At the time of the abuse, Bridgette thought she was the only victim. She now knows the truth: ‘Four girls in our bedroom, and I’m sure they were all abused. And I was the eldest, so I feel responsible’.
One of those four was Bridgette’s younger sister, Carol. She and Bridgette had been put into care in the early 1960s when they were very little because their parents split up and their mother was no longer able to look after them. The sisters spent some time in a group home in Sydney before the Barnardos charity arranged for them to move into a smaller home run by Joshua and Nadine Cooper.
The Coopers were both Salvation Army officers who were well-respected in the community. Behind closed doors, however, Joshua Cooper started sexually abusing Bridgette. She was 11 years old.
The abuse continued for several months, then one day Carol was removed from the home and sent elsewhere. Bridgette didn’t know why. Years later she learned that Carol had also been abused and had reported Cooper’s behaviour to a social worker who had then arranged a new placement.
With her sister gone, Bridgette felt ‘invisible and unheard’. She endured Cooper’s abuse in silence for several more months before summoning the courage to tell her biological mother and one of the other foster girls what was going on. A short while later, the Coopers and their biological children were removed from the home.
‘I have memories of them leaving, walking down the stairs, and their daughter saying, “Look at what you’ve done to us” … and the family calling me a liar. I felt very alone.’
Bridgette has never been able to get the full story on why the Coopers were finally moved on. When she and Carol got hold of their official records a few years back, they found no explanation for the decision – and no mention of Carol’s removal from the home.
The only insight they have comes from their mother. She said that after Bridgette disclosed the abuse to her, ‘she went to Barnardos’ head office … But she said she wasn’t believed. She felt judged, as she had had two other children out of wedlock. She indicated that Mr Cooper had scoffed at her … and I think she felt intimidated by him’.
For whatever reason, the Coopers were pulled out of Bridgette’s life. She was freed from sexual abuse but not from its consequences. ‘These incidents, and the fact that I did not protect my little sister … have plagued me all my life. I have felt not good enough, not worthy, extremely guilty and saddened all my life. I was just a young girl.’
To cope, Bridgette signed up for courses on self-awareness and assertiveness that she found helpful. She also found solace and purpose in her children.
‘I’ve always had a reason to keep going, to do the best with my life that I can, because I’ve had my own children and wanted to be a role model for them. I think it’d be difficult – if I hadn’t had children, it would have been difficult to keep going.’
One of the toughest times, Bridgette said, was when she went through a relationship break-up in the late 2000s. As bad luck would have it, Carol chose this time to take legal action against Barnardos.
‘It probably wasn’t good timing in my life, I was trying to manage a lot of other things as well. It was the right timing for my sister because she instigated it and I was supporting her, but she had a lot more support then, whereas I didn’t.’
But Bridgette stuck by her sister and went along with her to meet a senior member of Barnardos. The senior member turned out to be a ‘cold, stern woman’ who refused to acknowledge the abuse or apologise. She told Bridgette and Carol that they weren’t entitled to any compensation because they’d come from a broken home and were already ‘damaged goods’ by the time they got to the Coopers’ house.
It was only after a long fight by Carol that Barnardos agreed to pay compensation. It was the bare minimum and came with heavy caveats. ‘We were sworn to secrecy. We were coerced into signing a statement as such.’
Out of her own pocket, Bridgette went on to spend thousands of dollars on counselling. Recently she received some free sessions from Victims of Crime Compensation. Meanwhile, Carol is planning to take further legal action against Barnardos. Bridgette feels daunted by the prospect but her feelings of responsibility as the older sibling, and her sense of justice have motivated her to push on.
‘They had a duty of care to look after us, and we weren’t protected. And I think, “What would my life have been if we hadn’t been sexually abused?” I do get a bit sad about it but I have to move forward. I do have a few more sessions with the psychologist, so I really want some support to achieve more in my life … I think I can achieve a lot more than what I’ve achieved.’