Alberta brought her good friend Jane to her meeting with the Commissioner because they grew up together in the mission-run kids’ home in Darwin. ‘And because a lot of things, I just don’t recall.’ But they were both reduced to silence when Alberta was asked what the home was like back in the 1950s.
‘It was terrible’ she said. ‘And Darwin being Darwin,’ Jane added, ‘it didn’t matter that the home was isolated, everyone knew how bad it was’.
Alberta’s mother had gone straight into hiding when her white husband died. She was heavily pregnant with Alberta. The welfare department got news of this woman ‘with all these half-caste kids … and sent the native patrol in to get us kids from her. I was only probably a couple of months old when that happened’.
Alberta remembered the stink of the cleaning fluid they used in the infants section. If she smells it now ‘I just about throw up’. As early as kindergarten, some of the children in the home were so stressed they wet the bed regularly. Alberta helped them wash their sheets.
The home had its own chooks, fruit and veggies but the kids were badly fed. Physical punishments were doled out daily. Jane remembered ‘being beaten to a pulp’ and Alberta agreed. ‘Every corner I turned it seemed someone was there with a cane or a strap.’ It was the same at the primary school. ‘They seemed to want to hit you every five minutes.’
When Steve Gardner, the Aboriginal coach, showed the 12-year-old Alberta some affection, she fell head over heels in love with him. Gardner, who was in his late 20s, visited the home to teach the older kids basketball. Everyone liked him. ‘Because we were treated like crap by everyone else, the gifts were just wonderful. We all felt that he cared.’
Gardner met regularly with Alberta ‘down the back’ of the home. It was no secret to the other kids. Gardner would leave bags of lollies out for Jane, who’d signal to Alberta when she had to come home. He’d also send messages to Alberta through some of the older kids. Alberta thought she was special to Gardner but when she grew up it dawned on her that she wasn’t the only girl he was seeing. And it wasn’t just kids in the home either.
Things came to a head one night when Alberta ran away with Gardner. They had sex for the first time in a hostel. Alberta was still only 12. She only realised later that that was the night she lost her virginity.
Gardner had given Alberta some ‘luminous pants’, all the rage back then, which she wore with pride. ‘I’ll never forget when I went to the toilet when I came home and saw the blood on them and thought, my God, if the missionaries see this I’m dead. So I flushed them down the toilet.’
The home discovered the runaways and called in the police. Gardner was charged with statutory rape and Alberta gave evidence. She remembers telling the court that she loved him. He was convicted and sent to jail.
Alberta was sent down to Melbourne, to another ‘hellhole’ and turned 13 just after she arrived. Through all of this, no one talked to her about what was happening or gave her any sort of guidance at all.
Welfare allowed Alberta to come home to Darwin when she was 15 and stay at her elder sister’s place. She became a domestic drudge for her brothers when they came in from the cattle stations. Gardner drifted back on the scene and they ended up together again, even though her brother had threatened her with a hiding if they did. But Alberta was defiant. ‘It’s not my fault! Do things with me. Take me places. Keep me … with other family members.’
But she ended up losing interest in Gardner anyway.
The two old friends reflected on how vulnerable the kids were to those experiences. ‘It was the fault of the mission,’ Jane said, ‘for not allowing us to have any exposure’.
‘Never mind they were all like rejects from their own communities and took up the position of missionaries,’ Alberta added. ‘And it was a matching session with all of them … They were trying it on all the time with each other and there were so many marriages that came out of people getting together as missionaries.’
Jane remembered one of the home staff and her boyfriend, who were like ‘two pythons on the couch, every night. Absolutely disgraceful!’
‘And the ones that couldn’t find the opposite sex, went for whatever they could in the children,’ Alberta added. ‘But I didn’t know that until later.’
Jane had to leave the Commission session early but she had a final plea for Alberta: ‘Tell them what they done to us … They just about smashed us!’
But Alberta wanted to talk about how unfair the home superintendent had been, lavishing love on a favoured few and abusing others. One girl called the superintendent ‘Mum’ and rejected her own Aboriginal mother when she visited.
‘Initially, we didn’t know what mothers were and what their role was anyway.’ Alberta remembers asking her own mother about all these women whose names were Mum. ‘She could say it ten times to me, “I’m your mother … That’s her mother.” It still didn’t make any sense to me.’
Alberta has her own daughter now and if she applies for any compensation it would go mainly to her. She hasn’t had counselling but said she would have liked some when she was a child.
Preparing for her Commission session has been hard. ‘It seems strange that just out of the blue some nights, I wake up …’ But Alberta couldn’t finish her sentence.