‘I believe [the sexual abuse] led me to my drug use, ruined any potential I had of getting an education and being successful at anything, and subsequently destroyed my relationship with my children.’
Annabelle grew up in challenging circumstances. ‘In my early teens, Mum was an alcoholic and an occasional drug user and I didn’t get along with her very well and used to run away all the time.’
In the mid 1980s, when she was about 11 or 12 years old, Annabelle’s mother sent her interstate to live with her father. He was a heroin addict and welfare services removed Annabelle. She spent a short time in a home and was then sent back to her mother, which ‘didn’t work’.
‘I was … placed on an uncontrollable order … they made me a ward of the state.’
Annabelle’s life became one of instability and vulnerability as she moved around various out-of-home care arrangements, including refuges and a foster home.
‘When my mum first made a complaint to the police about my running away and stuff, there was two officers, a female and a male that offered me support, and the male police officer ended up sexually assaulting me whilst I was in a foster home.’
Soon after this, Annabelle was placed in a state-run children’s home in Sydney where she was regularly sexually abused by two staff members.
‘There was two male workers that I was sexually assaulted by … [One] took me to go for an interview in the city, and assaulted me in the car.’
The other perpetrator abused her at the home. Annabelle stayed in the home for about eight months. She didn’t tell anyone about the abuse, because she felt isolated and vulnerable.
She was moved to a children’s home where she was placed in one of the residential cottages. ‘I guess I was a bit of a wild child and I didn’t take well to authority. But I had a problem with wetting the bed and on a couple of occasions the house father got angry with me and got very … physically abusive … I had my 13th birthday [in that cottage].’
New house parents brought similar abusive treatment and when Annabelle absconded from the home on weekend leave, the house father became very angry with her and ‘dragged me through the cottage by my hair’.
The home had both girls and boys staying but the majority of residents were male. Anabelle was sexually abused by residents and staff, including one of the most senior men working at the home.
‘It was more by the other males that were there, and a couple of the workers … but on a daily basis because I went to the internal school and there was only about four girls and about 70 boys ranging from seven to 17 [there].’
Annabelle confided in a teacher. ‘She was aware of what was going on and she was probably the only support that we had … I don’t think she could do anything about it.’
Annabelle stayed in the home for about 18 months. During this stay, Annabelle wrote a letter to DOCS, outlining all her sexual and physical abuse. A senior DOCS worker came and interviewed her but she never heard anything further. She continued to experience physical and sexual abuse in the home.
‘I ended up running away … and went to a refuge interstate.’ Another girl escaped with her. At the youth refuge, a worker gave the girls support and took an interest in their circumstances.
‘She pulled us aside and asked us what was going on. We told her that we had run away from the home … she said by law she had to contact the home because we were wards of New South Wales.’
On the phone, the manager of the home asked the youth worker if the girls had made any allegations of abuse at the home. The youth worker thought that was a strange question and ‘pulled the girls aside’ again and asked them what was going on.
‘We told her [about the abuse] and then she rang the police and they put her in contact with the head of Legal Aid … He told her to move us. And they … sent me back to the [first home].’
Annabelle was then placed back with her mother but her mother died not long afterwards. ‘I went into DOCS and told them that my mum had died … They said there was nothing they could do to help me.’
Community Services revoked her wardship and Annabelle was left homeless. She was not yet 15 years old. ‘It took me so long to get Centrelink … I had no means for financial support at all which was really hard.’
She ‘couch surfed’, and had her first child in her mid-teens. By her late teens she began to think about making DOCS and the government accountable and rang DOCS to make a complaint.
‘I felt personally that they just wanted to take me as far away as possible so they didn’t have to think about me because I know that I was a bit of a wild child. I was very stubborn and loud. Aggressive. That’s no reason for the people who are supposed to care for you to abuse you.
‘They sent me a compensation form. I never filled it out because I wanted to take it further … I did bring a case against the New South Wales government … I’d heard a lady … talk on ABC Radio in regards to the Victorian wards and their class action … She provided me with a solicitor’s name and some information.’
Annabelle’s case was prepared, but the solicitor pulled out due to ill health and Annabelle found herself battling memories of her abuse. ‘I didn’t have any skills or techniques or coping mechanisms and so I started getting involved in drugs, I guess as a way to cope.’
Annabelle has been in prison for drug and driving offences and has lost custody of her children. She believes that her record as a teenager has affected the way she has been dealt with by welfare services. Annabelle is going to pursue compensation from the New South Wales government.
‘With the sexual abuse, I can get past that. But what I find really hard to get past is them abandoning me as a child. I really struggle with that.’
Annabelle’s prison sentence finishes soon and while in jail she has completed her school studies. She has also enrolled in a university course. Annabelle has maintained a strong relationship with her eldest child who is now in her 20s, and is looking forward to spending time with her grandchildren.