orphanages in other English-speaking countries, the native children of Australia were often abused — physically, emotionally, and sexually — by their captors. “I remember mothers beating their heads with sticks and rocks,” Cubillo testified to the 2014 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse about that day. “They were bleeding.” She spoke no English at the time. The governments’ record-keeping was poor at best: officials now estimate that somewhere between 10 and 33 percent of aboriginal children were taken in this way. Around 250,000 Australian white children were also taken, from parents deemed “unfit.”
Cubillo was kept at a staging area until forced to walk — “for days” — to an assembly point, and transferred to the Retta Dixon Home in Darwin, in Australia’s Northern Territory. She remembers a friend who had epilepsy. “Ruth used to have fits and was chained up with a dog chain to her bed because of the fits,” she said, and “often had bad chafing around her ankle where the chain would rub.” Girls and boys both were raped. “Sometimes we had to wear diapers to school so the blood didn’t come out on the school uniform,” said one of the boys, Kevin Stagg, in his testimony — because he bled so much from being raped. Only one worker at Retta Dixon, which operated for 34 years, was ever convicted: Donald Bruce Henderson, a “house parent” during the 1960s and 1970s, had scores of charges dropped until he finally admitted molesting three boys — and was given a “good behavior bond” as a slap on the wrist. The Royal Commission only held hearings for eight days — and none of the former workers facing allegations of abuse were called. The Australian Indigenous Ministries promised to sell some real estate, which expected to bring A$350,000-$380,000, and put it into a trust to compensate the surviving victims — but once the Commission disbanded, AIM didn’t fulfill the promise.
“She was extremely brave in whatever she did and she challenged a lot of people’s thinking about us in the home,” said another Stolen Child, Mai Katona. “She was like our leader.” Through it all, Cubillo, then 76, heard lawyers dispute the stories of the captives. “They were treated with no respect and they were made to feel like liars, yet they sat in court with dignity, listening,” said History Professor Ann McGrath, who has studied the Stolen Generations. “We should have a bit of a sense of shame as a nation to think how we treated Lorna Cubillo and her courage coming forth to speak to a court and listening to the full story.” In 2008, the government issued a formal apology to the Stolen Generations, led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and passed by both houses of the Parliament of Australia. Cubillo didn’t feel that was enough: she was one of the stolen children who fought for government reparations; the Commission also granted nothing. As befitting her role as a leader, Cubillo sued, bringing some compensation to a number of Retta Dixon children in 2017; the rest of the Stolen Generations are still waiting. Cubillo died “over the weekend” — none of the reports I found gave her the dignity of reporting a specific date, but apparently September 12 or 13. She was 81.