‘[My mother] hadn’t been taught how to parent because her own mother hadn’t parented, so she, in her eyes, was doing a better job than her mother … but it was still quite erratic, so she would go in fits of rage and she would beat us quite bad … but Mum was very educated, and my stepdad …
‘And they looked at us girls as naughty little rich girls that didn’t do what they were told, and we were treated like that for a long time until [one child] was put up for attempted murder of my mother … It was only then that those old social workers went, “Oh my gosh, I think [they] were actually telling us the truth”. Most of the way through, they didn’t believe it.’
Bella grew up in the 1970s in a well-to-do, highly educated, but dysfunctional family in South Australia. She told the Commissioner that she frequently phoned a crisis line due to her mother’s mental health issues. ‘On a few occasions, she tried to drown me in the bath.’ The last time Bella phoned the crisis line, she was removed from her home, and at 14 was made a ward of the state.
Bella went to live with Susan and Paul Harrison. Coming from a home where education was valued, Bella found it difficult to adjust to a home where ‘everyone … in that foster home left school whenever they felt like it, and was actually encouraged to leave school early, because then you could help the foster mum with the little kids’. Bella ‘had ambitions’, so she travelled two hours to her school each day.
Paul was physically and sexually abusive to the children under his care. He would masturbate in front of them and touch them inappropriately. Bella told the Commissioner that he would groom the girls with cigarettes and money, so they wouldn’t complain when he touched them. He would also watch the girls in the shower.
Susan was aware of her husband’s behaviour, but ‘turned a blind eye’. Bella told the Commissioner that Paul ‘did foster care absolutely, a hundred per cent to get us girls in there. We were pawns [in] his little chess game … I think she genuinely tried to help, but … shower time, she would be in with her boys, doors closed’.
Susan would go to bed early, so she was never in the room when he was abusing the children. ‘It was a very small house. You could not, not know.’
Bella told the Commissioner that ‘[Paul] would go into fits of rage if you didn’t do what he wanted, and he beat me really bad one day’. Bella reported him and she was removed from the house, but the other children remained. ‘We reported over and over again what he was doing in the house to us girls and nothing was done and the reason why, [was] because there was nowhere else to go.’
Bella had a strict, religious upbringing and to her, the foster home was ‘seriously like going into hell’. The foster children were allowed to skip school, hang out with boys, smoke and take drugs. At 15, when she told her social worker, ‘I want out of this system’, the woman told her, ‘There is no way out, unless you get a job’.
Although she wanted to complete her education, Bella left school at 16. By the end of the year, ‘I had to lie about my age and I became a nanny at 16, saying I was 18, and went back to school and ran three kids at the same time’. Later she studied social work at university, to try to understand the welfare system a little better.
‘When foster care pick you up, they say, “All of these things, it’s so sad, it’s so terrible, it’ll never happen again. You are now in safe hands. We are going to make sure that we look after you … The sad part now, looking back now, the worst thing was going into the welfare system … Yes, there was bad stuff going on [at home] but it was worse in the welfare system.’
Anxiety and depression became an issue for Bella in her late teens. ‘I went through that … until probably about 20 or so I ended up, you know, I was quite suicidal and unfortunately, when I had [an] operation when I was in care, they gave me a lot of morphine. I got addicted to morphine in care, so when I came out they just suggested I go on codeine … so when I was on that, it made me feel better. It made me feel like it wasn’t so acute … I didn’t tell anyone, but that was two years.’
Bella reported Paul to the police in 2015 and discovered that three other women had reported him several years earlier. These women were living at the home at different times and because their stories matched Bella’s, the matter is now being investigated. However, ‘The perpetrator has now got [a debilitating illness] and may not even be accountable … which kind of feels a bit … unfair. You think, “Well, it still happened” and you know, that’s hard’.
Bella told the Commissioner that the Royal Commission has ‘been a long time coming, but thanks for actually doing it because otherwise, all those kids back in those days [were] never heard, so I think it’s a healing process as well, just to be heard … I can do this and then walk out of here and get out of here and get on with my life and completely put this back in the past, but that’s my coping abilities’.