A Stolen Life: The Bruce Trevorrow Case by Antonio Buti

A Stolen Life: The Bruce Trevorrow Case

Reviewed by Rod McLary

On 11 May 1995, the then Labor Federal Government announced that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission would conduct an inquiry into and report on the history and effects of the forced separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families.  In the subsequent report, entitled Bringing Them Home and handed down in April 1997, the Commission stated that – at least from the mid- or late-nineteenth century – there was a policy of forcible separation adversely affecting Aboriginal people across Australia.  The report argued that in many cases forcible separation resulted in deprivation of liberty, violation of parental rights, abuses of legislative powers, and breaches of human rights.

Dr Andrew Buti – the author of A Stolen Life – was one of the lawyers who prepared the Stolen Generations submissions for the inquiry which produced the Bringing Them Home report.  He has used that experience and the knowledge he gained to write a moving and at times heart-breaking story of one Aboriginal man who experienced forcible separation from his family. 

It is the story of Bruce Trevorrow and his fight for compensation from the South Australian government for the harm done to him through forcible separation from his family.

On Christmas Day 1957, Bruce is aged thirteen months.  He is desperately unwell and needs to go to hospital.  His father Joe – who by all accounts was a caring and committed father – turns to relatives to help him.  He can’t leave his other children alone so the relatives agree to take Bruce to the Adelaide Hospital.  The hospital has given assurances that Bruce can return home in a few days. 

The Aborigines Protection Board had recently advertised for foster parents for young aboriginal children.  Martha and Frank Davies wanted to foster a child so they responded to the advertisement and in due course were taken to the hospital to view the children.  The hospital informed them that there was one child whose mother ‘has gone walkabout leaving the child with family members who do not look after or feed the child’ [26].  They say ‘the family has abandoned and neglected the baby’ [26].  The Davies take the baby home – there is no paperwork.  They are told to ‘just take the baby with you’ [26].  They believed they were fostering a girl – a mistake they soon discovered when they changed Bruce’s nappy.

Looking back now on this situation from a twenty-first century perspective, it seems almost incredible that such a cavalier disregard of a child and his parents would be shown.

Bruce’s parents – Thora and Joe – have not forgotten him and they have been making every attempt they can to find out where he is and when they can have him back.  The response to one letter from Thora written directly to a named welfare officer is typical of the responses they have received from the Aborigines Protection Board.  Addressed to the local police officer, it states –

We understand the father of Meningie [the location of the family] is illiterate and an habitual drunkard. … Conditions in this camp are reported as most undesirable for children. [32]

Shortly after this letter is sent, Thora is told that the Board does not favour return of Bruce to her.  She will not see him for a further nine years.

Bruce stays with the Davies family but his behaviour deteriorates at school and home.  He develops a psycho-somatic limp in his right leg – it is related to the abnormal situation in which he is placed.  However, in May 1967, Bruce is taken to what he and the Davies believe is a two-week holiday with his mother and siblings.  It is in fact a permanent stay but no one had been told by the Aborigines Protection Board.

Bruce’s life from then on is fraught with confusion, uncertainty and an absence of any sense of place and family.  He begins to drink heavily and develops a number of serious health conditions including chronic bronchitis, asthma and emphysema.  He appears in court on numerous occasions for various offences and suffers from ‘psychological pain syndrome’ related to his right leg.  He marries but is violent towards his wife.  In short, Bruce is a broken man.

In December 1993, Bruce goes to South Australia’s Aboriginal Legal Service and says to a lawyer there – I want to sue the government because they took me away from my family when I was a baby.  Can you help me? [71]

Thus begins a process which extends over the next fifteen years during which Bruce and his lawyers fight for his right to compensation for a removal which essentially destroyed his life.

The author methodically and step-by-step – which is at the same time gripping and at times heart wrenching – sets out the stages by which Bruce’s initial request of the Legal Service moves towards a hearing before the Supreme Court of South Australia.  The matter of Trevorrow v State of South Australia will be heard by Justice Thomas Gray.  Bruce will be represented by Julian Burnside QC and the State by Stephen Walsh QC and their respective team members.

The larger part of the book deals with the hearing and the legal arguments and debates which are an essential element of a complex and ground-breaking matter.  While not directly quoting from transcripts of the hearing, the author skilfully re-creates the drama of the courtroom by providing commentary which explains the arguments and why certain questions are asked.  Even a lay reader will readily follow the matter as it unfolds over a period of weeks.

Each of the lawyers has a backstory and the backstories are interwoven with the courtroom drama so effectively that the reader almost feels as if she/he has met the lawyers and understands their motivation for being involved in this matter – whether on Bruce’s side or the State’s.  Similarly, Justice Thomas Gray becomes ‘Tom Gray’ at certain points in the story.  He is very conscious of his role and his forensic skills in drilling deeply into the legal and social complexities of this matter are articulated perfectly by the author.  A Stolen Life is no dry legal textbook – it is a living story.

At the same time, the fact that the hearing is about the life experiences of Bruce is never overlooked or minimised.  The reader never loses sight that this is Bruce’s story and it is being told from his perspective.

On 1 August 2007, Justice Gray delivers his judgement.  He states in part –

The breaches of duty of care [by the State] that occurred were also a material cause of his depression and other losses.  Those losses include the loss of his Aboriginal identity.

The State is liable to the plaintiff in respect of misfeasance in public office, false imprisonment and breaches of duty of care in regard to his removal, placement and return.  [261]

 Bruce was awarded $525,000.00 in damages.

Six months later, on 13 February 2008, the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered an apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples. 

At 4.30pm on Friday 20 June 2008, Bruce died.  He was aged 52.

This is a book for anyone who has a layperson’s interest in the law and shares a concern for the Indigenous peoples of Australia.  It is well written and has an extensive index and a glossary of legal terms. 

Dr Antonio Buti is a member of the Western Australian Parliament, an Honorary Fellow at the Law School of the University of Western Australia and an Adjunct Professor at the Law School of Murdoch University.  He has written extensively on a wide range of issues.  In 2007, his biography of Sir Ronald Wilson won the Western Australian Premier’s Book Award for non-fiction and the Premier’s Prize.

A Stolen Life

The Bruce Trevorrow Case


by Antonio Buti

Fremantle Press

ISBN 978 1 9258 1511 5

292pp; $32.99

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