Many people cast from their family into an orphanage recall it as a shock, a move into a challenging and sometimes bleak environment.
‘I thought it was great!’ declares Carlotta, who entered a Catholic institution in Sydney at age six. ‘Because I worshipped those nuns, I loved them. I loved them as if they were part of me.’
She also appreciated the peace. Carlotta and her three siblings were placed in care by their parents – ‘or maybe it was the welfare, I can’t remember’. The parents were extremely violent towards each other, and the kids also suffered.
‘My mother was very unstable. She’s always starting arguments with the neighbours or with my father. She used to hit us – we used to cop a lot of mops and brooms and jug cords and straps … She treated me terribly. And what Mum and Dad did to each other was awful – hitting each other, smacking each other up.
‘So I was away from the mental and physical abuse of my mother – I loved it.’
But after a few months, her happiness was shattered.
‘I was in bed; I heard a noise, went to look. There was this altar boy in the corridor and he chased me into my room. Gave me a black eye and broke my arm.
‘Then he molested me on the bed: he put his fingers in my vagina.’
Little was done to care for her. ‘They isolated me from the other children for a couple of days, until the black eye went away. But they didn’t do anything about the broken arm, ‘cause I hid it. And I didn’t say anything about the molesting – I was too scared.’
Fear took over. ‘I became very, very scared of the dark. I became more child-like, reverting back from six to when I was about three, sucking my thumb and wetting the bed.’
After four years the children were reclaimed, but family life hadn’t improved. ‘Mum was on a lot of tablets … When I was 15 she ended up in a mental hospital for about eight weeks.’
Nor did leaving home prove an escape. In her late tens Carlotta married a man who had served time for rape and was violent towards her. The marriage lasted more than a decade, and Carlotta and her husband had several children before eventually splitting up. Two years later, Carlotta visited her former partner and he viciously attacked her. ‘I was nearly murdered.’
The man went back to prison, while Carlotta – severely injured in spirit as well physically – had to pass care of her children to foster parents. ‘I felt I couldn’t be a mother ‘cause no one wanted me to be a mother. No one gave me the chance to prove myself.’
Now settled in another state, Carlotta has reconnected with her adult children. Hearing news of the Royal Commission several years ago revived traumatic memories of the orphanage abuse. She consulted lawyers but was told that they could see no prospect of successful action. But she hopes that the situation will improve for children in today’s institutions.
‘We need to put it out there for kids not to be scared. That it’s okay to come forward, you’re not going to get in trouble for it. That was the problem with the 1960s; all us kids seen all this but there was nowhere to go.’