Bess spoke to the Royal Commission in the company of her eldest sister, Rosanna. About 1960, when Bess was very young, her Aboriginal father was killed at work. ‘When he died an accidental death our mum got insurance’, Rosanna told the Commissioner. ‘In those days black women wasn’t allowed money, so the Aboriginal Protection Board took all of us away and took the money.’
The large family became impoverished, and one by one the children were taken into care. Rosanna has spent decades locating all her siblings, most of whom were separated as they were sent to different institutions and foster homes. All but she and Bess have now died.
Bess was eventually placed with foster parents in southern New South Wales. After a few years Ian and Connie Fraser moved the family to western Sydney. Bess grew up with them and considers Connie and Ian ‘Mum and Dad’. ‘I was there until I was about 28. They were very good.’
‘We always had money and a house to live in.’
Despite those fond memories, Bess reports that she was sexually abused by Ian Fraser and two of the sons of the family when she was just a nine-year-old. The abuse continued for three years. Bess describes the attacks by Ian Fraser as ‘molestation’ at first – touching and groping. But this escalated to rape eventually. Fraser’s natural son, 19-year-old Trevor, also abused Bess during this period, as did an older foster son, Wally.
When Bess was 12 the abuse ‘just stopped’. She can’t recall why. Bess believes her foster mother knew about the abuse but doesn’t believe she ever did anything about it. Bess received no visits from government inspectors. Bess did not report the abuse to anyone at the time.
‘It’s guilt’, Rosanna explains. ‘You feel guilt. You feel it’s our fault. We were never told it wasn’t our fault … you didn’t tell anybody. It’s not something you tell anybody. It’s shameful.’
Bess coped early on. She remembers being good at school and having lots of friends. She left school when she was 16 and began office work. Bess then had trouble with romantic relationships, though it was eventually a boyfriend who took her out of the Fraser family home to live with him interstate.
Bess began having mental health problems in her 20s.
‘I just kept getting these episodes where I was sick and eventually I had to be put into hospital.’ While she was being cared for no one ever asked her about any possible causes of her depression and anxiety. No one asked about her childhood. Her experience of abuse stayed unreported and her trauma untreated. ‘I pushed it away I think.’
Late in life Bess’s mental health issues have become more serious. ‘I’ve always been in and out of psych centres and suffered from depression a lot, and bipolar – which is depression.’
Her sister Rosanna regrets that Bess grew up in a white family, cut off from her own mob and Aboriginal heritage. ‘She missed out on our culture, which is very important to Indigenous women. It makes you a stronger, decent human being.’
Bess is relieved to have shared her story with the Royal Commission. She has also disclosed her history to her psychiatrist in recent months, and feels she is making progress.
‘I’m in a better place.’