Anabel was born the eldest child in a large Aboriginal family living in a regional Victorian community. When she was 10 years old in the mid-1960s she was considered a ‘problem-child’ and put into foster care. Anabel recalled watching her mother crying as she put her on the bus and never understood why she was the only child in their family put into care. ‘Still to this day I’ve never got the answers that I wanted.’
Anabel was fostered, and later adopted, through the Save the Children Fund to the O’Riordan family, who owned a farm in Victoria. The O’Riordans were well known and respected in the community for taking on Aboriginal girls, particularly since they had four children of their own. Anabel was the eldest of four Aboriginal girls to be adopted by O’Riordans.
‘When I went to the farm I thought “Oh I might be alright”. But not long after being there things started to go wrong, as in the abuse, the son, the natural son … I think he was about five years older than me at the time. He was 15.’
Rodney O’Riordan began abusing Anabel ‘not long after I actually got to the farm, couple of weeks. It was creepy because he was starting fondling me and touching me and I’d just try to push him away each time and that. but he’d say “I’ll tell on you, I’ll tell on you. I’ll tell Mum” and all that’.
It didn’t take long before the abuse escalated to rape. Anabel was aware Rodney was also abusing her younger adopted sisters and she would often try to protect them from him. ‘They were all moody the kids … and Rodney was abusing them all, because I’d hear ‘em screaming and crying, and I couldn’t stop it.’
‘He used try and sweet talk “Come into the bunk love, I’ve got a gift” or “Got a surprise for you” and that. That’s how he’d trap you and that. And other times I’d see him, look out the bedroom window, and I could see him leading one of the other girls off by the hand. And then I used to run after and try and coax them back ... Because the farm was so big there were many places.’
Meanwhile Mrs O’Riordan was physically abusive towards the adopted children and would often punish them by beating or starving them. As the eldest, Anabel would often to try to protect the adopted sisters from Mrs O’Riordan. ‘I often would take the blame because I couldn’t stand her belting the other children. So I’d say “I did it” and I knew my body was a bit more stronger than them.’
Anabel is certain Mrs O’Riordan was aware of Rodney’s abuse. ‘I was at the age where I was having my period at the time and [she] was terribly frightened that, if I didn’t have a period, I’d become pregnant. So to show I wasn’t pregnant I had to show her my Modess pads each month that I’d had a period, because she knew what was going on.’
‘When he abused one of the other children I think he done some internal damage and our adoptive mother took that child to the doctor.’ Years later Mrs O’Riordan told one of her biological daughters that she was taking Rodney to the doctor for ‘injections in his back because he was highly sexed and that, and they were trying to control it’.
Rodney continued to abuse Anabel until she was approximately 15 years old and Mrs O’Riordan caught him raping her.
She told the Commissioner ‘I got the worst flogging. My back was cut from the welts, round the back down the lower back. Not only that but she was ripping my hair around and slinging me ‘round the laundry like a ragdoll … For punishment then I’d be starved. I wasn’t getting fed meals and that’.
That was the last time Rodney abused her ‘but he was still abusing the children, other kids’.
Although Rodney had stopped abusing Anabel, on one occasion Mr O’Riordan attempted to molest her while the rest of the family were in town. ‘He come into the room, I was in bed. He come in and he’s tried to fondle my breast and kiss me and that. But I pushed him away, I said “Get out, get away”.’ Anabel is not aware if Mr O’Riordan molested any of her adopted sisters, or if Rodney abused his own sisters.
During her years with the O’Riordans she recalled being visited by a welfare worker but Mrs O’Riordan was always present, so she was never able to disclose the abuse to anyone. On one occasion Anabel confided in a friend about the physical abuse but never told anyone about the sexual abuse because she thought she wouldn’t be believed. ‘I was always so afraid that I’d die on the farm and be buried on the farm, because of the beatings. It was horrific and I don’t know how I got through the years.’
Anabel stayed with the O’Riordans for seven years until she was accepted into nursing school, despite her education suffering, ‘because I couldn’t cope with what was happening on the farm’. Anabel told the Commissioner ‘For years later, even though I’d left the O’Riordans, I was having nightmares. I was waking up through the night, dreaming. I’d wake up sweating thinking she was there beating and shaking and things.’
‘She [Mrs O’Riordan] wrote me a letter, said “You’ll be a slut like the rest of the blacks” and blah blah blah “You’ll just be in the gutter like the rest, you’ll never move on”. I said “I’ll prove to you” and so I finished my nursing and I got married before I had kids.’
In spite of leaving the O’Riordan farm, Anabel continued to be in abusive relationships for most of her life. ‘Because the abusive life on the farm, well I naturally thought “Well that’s the way it goes”. I ended up in some very abusive relationships. And that was continued beatings and batterings, in and out of refuges and dragging the children from place to place ... It was years later that I decided I would never go back to an abusive relationship. But I just thought it was a done thing because, you know, when you’re getting beaten around and abused all your life you just naturally move into those terrible, you know.’
Many years after leaving the O’Riordan farm Anabel’s adopted sisters approached her to discuss their time there. ‘I sort of blocked it all out. And then when me adopted sisters come looking for me 20 years later they wanted answers. They knew some things were going wrong on the farm and they wanted to go and report it and that. And I said, at first I was angry, “Why the hell are you coming now? You know, you’re digging all the stuff up. Leave it, just leave it buried”. I said “You’re making me sick”. But I ended up telling them what happened.’
Anabel and her adopted sisters made a statement to the police and Rodney was eventually charged, however Mrs O’Riordan was not called to give evidence and the charges were dismissed. ‘Because of the lack of evidence they said it’s not worth going through with a trial and that because it’s going to cost more to run a trial than what you would get out of it.’ Anabel was unhappy with the police process, however eventually she and her adopted sisters were awarded victims of crime compensation.
‘No-one believed us. I mean who would’ve believed us, you know, being Aboriginal. And they were so well known back then in the community, in the society … We were just poor liars and trouble makers and they couldn’t understand why we were doing this.’
‘To a lot of us, particularly Indigenous, it can be shameful to be talking about.’
Anabel currently has two adult children of her own, but her relationship with them has its own challenges. ‘I’ve had up and down relationships with me children because of the poor choices I’ve made then. And it’s reflected on my children. And I’m sorry for that with them, because I always wanted to protect my children and give them my best. I didn’t want them to go through what I had gone through on the farm. I didn’t want them to be getting abused. And at the time I couldn’t cope, so I started putting my kids in foster care and that, because I couldn’t cope at the time. It was just too stressful. And then I felt terrible then. I thought “God” you know, “this is not me”. And because I was in these bad relationships I didn’t want to be having kids in the worse even abusive relationships where they were seeing their mother getting battered all the time and having black eyes and that.’
Anabel’s children have since come to understand why their mother made the choices she did and their relationship has improved. Even though she occasionally sees her biological siblings, Anabel has never been able to form a close bond with them, and finds that ‘tragic’.
Mrs O’Riordan died several years ago and Anabel attended her funeral but did not stay long after. She is still in contact with her adopted sisters, who told her that they went to visit Mrs O’Riordan on her deathbed and described the ‘shrine’ there to Rodney O’Riordan as the ‘golden child’. They also told Anabel that Rodney’s estranged wife contacted them to discuss their history on the farm after it was revealed he had been sexually abusing his own children.
Anabel currently suffers from numerous health complaints and has been hospitalised several times. She has been seeing a counsellor on a fortnightly basis which has been very helpful. She told the Commissioner ‘It helps to just talk about things and not bottle it up. Because if I bottle it up I’ll get stressed and then I’ll have a panic attack and I’ll end up back in hospital’.
‘Children are children. You’re not sent to be abused, to be treated like ragdolls and that like we were. We’re human too and we deserve better.’