‘I didn’t know what sexual assault was ... And I thought I had a cut. I thought they’d cut me. And I was trying to find a cut, and Sister Anne came, walked in. And I yelled and screamed at her, that they’d cut me up here. And she didn’t want to know about it.’
At 15 years old, Aster lacked a basic understanding of sex, or even anatomy. ‘I thought boys and girls were all the same. I didn’t know they were different, didn’t know at all.’
She couldn’t understand how the assault by the two older orphanage girls, who had kissed her and digitally penetrated her vagina, had left her bleeding. Presumably Sister Anne, a senior nun at the Good Shepherd orphanage in regional Victoria, understood the situation.
Instead of pursuing the matter with these girls, the Sister dragged Aster by the hair and locked her in a toilet cubicle as punishment. Aster remained confused by her injuries. ‘I couldn’t find the cut. And all I found was all the blood ... And I was washing it out from the toilet.’
Being locked in this cubicle ‘all day and all night’ was a regular occurrence for the orphanage girls, who would even be given their meals there. Aster remembers being so cramped from sitting in the freezing cold that sometimes she would only be able to crawl afterwards. Another punishment was having her hair cut off to the scalp, on one side only.
Aster is an Aboriginal woman, who was removed from her family as infant in the late 1940s, and made a state ward. One of her brothers ended up in a Catholic boys’ home, where he was also sexually abused. He spent the rest of his life in and out of prison. ‘He was in the streets, he was never under a roof when he got out.’ She didn’t know him until they were adults, and only for a couple of years. She’d take him fresh clothing and shoes, and paid for his funeral.
Aster showed the Commissioner her own welfare files. It is hard to know which records reflect the truth. There are conflicts and contradictions both within the files, and with what she remembers herself.
She knows the authorities never actually visited her. ‘They didn’t come and talk to us. All the way through, they never did.’ In early years Aster is described as a ‘nice, bright little girl’, and ‘a sturdy-looking child, very mischievous’.
There is only one photo of her, when she was in her mid-teens. ‘I’ve got no photos at all. And it’s very important. I think every kid that goes into care, the government should make sure – it doesn’t matter whether they’re in a home or whether they’re in foster care – the government should have it compulsory that photos get taken and put on their files.’
It is clear, however, that her time in care negatively impacted on her wellbeing. She was placed in a Catholic children’s home, where the nuns regularly dragged the kids around by their ears, belted them, and gave them cold baths.
Her demeanour began to change, and a psychologist noted she was ‘a small, shy, nervous and pale child, talking very little, and never above a whisper’.
At eight she was fostered out, through the Catholic Church, to a woman who had been previously deemed too ‘unstable’ to care for children. This placement was short-lived.
The woman sent Aster to a home for children with disabilities, despite her having just been assessed as ‘not intellectually retarded, but emotionally and socially deprived’. Finally, she ended up in the Good Shepherd orphanage, where she was assaulted by the girls.
There was another instance, too, where a man who was driving her to see one of her brothers in another facility tried to sexually abuse her in the car. ‘Here’s him try to kiss me and all that. I was mad with him.’
Her files indicate that the nuns had clearly decided that Aster was ‘retarded’, ‘rather unsteady in character, [and] requires a great deal of help and understanding’. Rather than providing her with schooling, they made her work in the laundry.
They also applied to extend her wardship until she was 21, on the basis of her supposed incapacity. Although the government approved this extension ‘they didn’t even come and see me’.
When Aster finally left the orphanage she was homeless, with minimal knowledge of life outside care. She attempted suicide a couple of times. She still did not understand anything about sex.
‘I had a baby after I come out too. And the government took it off me because I was too mentally retarded ... They made me sign, and I didn’t know what adoption was – I didn’t even know what adoption was.
‘And even when I got pregnant, you know what I said to the doctor? I said, what’s that? It sounds embarrassing, but I did, I said what’s that? ‘Cause I didn’t know.’
Aster went on to have more kids, and knows her childhood experiences have impacted on them. ‘I don’t trust a lot of people ... My kids don’t trust people. My son said to me, you’ve taught me that way, you know, not to trust.’
Around a decade ago, Aster engaged lawyers to help her seek compensation. She intended to make claims against the government, who were responsible for her as a state ward, and the nuns.
One of the legal firm’s solicitors tried to get her to drop the case against the nuns, because he had a family connection to them. Greatly upset, she did not agree to this, but believes that nonetheless the court order did not include them.
Aster eventually received a six-figure lump sum from the government, but as yet has not been compensated by any part of the Church. She used the money she received to buy her house, trying to give her kids a better life than she had.
‘If I had treated my kids the way I was treated, they would have taken my kids off me, you know. If the government, they’re supposed to be my guardians, what guardians are they to me? They were no guardians to me. They put me in care to be abused. That’s what I think.’