Caryl came to Australia as a child migrant in the 1970s. She was 10 when she arrived and spent the first few months in a children’s residential facility in Western Australia before she was reunited with her parents and siblings.
Her father was away a lot, and Caryl described her mother as physically and emotionally abusive. One day after being beaten, Caryl retaliated and stabbed her mother with a fork. Welfare staff were called and Caryl, then in her early teens, was deemed ‘uncontrollable’ and taken to a children’s reception facility.
She wasn’t there long before she and a group of children ran away. Picked up by police, Caryl was made a ward of the state and sent to another government-run facility. Through the following years of childhood she moved between various residential and corrective institutions. In the first of these she was sexually abused by another resident, a 17-year-old male. Caryl said she and the resident, whose name she can’t remember, regularly had sex.
In another facility, Caryl was sexually abused by a male cook who would give cigarettes to her and other girls then take them individually into a storeroom and have sex with them.
Caryl described being often punished in this place. She was forced to wear paper clothes, sit in a passageway for extended periods of time and was prohibited from speaking.
At around this time she began to self-harm, and this continued into her adult years. As a child and adult, she’d had numerous admissions to hospitals throughout Australia and she’d seen innumerable mental health staff.
‘Self-harm for me was a way of feeling that my body was real, it was mine. And sometimes because you release pain, and other times ‘cause I was desperate ‘cause I wanted to die. But nobody asked along the way in that system, ever sat down and said to me, “Why do you do this?” All those years every single person let me down along the way. They just believed everything that was placed on file rather than talking to me.’
At the time of her release from state care, Caryl formed a relationship with a man she didn’t know was a paedophile. They travelled across the county, and in New South Wales Caryl was arrested and held in a juvenile remand centre for over 18 months. Although she was older, authorities believed her to be 16 years old.
While in the remand centre, Caryl befriended a visitor, Ross. Staff saw her behaviour as unmanageable and when it came time for her to be brought before a magistrate, they refused to have her back. The magistrate then handed her over into the care of Ross, even though court and welfare staff knew little about him other than that he was a single father.
Caryl described this as one of the first good things to happen in her life.
‘Ross helped me turn my life round in phenomenal ways’, she said. ‘Like he was the stabilising person in my life I call my dad, but apart from Ross – and even the court sent me with Ross, he could have been a paedophile. But luckily he wasn’t. I thank God that I did have Ross.’
Ross came with Caryl to her private sessions. He’d been there through many hospital admissions and seen the difficulties she’d had getting help through the health system, particularly when staff responded unsympathetically to her self-harming.
‘Over the years some of the best people, the most supportive people, have actually been the police’, Ross said. ‘The police have been more supportive than the mental health services.’
To Caryl, health staff often ‘looked at my behaviour but not what drove my behaviour’. She’d spent extended periods in isolation and ‘held down in shackles’ while in hospital.
She regarded the public health system as an ‘epic failure’ and recommended there be a ‘supportive nurse placed in every emergency department, somebody who is there to sit with someone like me and help them through a really hard experience’.
‘They don’t deal with a broken mind the same way they deal with a broken leg.’
She also wanted to see better programs for patients of mental health facilities. ‘Proper programs that are inside the walls but you can continue when you go outside like support programs, like swimming, exercise, nutrition, education.’
Caryl is currently a mentor to young people and adviser to those who work in the area of mental health.
‘How I help them is to show them that you can help somebody help themselves by, you know, being a positive role model for them. And kids, instead of locking them up, which just costs money and is a waste of time, use the government money to actually help heal people who are broken and lead them to help themselves and change themselves, you know like somebody be a mirror to them and teach them.
‘Like those places are a complete waste of time because … I met more offenders and ended up in more trouble as a result, ‘cause I was vulnerable and naive. I was in a very hard situation.’