Betty was two years old when she was taken from her mother and sent to a government-run home for Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory in the early 1950s. Her elder sister was already in the home and over the following few years, three more siblings would be placed there.
She recalled the dormitories set up for ‘us half-cast, quarter-cast kids’ where ‘if you got scared, you could jump out of your bed and you could go get in with your friend, you know. And we just loved it, it was beautiful, because we were all there, we felt good, you know’.
She found it distressing when in the early 1960s the style of accommodation changed and cottages were built to replace the dormitories. ‘Terrible idea. Split us up. We were all sisters, you know. Some went to this one – there are seven cottages, all right, the government built, and in the middle was the superintendent and they broke us all up and they put us in these seven cottages. How terrible was that? Then you had a foster mum and dad. Come on, I had my own mum.’
Although the family’s connections were in Alice Springs, Betty’s mother moved to Darwin to be closer to her children. She was allowed to take them out for the weekend once per month and they’d go places where ‘the stupid missionaries wouldn’t take us’.
‘We actually learnt that you had to shop for your food. My mum taught me this. She taught us about money, because we never had money, you know. She told us that you could go to the pub and not be an idiot, you know, and we’d go there and we’d watch them all dance and that like, they’d have fun. We just thought it was fun. And we just dreaded going back every Sunday night because we’d get drilled, “Where did youse go today? What did you do?” And the first time they drilled us, we were like, shaking and carrying on, me and my sister and [brother]. I still don’t know today what happened to my eldest brother and sister, I never ever.’
The move into the cottages corresponded with Mr and Mrs Briggs arriving as house parents. Betty said Mr Briggs ‘was a big bloke and he was very cruel’. He’d enter the girls’ bathroom while they were showering and grab girls while they had no clothes on, telling them they needed to use more soap. Betty complained to the manager of the children’s home telling him that the girls were frightened of Briggs. She also confronted Mrs Briggs about the behaviour of her husband, but no one took any action about her complaints.
In the mid-1960s, when Betty was 15, four sisters arrived at the home from a remote area of the Northern Territory. They’d never spoken English before as they spoke language in their community.
One day, Betty went to the defence of one of the girls who Briggs was trying to force-feed. Several other girls spoke up and Briggs accused Betty of ‘starting a riot’. He put her into a room by herself, made her remove her clothes and then chained her up, telling her: ‘That’s what you Aboriginal people deserve’.
On occasions, Briggs offered to drive Betty to school and during these trips would touch her in a way she found uncomfortable and sexual. At 15, Betty ran away and found her mother, begging her not to send her back. When welfare workers came searching, Betty hid in a cupboard. Soon afterwards, Betty got a job in a supermarket and wasn’t visited by the workers again.
In subsequent years, Betty completed Year 12 and gained qualifications as a family support worker. In her work in the Northern Territory and New South Wales she’d seen occasions where children weren’t always placed in safe foster homes. In some cases, a child was living with a relative but the environment wasn’t safe and Betty felt the child had little or no say in the matter. ‘I know I always wanted someone to listen to me.’
Betty thought more progress could be made helping mothers who were in trouble reconcile with their children. She considered herself lucky that she’d had her own mother on weekends.
‘Something that I don’t understand is, now, why didn’t the government call my mum in and say, “Look, you know what, I think we can see that you’ve been coming visiting your kids for many years and you’re stable and there’s no concern”. Why didn’t they say, “You can go home?”’