‘A lot of children don’t get heard. A lot of things that happened to me where I always told the truth … I was actually denied, never listened to, hit, beaten … my truth was not a truth. And that’s the very sad thing about it because a lot of children do tell the truth and no one hears them.’
Belle’s parents both died in a car accident in the late 1970s when she was only nine months old. She lived with an aunt for a few years until she was made a ward of the state and placed in a foster home in regional New South Wales. The family already had five children living in the home and Belle joined them as the youngest.
Belle was emotionally, psychologically and physically abused by her foster mother, who was a very violent and controlling woman.
‘Everyone was scared of her because she just had that power … I tried running away several times … she took me home and she bashed me … she was a witch. She knew everything I did. I didn’t even throw my lunch in the rubbish bin at school because I was scared someone was going to see me.’
Belle’s older foster siblings also psychologically abused her, and her foster father sexually abused her. He would sit Belle on his lap and rub or pat her genitals. This continued for the 11 years that Belle stayed with the family.
‘He was just rubbing me and touching me but that’s still a big thing of confusing you for your whole life … To me it was a small thing, it wasn’t something big, but now I look at it and I think it was a very big thing.’
She was also sexually abused by a family friend when they were visiting a nearby town. Belle began having nightmares and blackouts and her behaviour changed significantly after this trip.
Belle believes that there needs to be random and frequent visits by welfare officers to foster children.
‘I only recall twice … seeing him. And [with] the preparation, we were always well dressed … I don’t think that was enough … I used to have nightmares and my whole behaviour changed and nothing was acknowledged.’
The welfare officer only spoke to Belle in front of the foster mother and ‘she was a very strict lady and we knew not to say nothing’. Belle is also still unsure why no one else reported the family to the police or the welfare department.
‘No one spoke to us. No one asked us … the amount of screaming and yelling and fighting going on in the house … for a weatherboard house – no neighbours, no one did nothing. And we were all being abused.’
At the age of 15 Belle ran away and hitchhiked to Sydney, re-starting her life. She was still under the care of the state, but her foster mother didn’t report her missing.
‘She went to the school and she told the school that I was living with my cousins.’
No one from the welfare department checked on her in the three years before she was released from state care when she turned 18.
Belle has just gone through a divorce and has several children. The stress of this period meant she was referred to a psychologist for support. In her sessions she first disclosed she had been sexually abused. She realised that the abuse has affected her parenting. She had to learn how to set boundaries and to discipline her children appropriately.
‘Not knowing my own boundaries which I’ve actually learnt this year … Discipline … because I don’t want my children to look at me as the way I look at my foster mother … [but] having a little bit too much leniency is not that good either.’
The experiences of Belle’s early life also meant she stayed in a difficult marriage for many years.
‘I do believe what happened to me when I was a child actually affected me and the choices I was making and when to be assertive. Because I didn’t learn any assertiveness until this year … I wasn’t able to stand up for myself.’
She now has a new, supportive partner and is learning to parent her children by herself. She knows though, that she will have to manage the impacts of the abuse for the rest of her life.
‘It doesn’t go away … those memories are there. They are stuck …
‘Trust is a very great issue. It’s very hard for me to trust anybody. Especially with the authorities when I ran away. I couldn’t trust anybody … because I didn’t want to go back home … I fought my hardest. Yeah, it really does affect your life afterwards because you’re just constantly scared, scared someone is going to try and do something.’
Belle is interested in seeking redress from the NSW Government but she won’t be pursuing criminal charges. Her foster mother is dead and her foster father is terminally ill. She hopes that carers are now more thoroughly vetted than her foster parents were.
‘I’ve thought about that a lot … I know that my foster mother was [mentally] sick when she took care of me and [that] she was able to compose herself in front of public … I think there should be a lot more research into the background and the stability of [foster carers’] lives when they take people … My foster mother … did look like a respectable woman … very hard for anyone to pick her as a bad woman.’