“I thought it was just all a joke. I never thought I would ever live through something like that. I never thought they had the right to come in and take my child on false allegations.”
Kerry is talking about her nightmare dealing with the NSW Police, the Department of Family and Community Services (FaCS) and the Family Court. In June 2012, her 18-month-old baby, Stella, was forcefully removed from her Marrickville home.
Kerry’s youngest son was often in trouble with the local police, who falsely accused him of a crime of which he was acquitted in court. When they left court on 28 May, they had no idea that Kerry and Stella would be targeted next.
Two days later, police raided Kerry’s home, claiming they would find stolen goods on the property. The following day, they submitted a report to FaCS, which stated that Stella was at risk of serious harm. Their evidence? Two pages of racist lies, describing the home as a filthy and dangerous dump, inhabited by drug-addicted parents seriously neglecting their baby.
“It was like they got a knife and stabbed me through the heart. I don’t take drugs”, Kerry says.
The local court granted FaCS a warrant to remove Stella. The house was not searched and Stella’s parents were not contacted; they were given no warning that their baby was to be stolen.
Kerry was driving home from the shops on a Saturday morning when she noticed her block of units was surrounded by police. She later discovered they were from Newtown, Marrickville and Ashfield – all local stations that her son had trouble with.
“There were too many to count. I started to panic and hyperventilate”, she says. Kerry parked her car and rushed into the house. She was met by two women from FaCS and several police officers – including the area commander from Ashfield.
“I looked at the two women and asked, ‘What are you here for?’ And they said, ‘Kerry, we’re here to remove your child’.
“They handed me the paperwork and I just started to shake, I couldn’t stop crying. I said they had to wait until I got Stella’s stuff. I grabbed her clothes, her bottle and her favourite toys. I knew I had to just do what they said.”
This was not the home the FaCS workers had been expecting to find. The police report stated there were “animal faeces on the floor”, “unattended medication in reach of the child” and “drug paraphernalia scattered throughout the house”.
“The ladies asked me did I own a dog. I said, ‘No, why are you asking me if I own a dog, you’re here to take my baby’. They said, ‘Kerry, you need to read the warrant’. They looked at me and they could see that I wasn’t a drug user, I wasn’t an alcoholic, or whatever they had on this paperwork. I think they realised they shouldn’t have been where they was at the time.”
Yet they still took Stella. The only information given to the family that Saturday was the phone number for FaCS in Strawberry Hills and the name of the man to contact: the acting manager who had submitted the request for a warrant.
Kerry was told she could do nothing until the office opened on Monday morning. She would have to spend the next 48 hours with no knowledge of where her baby was being kept, or if she had lost her for good.
Nationally, more than 17,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were living away from their family homes in 2017 after being removed by government departments. The figure was 9,070 at the time of former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s formal apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, and is roughly 10 times the rate of non-Indigenous removals.
While the typical stereotype – abusive, drug-addicted parents – is offered as justification, the ongoing racism of state institutions is responsible for what Aboriginal community leaders have labelled a national tragedy.
Today more Aboriginal children are stolen from their parents than at any other time in Australian history.
Kerry describes the weekend Stella was stolen as the worst days of her life. “I wouldn’t want anyone to live through it. I honestly would not wish that on my worst enemy. I was actually suicidal, that’s how crazy it made me feel. That’s the impact of how the government can make you feel – the fact that you’re not worthy of being a mother if they can come in and take your child.”
Unlike most removals, Kerry and Stella were reunited within days. One of the FaCS workers immediately wrote a report after taking Stella, in which she described Kerry as a caring mother with a tidy house. This is the only document from the ordeal containing an accurate description of the household.
On Monday morning, Kerry and Stella’s father met with FaCS, accompanied by close family and friends. They were interrogated for three hours – forced to respond to every false allegation the police had made against the family.
Kerry’s eldest daughter asked how Stella was doing. Kerry remembers the officer’s response. “I can’t lie to you, she’s traumatised. She’s crying, she’s not eating, she’s not sleeping; she’s just traumatised”, he said.
By the end of the interview, the acting manager knew that they had made a serious mistake. Kerry claims FaCS had initially approached Marrickville police to assist them with a house inspection and were told they would attend only if Stella was being removed. FaCS then flouted its own guidelines and aided the police persecution of the family.
Just hours after the meeting, Kerry received a phone call with good news: she was taking Stella home that night. She drove across Sydney to pick her up; since then, the two have barely been apart.
Kerry was one of the lucky ones. Many Aboriginal mothers never get their children back. But the trauma of that weekend has not ended almost six years later.
“Even though it happened back in 2012 and Stella’s now seven, I still worry that they’re going to come in and take her”, she says. “That’s still my fear. Every time I hear sirens going past, I think they’re going to take her. That’s the trauma that they’ve placed in me.
“I’ve lived a really hard life as a child and been around a lot of racism. But I didn’t think that I’d have a child taken. Sometimes when I take her to school I still think that they could go to the school and take her … That’s how easy the government can do that. That’s my biggest fear.”
And searching through all the documents related to Stella’s removal while trying to gain justice, Kerry realised just how premeditated the police’s actions were.
“It’s like they planned it way before if my son got off that case, and he did, so that’s what they did – it was all pre-planned”, she says. “They just wanted to come in and take something that was so precious to all of us – she’s loved by everyone in the family.”
Kerry and her family have not received an apology from the police or FaCS.
But what is most shocking about Kerry’s story is that it is not unique. Stella was just one of roughly 3,000 Aboriginal children taken from their homes that year in NSW alone.
“I want to send a message out there not to lose hope to the other women or anybody who gets their child taken away”, Kerry says.
“Always stand up for your rights; stand up for who you are. Don’t let the government or police or [the department] say you don’t have the right to have your child. They’ll try to tell you you’re not a good parent, but you know in your heart you are. So never give up hope and stay strong. I know with Stella’s case, she’s not going to be the last.”
Ten years ago, a prime minister assured First Nations people that the government was truly sorry. But “sorry” means you don’t do it again.