Carmela's story

Six-year-old Carmela, her older sister, Ruth, and their mother arrived at a Salvation Army children’s home in Melbourne one day in the early 1960s. A few minutes later the girls’ mother left. They never saw her again.

‘She dumped us and disappeared in a taxi', Carmela says. And then life got bad.

‘I was left in the charge of people who harmed me and molested me … It was a horrible, disgusting cruel place, a place from which I’ll never heal.’

By day there was punishment – ‘I was beaten repeatedly by the matron for wetting the bed’ – and after hours something even more disturbing. ‘Several nights a week there would be someone touching me in bed. This happened for two years. It was probably an older girl but it was dark … I know it was the same person because I was always touched in the same way.’

Carmela says, ‘At school the teacher used to call us the “homies” … As a ward of the state I was mistreated, I felt worthless and unloved’. She didn’t understand what was being done to her, and she feared being punished if she complained to the staff. And then life got worse.

‘When I was about eight I was fostered out to a family … I was made to do all the housework, scrub the floors on Saturday afternoon, polish shoes, get in the birdcage to clean it while the biological daughter went to ballet lessons. She went to a private school, I went to public.’

When the parents were absent, Carmela was abused by the son of the family.

‘When I was 11 or 12, the eldest brother, who was 18, started to sexually abuse me … He was always silent when he was doing it. Most of the time he would perform oral sex on me – and then rape me.

‘He used to threaten me not to tell, making it very clear that if I did I would be abused again or beaten.’

The abuse continued regularly until Carmela was 16, and had a boyfriend and an office job. ‘The elder brother became very jealous … When I stayed a night at my boyfriend’s house, he came round and made me get out and drive to work with him.’

Soon afterwards Carmela escaped. ‘I couldn’t wait to get out of there.’ The little room she rented as a 17-year-old (‘with a coin meter for the heater’) was a haven.

So, too, was the country home she made some years later, after getting married and reconnecting with her sister Ruth. In contrast to their own upbringing, both sisters kept their children safe and Carmela’s daughter and niece came to support her at the Commission.

Carmela needs that support. ‘I rely on alcohol and sedatives. I feel guilty that the abuse and the rape was my fault. I’ve got a good job but I’m disappointed and miserable with my life.

‘I can’t make decisions … I’m lonely, even though I’m surrounded by my family. I feel deeply depressed.

‘My sleep is terrible, I’ve experienced extreme night terrors since I left the home. My son or daughter have to come into my room and wake me up – in my dreams there’s always someone sitting on the bed, ready to abuse me.’

Fear of reviving the traumatic memories meant Carmela never reported the abuse to police.

Carmela has no superannuation and no assets, and is fearful about the future. She wishes that government could provide redress to enable survivors to live in their own homes. ‘I worry about aged care – I’d rather kill myself than enter another institution.’

Carmela went through a compensation process with the Salvation Army some years ago, and accepted a lump sum payment of $20,000. She thought the amount was paltry and an insult but ‘felt extremely pressured’ by the Army’s legal team. ‘I think I made a bad decision.’

She keeps looking for explanations that will never come. ‘I’m still, for some reason, searching for my mother. For an answer … Everyone says that time is the best healer, but for me nothing has changed. I’ve reverted back to being that dumped little child.’

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