Betty’s dad left the family when she was an infant, and her mum soon met another man. Her stepfather abused her mum physically and mentally, and sexually abused Betty’s older sister when her mum was at work. Her mum eventually left him, and took the kids to stay with some relatives.
One day Betty came home from school and her mum was being put into an ambulance. ‘From that moment everything went very fast – it seemed like I was in the twilight zone. We had no notion of what was going on except that our aunt told us that our mother was very sick and had to go to hospital to get better.’
Although Betty and her siblings had been taken by their aunt to visit her mother, her relatives told the welfare department they did not know what had happened to her or where she was. The children attended a courthouse and spoke to a judge.
‘He told us that they could not find our mother – but we cried and cried, kept telling him that we had just visited her in the hospital.’ Their protests were ignored, and they were told that they would be sent to an orphanage in the hope that they could find other parents. ‘We couldn’t believe what was happening to us, our whole worlds just caved in.’
Now wards of the state, the children moved from one foster home to another. In the mid-1960s, six-year-old Betty found herself living in an inner Sydney girls’ home, after she and her siblings were separated without warning or even a chance to say goodbye. A few weeks after she arrived at the home, she was examined by a male doctor.
‘I was sexually abused by the physician who worked there. I can’t remember his name, only his face. A face that I really don’t want to remember. This happened during a medical exam in the orphanage in the front downstairs room next to the front door ... The doctor gave me a check-up starting with my ears, throat, and chest. I was asked to lie down and take off my panties and spread my legs, and when I did this he started penetrating me with his fingers.
‘I kept pulling away but he kept saying that it was okay, that he had to do this to make sure that I didn’t have fleas or diseases. I remember thinking back then that this was a strange place to look for fleas. When he was done, I was allowed to sit and wait for the nurse to come back and get me. I never saw him again after that. There are no words that can describe the horror, pain, agony, suffering and confusion I was going through. I didn’t know at that age about sex or touching private parts, only that this what was happening to me was not right.’
The older girls at the home held authority over the younger ones, and would beat Betty severely and torture her in various ways – keeping her awake all night, throwing her food on the floor, and urinating in her bed so she would get punished.
‘I was forced to grow up and learn how to survive at the age of six ... I never saw or spoke to a social worker while being institutionalised or was personally approached by anyone to ask about my wellbeing.’
She prayed and prayed that God would take ‘take me away from here and all this suffering, agony and sorrow’.
Betty was fostered when she was seven, by a couple who would not let her have any contact with her family. They beat her, called her cruel names, treated her like a ‘slave’ by making her work in their business constantly, and she witnessed them having vicious physical fights between themselves.
When Betty’s caseworker would come around ‘I was forced to keep my mouth shut’, with her foster parents threatening she would be sent back to an orphanage if she complained. The couple eventually adopted her and they moved overseas, which was very difficult for her.
In her early 20s Betty began searching for her biological family, and 10 years or so later was finally reunited with her mother, father and siblings. Her mother told her that she had tried to get the children back when she came out of hospital, but by that stage ‘had lost all parental rights ... She also went through a lot of depression’.
Betty is very angry that the state failed her as a child by making her a state ward instead of attempting to locate her mother or other appropriate relatives, and that they failed in their duty of care to make sure she was safe from abuse in homes and foster placements.
She continues to suffer from panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, as well as physical ailments related to the neglect and abuse in her childhood.
‘Was I not better off being with my natural mother after all?’