Berry twins’ birth names were changed in 1976 and no one explained why

The identical twin girls were taken from their parents and six siblings as babies. They would not see their mother again until they turned 18 years old.
The identical twin girls were taken from their parents and six siblings as babies. They would not see their mother again until they turned 18 years old.

It's the middle of the night when Barrack Heights grandmother Lindy Lawler pulls on her coat and grabs her car keys. She's just received a call from a Lake Illawarra police officer asking for her help down at the station.

The 59-year-old Aboriginal elder has been called up to sit beside a young person who's found themself in trouble with the law.

Aunty Lindy doesn't know all the details. She's there in her role as a support person with the Police Aboriginal Consultative Committee (PACC) to help the teenagers understand their rights and feel less alone.

"I'll sit there and make sure they are respected," Aunty Lindy says.

"I'm there if they need anything, and so they know someone is there supporting and listening to them so they're not on their own. I won’t leave until they do."

Aunty Lindy Lawler devotes her time to a number of community groups, is a proud supporter of HARS at Albion Park Airport and regularly performs Welcome to Country around the Illawarra. Photo: Sylvia Liber

Aunty Lindy Lawler devotes her time to a number of community groups, is a proud supporter of HARS at Albion Park Airport and regularly performs Welcome to Country around the Illawarra. Photo: Sylvia Liber

Aunty Lindy has dedicated more than a decade of her life to fighting for young Aboriginal people to feel safe and empowered - often from when they are at their most vulnerable. A “survivor of the past” (Stolen Generation), she knows the fear and confusion of being a child at the mercy of the authorities. 

Lindy and her identical twin sister, Mandy Courtney, were born in David Berry Memorial Hospital at Berry in 1958. The girls were given the names Elsie and Jean. 

When the separation came it was swift and harsh.

"When we were five months old our parents took us to the hospital for a check-up and when they returned we were gone," Aunty Lindy says.

The girls were sent to the Ashfield Infants Home in Sydney, while their other six siblings were split up and taken to various children’s homes - including the Kinchela Boys Home at Kempsey and Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls' Home - where they were cut off from family and culture as part of the government policy of assimilation.

Our original names were Elsie and Jean but our names were changed in 1976 and no one explained why.

Over the next nine years, the twins went through nine separate foster homes or institutions. In one of them they were subjected to physical and mental abuse. 

Eventually in 1968 they were sent to stay in Hunters Hill with their beloved foster mum Betty, who instilled in the girls a steely determination to never give up. It wasn't their original home, but it was safe, and they were loved. It became home.

However, at no point during their childhood were they ever told about their Aboriginal identity.

"Our original names were Elsie and Jean but our names were changed in 1976 and no one explained why," she says.

Aunty Lindy's twin sister Mandy Courtney died from cancer in 2009 before she learned the whole truth about her past. Photos: supplied

Aunty Lindy's twin sister Mandy Courtney died from cancer in 2009 before she learned the whole truth about her past. Photos: supplied

Looking back, she believes it was partly to prevent their parents from finding them. 

"We did not meet our biological mum until we were 18 years old, when we were no longer wards of the state," Aunty Lindy said.

"Our mum died soon after at the age of 53. We didn’t get to meet our father at all."

Aunty Lindy tried for years to piece together her family history and, finally in 2008 when she turned 50, the Department of Community Services granted her access to her file.

Heartbreak spilled out of the official manila folder, along with her life story and that of her sister.

"I learnt about my family, history and my Aboriginality; I learnt about the Stolen Generation."

There were some disturbing revelations contained within those notes that she can not bring herself to talk about.

But learning the horror of being torn apart from her family and heritage also meant the start of something: Aunty Lindy was able to begin to "establish a connection and acceptance into my own community".

Tragically, her sister Mandy died from cancer in 2009 before she got to learn the whole truth of her past. The death of her twin cast a heavy shadow over Aunty Lindy.

Her social work, helping others, became a way out of the darkness.

"I was recognised as an elder around 2008 and have worked hard over the years to become a respected member of the Aboriginal community," Aunty Lindy says. "My deepest respect is with my elders past and present.

"They taught me that to become an elder in your community you had to earn respect by giving respect back to the community."

Now a mother of two and grandmother of five, Aunty Lindy was named the region's female Aboriginal elder of the year in 2012 and again in 2016.

Perhaps it's because of her own traumatic childhood that her tireless advocacy for Indigenous youth is what she finds the most gratifying. 

"The children are our future," Aunty Lindy says. "I make sure they have someone to listen to them."