In the 1950s, Alethea’s mother drank alcohol to excess, which resulted in Alethea and her little sister being removed from their family in Darwin and placed in a government-run home for Aboriginal children.
‘I remember the physical abuse from a young age. The cottage parent would cane me every day. Pulled my hair. I was punched very hard … and bled from my ear. To this day I have trouble with my ears.’
Alethea’s cottage parents were Mr and Mrs Fenech. Aside from the physical abuse, Fenech would ‘look at me having a shower’, and threaten Alethea with beatings if she told anyone. ‘I was in fear of this man.’
When Alethea was eight, Mal, one of the older boys from her cottage, led her into the banana patch. ‘He told me to take my pants off and raped me. I didn’t know the reason of what happened … I also saw a lot of the older boys taking girls to the banana patch.
‘He said to me after – I was lying there and couldn’t move – and he said, “You open your mouth, I’ll slap you in the mouth!” And I couldn’t do nothing … I ended up getting up. I was bleeding through, you know. I went straight and had a shower. Never told them, I was too scared. They would’ve hit me. And then I never said nothing to anybody, even my own sister ... She was too young to know anyway.’
On weekends when the Fenechs were away, Alethea would stay in a different cottage. Also living in this cottage was an infant called Melissa. Melissa was adored by the other children, who would cuddle and care for her like their little sister.
Alethea recalled an incident during supper one evening. All the children were sitting around a large dining table and Melissa was sitting in her highchair being fed by the house father, Mr Langdon, who tried to feed her an adult-size piece of steak.
‘She only had two teeth then, couldn’t eat it.’ Melissa spat the piece out and Langdon became angry with her. He picked the piece up, put it in her mouth and then covered her nose. That was when Melissa started to choke.
Alethea told the Commissioner that while Melissa was gagging, the children could see how terrified she was, but could not do anything because they weren’t allowed to leave the table. Alethea saw Melissa turn blue and then go limp.
Langdon lifted her out of her chair, held her by her feet and hit her hard on her back, but she never regained consciousness. Langdon took Melissa outside and Alethea never saw her again. ‘I have never forgotten her.’
‘Turned black and blue, she died in front of us in the home. And she was only about one-and-a-half or two years old … What happened with the baby, where is she? She died in front of us. And then he came back, just like nothing had happened.’
Alethea told the Commissioner that Langdon did not return until two o’clock the following morning and at breakfast acted as if everything was normal. The children tried to ask him where Melissa was but were told to go away.
Melissa had older siblings who also lived at the home and their mother came to visit every week. Alethea recalled that when Langdon told Melissa’s family she had died they became distraught and broke down crying. A few days later Langdon and his wife were dismissed as cottage parents. The police never visited the home and no investigation was undertaken at the time.
After leaving the home Alethea had a difficult life. She turned to alcohol and had several abusive relationships, one of which resulted in children. ‘I have become an alcoholic and suffer from depression. I cry a lot for no reason. I don’t trust anyone.’ For years she threw herself into her work as a cleaner as a distraction from her memories.
‘I had to go to work, get my mind off it … Cleaning out with my aunty, about four o’clock in the morning. Finish about six o’clock in the afternoon. Christmas Eve right up till next day, Christmas Day. Tiring … I couldn’t tell anybody, I couldn’t tell my parents.’
In 2000, Alethea reported Melissa’s death to the police and the Northern Territory government, and an investigation commenced. A death certificate was obtained which concluded Melissa died of pneumonia and the case was closed. Alethea does not agree with these findings but understands little else can be done, especially given it occurred more than 50 years ago and most of the potential witnesses are now dead.
A few years ago Alethea saw Mal on the street and confronted him about his rape when she was eight. ‘I said, “Do you remember what you done? What’d you do that for?” He said, “Mr Fenech was doing the same thing to us so we thought to do that”. I said “Really? Well, you didn’t have to do that to me”.’
Mal has since died and Alethea never considered reporting the sexual abuse to the police. She has never applied for compensation but thought she might do so now.
Alethea recently told her daughters about the abuse, but not her sons or their father.
‘Nah, too scared to tell them … I told my daughter, “Look, don’t get it wrong. I had a hard time in the home. I been abused and I been drinking too much.” I lived with their father for 12 years. And I told my kids and they realised … I told the kids, “Don’t tell him that. It’s in the past now. Let it go”, you know.’
‘She said to me, “Mum, why didn’t you tell me years ago?” … “You wouldn’t listen to me for a start, so what’s the use of talking to you?” … That’s what I said to her. But everything’s okay now. But my sons, I never told them.’
In recent years Alethea made contact with other former residents of the home. She has remained good friends with some of them and has had many discussions about her time there, which has helped her to realise she is not the only victim. In the meantime she continues to keep herself occupied by cleaning.
‘Get up and scrub the walls and clean everything up outside … I have to, I can’t sit down.’