“Mum is finally at peace” – with these simple words, Christina Riley’s son marked the end of her long battle with illness, two days ago, at St Joseph’s Hospital, Auburn. Chris was also known as Christina Green. Her life was an extraordinary story of resilience and survival against almost insurmountable odds. Born of Wiradjuri and European parents, Chris was taken from her family at the age of three. There appears to have been no other reason than that she was Aboriginal. With Bonney Djuric, Chris was the co-founder of Parragirls in 2006, women who survived incarceration and abuse as teenagers in the notorious Parramatta Girls Home. In Bonney’s careful documentation of the emergence and evolution of the child welfare system in NSW, her book Abandon All Hope records that by 1909, the only reason needed for committal of Aboriginal girls to state care was “being Aboriginal”.
By the age of nine, after years of rape, torture and abuse at the hands of a foster family and with no memory of her birth family, Chris was taken into state institutional “care”. As she wrote in her recently published book, The Life of Riley, see below with Geoff Lee MP, “when human beings are treated like filth, they lose their hope and their identity.” She was 13 when confronted with a crisis about who she was. At roll call, an officer “presented my first name, then surname, then two other surnames from my past foster parents, and ending with ‘whichever one you are’. Well that moment was a very embarrassing and dramatic 10 minutes of my life. I answered protesting she could use any name she bloody well liked, and walked off leaving everyone at assembly bewildered.”
Her “insubordination” set off a cycle of punishments and detentions at state institutions, including Parramatta Girls home. Eventually this led to three periods at the infamous Hay Institution for “the worst behaved, depraved, delinquent young girls in the state.” Amazingly, Chris survived the treatment meted out to her and with professional help, it took 25 years to write her book. It became the way she could eventually bring herself to look back at her past and try to understand why all this had happened to her. In the meantime, she became a foster carer to many children and mother to a family of her own. Her commitment to the protection of children and her later struggle to acquire an education were inspirational.
As she reestablished links with her birth family, and worked with Bonney on the development of the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct: Memory Project, she put forward ideas for a memorial garden, an education and research centre, and recorded a video interview with Lily Hibberd which will have an important place as the proposals come to fruition. The site was an indigenous women’s place long before white colonisation and Chris was also developing a concept for Aboriginal cultural tourism. Increasing illness prevented her from furthering this idea, but she leaves a gift to the Australian community that will be increasingly recognised.
I am grateful that Chris could give the Acknowledgement to Country at the launch of my book in 2013. Her extraordinary legacy of resilience and survival demonstrates the ignorance and injustice of radio shock jock Alan Jones’ recent tirade that “we need stolen generations”.
The photo above, taken 18 months ago, shows Chris in her favourite role, caring for one of her grandchildren. Rest in peace, Christina Riley.