Abby Joanna's story

‘Going through my file as a state ward, the very first document is a police charge sheet from the early 1960s. I was charged with the usual trifecta – uncontrollable, neglect by way of destitution, exposed to moral danger – and I was just two-and-a-half!’

Abby had fallen into care almost by accident. Her single mother, about to have a third child, needed someone to look after Abby and her younger brother for a fortnight. ‘So she went to the only parent she’s ever known – child welfare. The receptionist there rang her mother and said, “Do you want this little girl?” They took me and another family took my brother.’

That was a fateful divide.

‘He was adopted and actually had a good life … We know each other now. He’s well-adjusted, a lovely bloke.’ Abby, on the other hand, was just starting five decades of institutional care, drug dependence, sex work, crime and multiple incarcerations.

While Abby’s mother was in hospital, the foster family sought a court order to have Abby removed from her care. They succeeded – but failed to provide a welcoming environment, with the result that Abby began to run away. When she was 11, the police who rounded her up took her to a Sydney government-run girls’ home – ‘which was one of the worst experiences of my life – and repeated many times.

‘Reception was horrendous … They had these really deep bath tubs, and they’d scrub you and put all that lice stuff on you. I still smell that smell. Then you had to sit in the day room all day, not allowed to talk or do anything, just sit there. Maybe an hour of TV at night time, then bed in the dormitory. But you’d barely get any sleep because they’re walking around every hour shining a light in your face.

‘But the worse thing was next morning when you had to go and see the doctor. Supposedly it was to see if we were pregnant or had VD – but he still should have used gloves! And I’m sure there were such things as child-sized speculums …’ Abby says she felt reduced to ‘a piece of meat’ by these rough examinations.

By age 13 she had ended up at another government-run home in Sydney. ‘That was a horrible place, too … Pubescent girls starting to menstruate, along with some of the younger kids who are still bed wetting. Every morning you had to strip your bed and stand up with your sheets to show that you hadn’t marked them. And if you had, of course you were humiliated.’

All the staff were women, except for the superintendent who happened to be friends with Abby’s foster parents. This was given as a reason to ‘start taking me out to church with his family’. And after this, ‘he would drop off his family and then take me to the home. And on the way he’d put his hand up my dress and play with me, penetrating me’.

The attacks shocked Abby, as did the setting. ‘I certainly wasn’t expecting it from him, and especially not coming back from church. My foster family had been quite religious, I’d grown up with Sunday school and church.’

Sunday school would soon seem far away. Abby started experimenting with drugs, and became dependent on heroin: ‘I ended up working as a prostitute when I was 14.’

Fearing another spell in a children’s home, she ran further. ‘I went to Nimbin. Thought I’d hide out there with the hippies.’

However, life in a rural commune wasn’t to be Abby’s future. She returned to city life, which meant drugs, crime to pay for drugs, scores of charges and stints in jail. Along the way she had a son, but he was taken overseas by his father at the age of three. He has returned to Sydney as an adult and is the sole carer of Abby’s grandchild.

It was during her last, extensive jail term that Abby turned her life around. She completed higher education qualifications, all the while mounting a campaign for prisoners’ rights.

Abby is less sanguine about her own rights and rehabilitation. ‘I’m in my 50s now, I don’t know if there’s a way to get over it.’

Maintaining an income and a home is a struggle, as is drinking too much. Abby says she is becoming increasingly reclusive and depressed.

‘I’ve had partners over the years but relationships have always been dysfunctional, always been abusive … I don’t get close to anyone.’

She has a clear insight into how abuse affected her life. ‘Drugs, prostitution, crime – I soon realised they were a consequence of child trauma … I think the behaviour that got me into so much trouble can be directly attributed to my early institutional life, starting off with the police record that put me into that system.’

But at the same time there’s an abiding and irrational guilt, ‘the feeling that you actually deserve this because you’re a bad kid, that none of it would have happened if you’d just been a good girl’.

The Commissioner strongly disagreed with this. ‘You say I’m strong and resilient?’ Abby replied. ‘I guess you don’t see me sitting at home crying into my bourbon.’

And she concludes with a glimpse of what life might have been. ‘I could have been a writer, I would have had dozens of books under my belt by now. What would have helped? Someone who loved me …’

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