Bertha was taken from her family as a three-year-old in the early 1960s, and placed in a Presbyterian-run facility for Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory. The children at the facility lived in cottages, under the supervision of cottage parents. Bertha remained there until she was 15, sharing a cottage with her younger siblings and about 10 other children.
During her time at the facility she was raped by one older boy and harassed and molested by others. ‘A lot of the older boys were people to be scared of’, she said. ‘I never felt safe in my own home.’
One of the boys she was scared of, Richie, lived in the same cottage as her. He hid under her bed at night and she would wake to find her hand on his penis, or his hand on her leg. When she screamed for help he took off. Richie was never caught in the act and though her cottage parents reported him more than once to the superintendent of the facility, nothing was ever done. The molestation went on for years.
Richie also took advantage of the lack of privacy at the cottage – no locks on the doors, no shower curtain, no curtains at the windows – to spy on Bertha. She’d be showering or getting dressed in her room, and would look up to find him staring through the window at her.
‘All of a sudden you’d realise – that’s a face, out there in the bushes’, she said. ‘That’s lived with me. I don’t like plants close to the house.’
Bertha was somewhere between seven and nine years old when she was raped by an older boy, Lewis. She was on her way to play with a friend when he intercepted her and took her to the laundry.
‘I remember the spot where we were … I do remember that first time, the bleeding, the blood. And I don’t know how I got from there back home, what I did with my bloody clothes … I don’t remember any of that. And then it happened a second time.’
After that second time, Bertha made sure she stayed away from Lewis and the laundry. She no longer went to visit her friend.
‘There must be something good inside me, something strong, because I thought I’m not going back to play with her anymore, because that’s where he is.’
Bertha recalled a lot of sexual activity between children at the facility, as well as sexual and physical abuse by staff members. ‘Sexual assaults happened all the time. You had to be constantly aware of this thing.’ One older girl she shared a room with was sometimes visited at night by three to five older boys who had sex with her. ‘Sometimes they’d say “What about Bertha?” And she’d say “No, she’s asleep”. And I’d be terrified … I would be hiding under my sheet hoping they wouldn’t come to me.’
Bertha remembers being so frightened of the older boys that she asked her younger siblings to protect her. ‘You’ve got to look after me; don’t let anything happen’, she told them. Later she found out that they themselves were being sexually abused by a staff member at the time.
‘There was me telling them to look after me, and things had happened to them already, you know. That sort of thing makes me feel terrible. You’re in your own little world, thinking these things are happening just to you, but they’re happening to all your sisters around you, your own blood, my brothers and that, right under your very nose …
‘I feel really guilty and sad in my heart that I wasn’t there looking after them, that I wasn’t able to keep them safe.’
Bertha has been with her husband Gerald since she was 15. She didn’t tell him about her experiences at the home until she was in her mid-20s. ‘When I told him what happened he went off his head. He blamed me for it like I was a bad person’, Bertha wrote in a statement.
‘It took ages for Gerald and I to work it out – years, before he accepted it’, she told the Commissioner. ‘He understands that it’s not my fault now.’ These days, their relationship is a source of strength for her. ‘Him being there, and us being able to talk about things, you know’, she said. ‘We’ve grown together, we’ve worked through things. We can have them kind of conversations.’
Bertha appeared as a witness at a Royal Commission public hearing, and as part of that process had counselling. She hadn’t seen a counsellor before. ‘I was scared. I just thought having counselling, I thought it’s going to bring things out, and I was frightened about that.’ But she found it a very positive experience, and believes it’s one all those who were kids at the facility could benefit from.
‘We all need to deal with this and heal and move through things, whether we’re a victim, a survivor or a perpetrator, whatever.’
Throughout her life Bertha has struggled with fear and anxiety. ‘I always wanted to have my wits about me. I was always wary. And even now, I like to know there’s a back door behind me.’
In recent years she studied for a professional qualification and said that has given her the confidence to be more assertive and express her feelings. She wasn’t able to speak up before, she said. ‘I was so quiet, that I didn’t.’
Bertha thought that because she was abused by a child rather than an adult she wasn’t entitled to report her experience to police. She’s thinking about doing so now. But it’s not easy, as the perpetrator is one of what’s become like a family of people who grew up in the facility, who meet for reunions and other get-togethers.
She believes the Northern Territory needs more specialist services to deal with child sex abuse, and more continuity in delivering those services. There needs to be more support groups for young people, and more education. ‘I feel like Aboriginal people are still not respected in how we communicate and how we work through things, you know.’