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Berenice's story

‘We went fishing and hunting with my people when I was young. We loved it. It was a happy moment, but that soon all stopped because Dad and Granny Joyce, they weren’t even allowed to speak their languages. It was silenced altogether.’

As very young children, Berenice and her sister, Louise, lived with an aunt and uncle. Their mother had been taken away and was later placed in a psychiatric facility, probably a result, Berenice thought, of her having postnatal depression.

In the early 1960s after the death of their uncle, Berenice and Louise were sent to a Queensland Aboriginal mission and separated from each other in different dormitories. Berenice found the separation from her aunt and sister ‘devastating’. She ‘cried non-stop’ and only felt safe when she was in the presence of Louise.

Ronald Dwyer was the main worker in charge of the dormitory and ‘ruled all of us kids in the dorms’. He ‘carried a whip everywhere with him and would use the whip on us all of the time to keep us in line’. Berenice said Dwyer knew ‘the younger ones were more vulnerable than the other kids’ and she was sexually abused by him many times.

‘When he took me into his place he would touch me on my privates and he would make me touch him also. It would be so dark and I would be crying and he would say, “Be quiet”.’

One day Louise saw Dwyer leading Berenice into a shed. She ran after them and walked in as Dwyer was sexually abusing Berenice. He stopped what he was doing, Berenice fled and Louise was then beaten by Dwyer in full view of others.

‘No one was game enough to intervene because he was in charge’, Berenice said.

Berenice also recalled being taken into a cupboard by older girls who began kissing and fondling her. ‘After that I ran out’, she said.

‘I always had my head down from shame’, Berenice said. ‘I have photos of me as a child and in every photo I am looking towards the ground.’

At the age of about nine, Berenice got ‘thrown a lucky ticket, where this white lady who was a teacher out there’ adopted Berenice and Louise and took them to live some distance from the mission.

The teacher and her husband looked after the girls well, but Berenice always felt a gap in her life after the separation from the rest of her family and the country in which she grew up.

She told the Commissioner that as a result of loneliness she’d always ‘picked wrong relationships with men’, and ‘always done what they want, when they want’.

As an adult, Berenice met up with her birth mother who at that time was in a care facility. ‘She looked at me and said, “Who are you?” And I just mentioned my name and she grabbed me and hugged me and wouldn’t let go of me – pulled me into the ward where she has her bed and sat me down.’

Berenice said whenever she went back to the area in which she grew up, her ‘heart always aches’ because there didn’t seem to be much improvement from when she lived there.

‘Why aren’t there hairdressers? Why aren’t there a butcher, a bakery? You know like 2015, I mean I go back there and this is the [21st] century and they’re still so isolated. That was the first thing that my grandparents suffered with – the isolation.’

There were few employment or other opportunities for residents and decisions affecting housing, health and social circumstances were largely made by government. Sexual abuse of children and some people’s open use of pornography remained largely unaddressed.

‘Now they got contractors in to build all the new houses going up and they think it’s a wonderful thing they’re doing but [look at] how many years it’s taken, and now I’ve heard them say, “Why didn’t they build it like this?” They never really asked the community how they want their houses. It was just like again, “This is the way you’re getting it” and “This is the way”. And I understand the government can only do [so much] with finances to build houses and get them properly housed, but like incest is still happening today …

‘Not everybody can [understand] but are there resources? … I mean, they say they’ve got the kindergarten, the school, the thing, but something needs to be set up [so] they shouldn’t be too frightened to talk about [sexual abuse]. So I don’t know what resources or what techniques you need to put there for their safety.

‘Everybody’s related to somebody and that’s the sticky situation of trying to find a way of getting to the source where the children aren’t going to be ripped apart from the family structure that they’ve known so much. And it’s so sad. [The area’s] got a very sad history and I’m here for their voice too, you know.

‘I love the way you people are able to come and listen and advocate for getting maybe some way of it. You know, like maybe it takes time.’

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