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‘Fighting Gunditjmara’ spirit prevails in Stolen court case

Posted on 31 Jan 2017

All her life, Jill Bott knew she had an older Aboriginal half-brother.

“He was somewhere in the world but we didn’t know where,” Ms Bott said. “My mother was a Gunditjmara woman from western Victoria. She was 17 when she fell pregnant, and she had a pillow birth (meaning, her face was covered) and she never saw her son.

“She was told she had to give him up. But we used to celebrate his birthday every year. I watched my mother grieve her whole life.”

It took more than 30 years, but Ms Bott and her two Aboriginal sisters found their half-brother, whose name had been changed to Howard Stanley Wilson. Last week the family made legal history as the first members of the Stolen Generation to assert their legal rights as kin in court.

Jill Bott, at home in Bilgola, in Sydney’s northern beaches. Picture: Renee Nowytarger
Jill Bott, at home in Bilgola, in Sydney’s northern beaches. Picture: Renee Nowytarger

The Australian reported on Tuesday on the sisters’ extraordinary legal battle to claim their half-brother’s estate, ahead of any member of the white family that adopted him. In an unusual twist, they were assisted by indigenous federal MP Linda Burney who wrote to the court, urging the judge to find for her three friends.

Ms Burney was also a member of the NSW parliament that amended the succession law that in turn allowed the sisters to make their claim. “Now we are hoping other members of the Stolen Generation will stand up and do the same thing,” Ms Bott said.

The court’s decision to award the bulk of Howard’s estate to his Aboriginal half-sisters ahead of any members of the white family that adopted him turns conventional thinking about adoption on its head.

In normal circumstances, adoption severs the legal bond between a child and his or her biological family. Legally speaking, their adoptive family becomes their next of kin.

This means a child who has been adopted out would, for example, have no claim on their biological father’s estate. But Ms Bott, who describes herself as one of the “fighting Gunditjmara people” said she was never prepared to accept that Howard’s estate should go to anyone other than his Aboriginal kin, saying: “Our bond is greater than any law.”

Ms Bott said she found Howard after adoption records opened in NSW in 1990. “I went straight to the Department (of Community Services) and tried to get his file,” she said. “They said, no, no, no, it has to be his birth mother. I said: his birth mother is dead. I will fight you in the Supreme Court. Next thing I knew, they dropped the adoption file on my doorstep.”

Howard was living in Pottsville, NSW, unemployed, and estranged from the white family that raised him. “He had his adoption papers in his wallet, they were all worn out, he used to carry them around with him,” Ms Bott said.

Howard moved immediately to Sydney, to live with Ms Bott and her family in Castle Hill.

He found a job at Waverly Council, moved into a granny flat, and worked for 20 years before his death from lung cancer in 2013.

“He told me that his adoptive father left the family when he was five, and he never saw him again,” Ms Bott said. “We were his family.”

Howard’s estate when he died was relatively modest — about $200,000, according to court records, although Ms Bott said it was less — but when Ms Bott tried to finalise it, she was told: “You’re not his next of kin, because he was adopted.” By law, Howard’s next of kin were two sisters fathered by his adoptive father, and his adoptive father’s second wife.

Ms Bott said “the spirit of the fighting Gunditjmara people” was again ignited. She read “everything I could find” on NSW succession law, discovering that it had recently been amended by the parliament to allow Aboriginal people, whose families are more likely to have been disrupted by adoption and family breakdown, to make claims according to indigenous laws and culture.

She went to the NSW Supreme Court and, in an unprecedented decision, won the bulk of Howard’s $200,000 estate, minus $8000 for Howard’s two white half-sisters. “But I don’t think they should have got anything,” Ms Bott said. “We were his family and the fact that he was taken from us never changed that.”

Ms Burney declined to comment on her role in the case.