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Bethia's story

Her urge to reunite with her paternal grandparents after her family moved away was the trigger for institutionalisation and its stigma that has dogged Bethia for more than 60 years.

‘Grateful’ to have found a venue to speak out in the Royal Commission, Bethia had never told anyone about being raped by the man in charge of the residential care institution in New South Wales where she spent two separate periods in the 1950s.

Her life took a significant turn when she was 10. Bethia’s alcoholic parents moved from Sydney to a regional centre to be near her mother’s elderly grandmother who was in poor health. But they failed to look after anyone properly, and Bethia was lonely and unhappy.

Wanting to avoid being ‘knocked around’ at home, she stole five pounds from her great-grandmother’s purse to catch a train to see her beloved paternal grandmother.

‘The reason I took five pounds, which was a lot of money in those days, was because my grandmother only had five pound notes in her purse. And the reason … was because our life was dreadful … That’s where it started from. I was classed as bad because I had stolen this money.’

Soon after, the local police collected her from her grandmother’s home and she was sent to a state-run children’s home in Sydney.

‘Here I was at 10, an “uncontrollable child”… I was in [the children’s home] for six weeks and I was allowed to go home but I went back to exactly the same circumstances.’

Bethia was terrified of her father, who was often violent. For most of the next year, her truancy continued. As she was on probation, she was eventually brought to court and sent to a state-run residential care facility for girls. She lived there for a year between the ages of 11 and 12.

After her first internal examination by a doctor, she was made to stand naked in the room while three other staff members observed how well developed she was for her age.

The institution had no doors on toilets or showers. Bethia was closely inspected by staff as she used both and, along with other girls, assaulted. Some of the girls were picked on and ganged up on, some were beaten until they bled in organised fights. Girls were sometimes pulled out of bed at night while older girls undressed them and touched them. Once, she witnessed a girl sexually assaulted with a broom handle.

On her release a year later, nothing had changed at home. Bethia rarely attended high school. Several months later she was apprehended by police and spent four nights in a large regional police station as she awaited transfer back to the residential care facility. During her second, nine-month incarceration, she turned 13.

Bethia still has anxiety attacks about her return. About a dozen girls were being ‘silly’ throwing pillows in the dormitory after being locked in unsupervised, as usual. It was her first night back and Bethia, not knowing some of the newer girls, sat watching from her bed. She also saw Mr Halfpenny staring at the pillow fight from outside a dormitory window, but she felt she couldn’t warn the others about him.

Late on the following day Bethia was summoned to his office, where he shut the door as she stood at his desk, expecting a lecture for being returned to the institution.

Instead, Halfpenny, ‘a very big man’, turned around and hit her hard as he accused her of lying in bed and instigating the pillow fight the previous night.

‘And this – this was the time that he … raped me. Even now this is the one thing that I can’t, I can’t talk about because … I had my period. I had my period at the time.’

As Bethia tried to hit him back, Halfpenny pushed her down on the table and accused her of thinking she was Veronica Lake.

‘All those years later that’s what stuck in my mind. Veronica Lake? I didn’t know who that was at the time … it was just so out of context with everything, apart from I was inciting this riot ... And I wasn’t at all.’

Afterwards Bethia was put in ‘isolation’ in the attic of the main building for four days. ‘That was my punishment.’

For the rest of her incarceration she was put with older girls aged 15 to 18.

After her release Bethia was involved in more truanting, but was sent to another institution where she received ‘some schooling’ until she was again collected by her father.

Her ‘escape’ from her family situation was to marry at 17, a union which ended, amicably, 20 years later.

No one knew about the sexual abuse. Even Bethia’s parents didn’t ask about her stints away because their attitude was, ‘whatever happened to her she brought it on herself’.

‘My father used to berate me at the table because I’d ruined his reputation. That was because I’d been institutionalised. It looked bad for him. It didn’t matter that he was a brutal, sadistic alcoholic.’

Since then ‘the only bad thing I’ve done in all that time was in 1980 I got a parking ticket’, Bethia said.

‘It wasn’t till possibly in my 40s that I started to think “You’re not a bad person. You had bad parents [but] you’re not such a bad person”.’

Her institutionalisation ‘definitely was’ a stigma. Bethia was strict with her own children and barely travelled, terrified her incarceration with ‘the dregs of people who were committed’ might be exposed if passport checks were ever necessary.

Once, she was referred by her GP to a psychiatrist. She had suffered from anxiety, depression, claustrophobia and low self-esteem.

‘When he started saying to me “about your childhood, about your parents”, I just stopped going ... I kept thinking, “It’s got nothing to do with my parents – it’s me that’s having the panic attacks”.’ Now, though, she agrees it’s connected.

Several years ago Bethia accessed her Department of Community Services records, saw missing sections and erroneous inclusions, and began telling her second husband about some of her past.

‘I’ve never told him about the rape … I was too embarrassed. I was just too embarrassed.’

For years Bethia felt the need to go back to the institution where she was abused, ‘just to stand there and look at the place’. But she never did.

‘I just felt for a long, long time that I was full of resentment … I’d lost so much … If someone had just looked a bit further past me ... no one ever bothered to find out why I had done what I did initially.’

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