‘I was taken away from my family for neglect and placed in a foster home with a serial sex offender and a woman that had some real mental issues. On the outside I was provided with a roof over my head and food on the table and schooling which I am grateful for, but behind closed doors they ruined my life. The memories haunt me and will never go away. I have worked hard to try to rebuild my life.’
Angie’s family had no housing and her mother drank heavily, so in the early 1960s she and her siblings were made New South Wales state wards. When Angie was five years old she and her younger sister were placed in foster care with Gerry and Narelle Burnside.
Narelle was physically and emotionally abusive and dominated the household, and the girls were scared of her. She beat them with a branch from the lemon tree, made Angie wear ‘very conservative, covered clothing, even to bed’ and once drowned kittens in a bucket in front of her. Gerry sexually abused Angie for over a decade.
‘On the first occasion, Gerry had me in the bath and he got me out and bent me over the bath. He then placed his penis between my legs and simulated sex. When I was bent over, I looked down and saw Gerry's penis. I knew it was something rude, but I was too young to understand exactly what was going on. Gerry then grabbed my head and moved it up, so I could not look down. He was moving around simulating sex and I think he had an orgasm as he jumped off me quickly. He did not speak to me while he was abusing me.’
Her foster father would take her on drives and stop the car in the bush to abuse her, and would abuse her when they went on holiday too. Eventually he stopped taking her out, and instead came into her room at night.
‘As I was developing breasts he would try and grab them and also try and force my hand down his pants to masturbate him. I always managed to push him away to try and protect myself ... Gerry used to try and place his penis in my mouth when he thought I was asleep. I would hold my mouth closed so tight and then roll over so he couldn't do it so then he would put his hands down under the blankets and he would always try to sexually stimulate me by touching my vagina. I would roll over in bed again so he couldn’t touch me.’
Angie stayed awake every night until she felt it was safe to sleep. ‘When I started learning a little about puberty and sex I was scared I would get pregnant from Gerry's sexual abuse.’ He would ‘talk at the table in front of Narelle and bring up places where he had taken me and how much fun we had. I knew what he was doing. He made out like it was our affair. My stomach used to churn and I'd put my head down with shame’.
At 15 Angie took an overdose of pills. ‘I started to get signs of panic attacks which no one knew what they were back then, and I thought I was going mad, my nerves were very edgy and I hyperventilated a lot. I kept getting the feeling I was not in my body and everything kept feeling like my surroundings were unreal.’ Narelle blamed Angie’s behaviour for these symptoms.
A year or so later she ran away from home and the abuse stopped. Even so she still sometimes visited the Burnsides, and maintained contact with them until they died. Although she had been reunited with her birth family this had ‘turned to disappointment’ and ‘so I had to go back to see my foster parents they were the only people I knew apart from friends’.
When her own children were small she tried to keep them away from Gerry, but despite her attempts he sexually abused two of them. She is distressed that she was unable to keep them safe from him.
Although they did not discuss it as children, Angie is now aware that her sister was sexually abused by Gerry too. Angie first disclosed the abuse to her oldest child, and then to a close friend who helped her find professional support.
‘My daughter asked me straight out if he had ever touched me. I remember feeling like I was not in my body and it was like a dream when the words “yes” came out of my mouth. It was the very first time anyone ever knew something had happened to me, [the] paralysing words finally came out of my mouth and within a week I then started to remember things.
‘I always knew what he had done when I was older when I could protect myself but my mind had closed off to the earlier memories. They soon came flooding back.’
Angie first saw a psychiatrist in her teens, and continues to experience mental health difficulties, including agoraphobia, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder and depression. She told the Commissioner that her problems with sexual intimacy contributed to the end of her marriage.
Being unable to work for many years meant that she does not own her own home. She is scared of facing a future, without any security of housing, in her old age. Her children have given Angie the strength to keep going. Now that they are growing up and leaving home she is trying to work out ‘what does Angie want? Who am I?’
Angie has engaged with a support organisation for care leavers and found their help invaluable. The organisation arranged for her to access an appropriate counsellor. Having sessions by phone worked well for her, as she could talk without anyone watching her and making her feel ‘dirty’, and she was relieved to know that it was normal for her still to experience impacts of childhood abuse.
‘It was the very first time I could tell someone the fine details of what had happened without being looked at, and she could tell me the lifelong of conflicting feelings that I have tortured myself with [is a good reason] why I have not gotten over any of this.’