‘It was a critical time after the Depression and World War II. This was the time I was a child.’
About 1940 when Bernice’s mother became ill and was hospitalised, her children were left to fend for themselves. Bernice and her sister, Lily, were soon placed in an Anglican girls’ home, while their brothers, Bill and Matt, went to different boys’ homes. Shortly after arriving in the girls’ home, Lily became unwell and was taken away by ambulance. For a year, Bernice had no visitors and didn’t know whether her sister was alive or dead.
One day while she was playing outside, Bernice was dragged under a shed by three older boys. ‘They threw me to the ground and two boys pulled my pants off and the other one tried to get on top of me, and it was awful. My face was bleeding. I scraped my face on the ground. And I was terrified.’
Bernice said she screamed and was able to fight the boys off, kicking one in the groin. She then ran to the dormitory and was sitting on her bed crying when a staff member admonished her for being inside. ‘I said, “There were boys hurting me out there and I don’t want to go out there”. She said, “Well don’t play with the boys, play with the girls”.’
That night Bernice wet the bed, something she’d never done before and she was punished by having to wash her sheets, scrub the floor and denied the next meal, having to stand with her face to the wall instead. Thereafter Bernice sat on the front veranda near the front door during playtime and ‘didn’t go anywhere’.
Bernice told the Commissioner that some time later her mother suddenly appeared at the home, demanding to know why she’d been sent adoption papers. She had signed herself out of hospital, and ‘looked awful’, but took Bernice back to the family home where Lily, who’d been in hospital all that time with rheumatic fever, joined them. The boys were unable to return for years because they’d been made wards of the state and had charge sheets for absconding and minor crimes.
Bill and Matt were much changed after being in the boys’ homes, and Bernice later found out how much they’d suffered. Separately they confided in her about their years in the homes. Bill recounted going through an ‘initiation ceremony’ on his first day which involved him being anally raped. He’d then been sexually abused by staff and other residents for years. In his late 20s, he told Bernice that he’d met a girl and wanted to ask her out but had misgivings because he felt ‘so unclean from what happened’. He told her he didn’t feel like a nice person. Bernice encouraged him to think about the person he’d become, earning a living and being responsible for his life, and he married the girl and went on to have four children.
In 1950, Matt, aged in his early twenties, disappeared from the family’s lives. When Bernice found out he was living overseas, she began writing to him. In the 10 years before he died in 1978, Matt reacquainted with the family and came to Australia for one last visit.
After he left, Bernice received a letter from him which she said, ‘blew my mind, and still does’. In it, Matt thanked Bernice for her understanding and described the severe and sustained sexual abuse he suffered as a child. ‘How many times I was in the wilderness and cried for help’, he wrote. ‘Nobody was there. How night after night I cried myself, and still do … As young as I was, I knew the disgrace and the abomination it was. I discovered it was a life I did not want and so I built a protective wall around myself, became very introvert and very lonely. But strange as it may seem, it left me with a great respect for people, to help others, to go out of my way to give, even if I did not have anything to give. I was very vulnerable and it has been a long, hard weary battle’.
Bernice hadn’t told her husband or children about the abuse she suffered as a child, nor had she disclosed her late brothers’ confidences to their families. She felt no need to. ‘This is not part of their lives.’
Seventy-four years after being in the girls’ home, Bernice still has nightmares. She has no wish to apply for compensation and said the important thing was ‘making sure that these stories get out, that people understand the damage it’s done’.
As well as her own story, she feels responsible for those of her mother, brothers and sisters. ‘It’s important, because I never want another child – and it’s still happening – I never want another child to go through what we went through, and these predators, what they’re doing to so many people, even adults in nursing homes, I mean, I just think it’s horrendous.’