‘Truth receivers’: The listeners who help Indigenous people share their stories with Yoorrook inquiry

It was only in the past six years, after the death of her grandfather, that Tara Fry learned the devastating truth of her family history.

Growing up, her pop always told her that his mother had never wanted him, that she had dumped him into a state boys home and disappeared from his life forever. It was only after he died that people began to come forward with accounts of how he’d been forcibly removed, aged 10, from an Aboriginal mission as part of the Stolen Generations.

Tara Fry is a ‘truth receiver’ for the Yoorrook Justice Commission, helping Indigenous community members make submissions about their experiences. The truth about her own family history has only recently emerged.Credit:Justin McManus

Fry understood how common an experience that painful history was for Aboriginal people. She herself grew up proudly identifying as Ngemba and Ngiyampaa mob, from around Bourke in far western New South Wales.

She was aware of and engaged with the community where she was born, on Gunditjmara country, in Victoria’s west. And from her career working within government, Fry knew well of the landmark 1997 Bringing Them Home report.

But the truth of her own family’s background, obscured for so long, had taken the death of the person it affected most before emerging.

When an opportunity arose to join the Yoorrook Justice Commission, it was those difficult circumstances that impelled her to step forward and take on a role with the truth-telling inquiry. As one of five recently appointed “truth receivers”, Fry now helps Aboriginal people across Victoria share their experiences with the Yoorrook Commission.

“We’re the conduit between the community and the commissioners,” Fry explains. “We go out into community and families and work with people to bring their truths to the inquiry in the form of a submission. We start off with social and emotion wellbeing support, then together we work out what they want to say and which way they want to say it.”

This might include helping them fill in online forms or taking a video or audio recording of their submission. The truth receivers also share information about what Yoorrook is doing, and help coordinate and organise people getting involved and participating in other yarning circles and community roundtables occurring around the state as part of the truth-telling process. The outreach is community-wide, but elders have been prioritised.

“We’re all impacted, but we need to get their stories down. Their truths will become part of Australia’s recorded history,” Fry says.

Last month, Fry helped Aunty Sandra Rowe record her testimony and submit it to the commission. The process took around a month and involved Aunty Sandra and Fry meeting in person several times and talking “on numerous occasions” over the phone before recording what Rowe wanted to say.

“We start off with social and emotional wellbeing support, then together we work out what they want to say and which way they want to say it.” Yoorrook Truth receiver Tara Fry.Credit:Justin McManus

Rowe, a 65-year-old Dja Dja Wurrung, Yorta Yorta and Wemba Wemba elder, is yet another Stolen Generations survivor. The trauma she experienced as a ward of the state until the age of seven, when she was reunited with her mother – who was also removed from her parents – continued to reverberate throughout her life.

At the age of 23, Rowe’s first baby was immediately taken from her because she was battling a drug addiction. Rowe didn’t meet her daughter again until 18 years later. At the age of 50, Rowe spent time at the Lady Gladys Nicholls Hostel, which provided temporary accommodation to homeless Aboriginal people in Melbourne.

“Because I was visually impaired since I was 15, I wasn’t able to learn and attend school like other fully sighted children. As I got older and shared my story with counsellors and friends, they would tell me to write a biography, but because I wasn’t educated, I didn’t have the skills to do that,” says Rowe.

“Being able to share and make a submission with the support of Tara, I feel as though my story is being told. To be able to sit in the comfort of my home with a like-minded person who understands the trauma that I’ve been through made the process comfortable.

“I feel as though I’m not carrying the weight of injustices on my shoulders any more.”

This week the commission will resume its public hearings focus on the impact of the child protection system on First Peoples in Victoria. Aboriginal children in Victoria are being removed from their families at over 20 times the rate of removals of non-Indigenous children. Fifty-six per cent of Aboriginal kids in out-of-home care in Victoria are placed with a non-Aboriginal carer. Over 50 per cent are separated from their siblings.

The inquiry will be led by Wirdi man Tony McAvoy, SC – widely recognised as Australia’s most senior First Nations barrister – and Fiona McLeod AO, SC, with junior counsel provided by Yuin man Timothy Goodwin and Sarala Fitzgerald.

The focus of the hearings is a response to calls from elders and community leaders, says Yoorrook deputy chair Sue-Anne Hunter.

“The harm inflicted on the stolen generation continues to traumatise our people, yet record numbers of First Peoples’ children are being taken from their families,” Hunter said. “We are seeing a new stolen generation happening before our eyes.”

An Auditor-General’s report into kinship care in Victoria, released in June, found the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing handling of Aboriginal children had led to them being put into culturally unsuitable environments, jeopardising connections with their culture and family.

Coinciding with the tabling of the report, the Andrews government introduced the Children, Youth and Families Amendment (Child Protection) Bill 2021. The bill sought to make a string of changes to existing legislation to empower Aboriginal community-led decision-making, which included acknowledging cultural principles for decisions on child placement. The bill lapsed when the 50th parliament went into caretaker mode before the state election.

A second week of hearings will address issues within the state’s criminal justice system. Three decades have passed since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody tabled its landmark report. More than 500 Aboriginal people have died in custody across Australia since that inquiry, while in Victoria, Aboriginal people continue to be imprisoned at 14 times the rate of non-Indigenous people.

The December hearings will include evidence from around 50 witnesses ranging from community members with lived experience to representatives from Aboriginal Ccommunity-Controlled Organisations, service providers and experts.

The Yoorrook commissioners, led by chair Professor Eleanor Bourke, AM, a Wergaia and Wamba Wamba elder, recently completed a series of roundtable discussions with a select group of representatives from Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, researchers, and the co-chairs of the Aboriginal Justice Caucus, to discuss key issues facing the child protection and criminal justice systems.

“The situation is getting worse in many respects,” Bourke said.

“Yoorrook will investigate the reasons why current approaches continue to fail First Peoples. It will examine why governments are removing our children from their families and communities at the worst rate in the country and why they are imprisoning our people at rising rates, with continued deaths in custody.”

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