Arlene described her early family life in 1960s Brisbane as ‘volatile’. She was often sad and frightened when she was a small girl. Both her parents were abusive but it was her mother who would lock Arlene in her room from six in the morning till six at night. ‘I wasn’t allowed out of my room for anything, no water.’ Then, when her father came home, her mother would lie Arlene on the couch and tell him she was sick. Her mother was addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol and was, Arlene said, neurotic.
One night while her father was at work, Arlene was sexually abused by a man who was living in their house. She was five years old. Both parents knew about the abuse but did nothing. Soon afterwards Arlene’s older brother, who’d also been locked up by their mother, left home and went to live with his grandmother. He never came back.
When Arlene did become seriously ill at the age of 10 and taken to hospital, child welfare stepped in and she was made a ward of the state. Arlene’s father had left her mother by then and Arlene was sent to live with him. But she was even more scared of her father and his violent temper than of her mother and she was eventually fostered with a Mrs Baker and her daughters.
When Arlene suffered night terrors, her mother would visit to try and calm her. She asked Arlene, did she want to move back with her? But Arlene was too scared to go back home.
It was the very worldly Baker daughters who enlightened Arlene in matters of sexuality, gave her cigarettes and took her to the pub. A man who sometimes visited the Bakers’ house invited Arlene into his shop one day when she was passing.
She came in, he then removed a magazine from his lap and masturbated in front of her. She ran outside and was promptly sick in the street. Mrs Baker reported him to the police but the man started following Arlene, exposing himself to her again. He even called round to the house to persuade Arlene, who quickly locked herself in her room, not to press charges.
But eventually he was charged and sentenced.
When she was 13 or 14 Arlene was taken to hospital for psychological treatment. Arlene has a clear mental image of the hospital’s layout, the nurses’ faces and uniforms and one male nurse in particular.
‘He was always giving me my medication and he had the blue outfit, the blue shirt and watch … I can’t swallow tablets and he’d always force them down my throat and then I’d spit them out and he’d become very angry.’
While she was in isolation, this same nurse forced himself on Arlene and raped her. Arlene did report the sexual abuse to a social worker but nothing was done.
Child Services allowed Arlene’s mum to visit her at her next foster home. She told Arlene that she was getting back together with her father. That Christmas, Arlene was invited back home. Both her brothers were there as well. It felt weird and uncomfortable, Arlene said. And lonely. ‘They were strangers to me.’
But regular weekend visits back home were arranged. And it was on one of those visits that Arlene’s mother was killed in a car accident. On the day of the viewing Arlene screamed and ran outside when she saw her mother in the coffin. That same day, her father asked her to share the bed with him that night. Arlene ran away and hitchhiked back to the Ambrose family.
Without consulting with her, Child Services told Arlene she’d be staying with her father. Arlene didn’t last long with him and his new partner. ‘My stepmother got all my stuff and threw it out on the road.’
Arlene has managed to build a good life for herself in the decades since her childhood. She suffers from social anxiety but it comes and goes. She used to have panic attacks and ‘a lot of anger’.
Forming adult relationships has been a challenge but Arlene is now happily married and well supported by her husband and children. However, she said that before her marriage, ‘if anyone tried to be sexual to me, I’d be violent’.
Several years ago she asked for her case files. She’s been freshly hurt and upset both by what’s missing from them and what’s written in them, many things that she had blocked. She had blocked much of the sexual abuse but always had a vivid memory of how her mother treated her. ‘She busted my head open a few times. I had malnutrition and things like that.’
She also remembers fragments of early sexual abuse from her father, as well as the later abuse from him and his new partner in the short time that Child Services placed Arlene with them.
She has confronted her father with the information in her file. ‘It’s all history to him. And he said, “What happens in the past stays in the past. And don’t get the Royal Commission involved. What you don’t know won’t hurt you”.’
When the Commissioner asked her how she got through it, Arlene said, ‘I used to go into this state of mind where I was outside myself … I’d say I was at the beach. Or these angels were with me. Even now I know that someone’s always with me. I’d always pretend I was somewhere else.’