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Alexia's story

'Telling won't get you anywhere, anyway. The only place it'll get you is in the dungeon.'

Alexia opened the door to the police one morning when she was 17. It was the late 1960s. She'd run away from home, but Alexia had found a job and a flat to live in with a friend. She was getting on with her life. The police brought her to the police station but assured her she could return to her flat once they had talked to her parents.

It was not to be. Alexia's parents declared her an 'uncontrollable child'. She found herself facing a magistrate who committed her to a girls' home in Sydney's west until she turned 18.

'The next eight months changed me and would affect my life for the next 40 years', Alexia told the Commissioner. The girls' home was run like a prison and Alexia suffered repeated physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

On her first day at the home Alexia was taken to the office of the superintendent, Mr Sanders. 'He walked to the front of his desk and sat with his legs apart on the corner of the desk. He was wearing Bermuda shorts and long socks. The shorts were quite tight fitting … He then said, "Come here" and pointed between his legs. I took a step forward … I took another step toward him and once again he said, "Here" until I was between his legs and our faces were about three inches apart.

'He told me that as long as I did what I was told I would get along fine.

'He would do this every time I was in his office. He never touched me with his hands. I just felt the bulge in his pants.'

But Sanders used his hands often outside his office. On one occasion he threw Alexia down two flights of stairs. 'Picked up and thrown again between two big washing machines … I just felt like he had it in for me.'

'Through all of this you never let anyone see you cry.'

Every few months Alexia and the other girls were made to strip and line up in the cold, wearing only a towel. They were sent one at a time to a cubicle where they were made to drop the towel and bend over for an invasive body search.

Punishments were dished out for minor offences frequently. Alexia spent hours on her knees on the bare floor dry-scrubbing the same spot. There was an isolation cell girls were locked in beneath the home which the girls called 'the dungeon'.

There were no visits from welfare officers or inspectors during Alexia's time at the home. Once when a journalist was coming to look at the home Sanders made it clear he would be watching the girls. 'We were all told to say nothing, and we knew what he meant. It was segregation or the dungeon.' Alexia complained to no one about the abuse; she believed complaining would make things worse.

Alexia recalls worrying about other girls who were sent away from her dormitory to another institution in western New South Wales for months at a time. This happened to so-called 'troublemakers' and they were often pulled from their beds at night. 'I lay there listening to the footsteps, wondering, "Was it going to be me?" The girl that was taken was a bubbly, happy girl full of confidence. When she returned three months later she was like a zombie. She was destroyed and some years later committed suicide.'

When she turned 18 Alexia was released from the home and delivered to her parents. She stayed with them one night and then left the family forever.

'After I left I used to have a dream, that I was walking along the street where I lived in Sydney and as I was walking I'd hear someone behind me … and so I was going faster and they're going faster and all of a sudden I'm up against a brick wall and I turn around, but all I see is a big distorted hand coming for me.'

Life was difficult for Alexia as an adult. 'I had alcohol problems, I've had drug problems all my life, I've had gambling problems … I take anti-depressants. I think it's been anything to block out everything.'

'It affected my relationships afterwards because I had it in my head no man will ever stand over me or tell me what to do.'

An early marriage ended quickly. Alexia's second marriage lasted more than two decades, although Alexia has now left that relationship as well. She gets on well with her adult children, however, and takes delight in her grandchildren.

Over the years Alexia has been able to disclose the abuse to family members and to various counsellors who have helped her with her addictions. Therapy has helped her cope with the trauma of her time in the home. She has also taken comfort in her religion.

'I have a belief in God and because of God's forgiveness I am able to now forgive, so I have done that … but I knew I needed to come and say this.'

'I'm not really looking for compensation. I'm not really looking for an apology. I'm just hoping that it never happens again.'

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