‘My parents separated when I was one year old. I always considered those my table tennis years, I was a ping-pong ball, and I went from one parent to the other. It was never stable; it was about them, it wasn’t about me. But I was able to live with it … I loved school and I did really well. So I was able to receive from the community, and the society I was living in, a much better life. But once I became a state ward, even that was gone.’
Celeste was made a ward of the state of Victoria in the mid 1980s when she was 13 and neither of her parents wanted her. Her mother took her to the children’s court and lodged an application, citing 'irreconcilable differences'.
‘All I recall is standing before the judge and him saying to me, “It’s too late in the day. The children’s home where we should be sending you is full … Would you be willing to go home with your mother for one night?”’
Celeste refused, so the judge said the only alternative was to place her in a juvenile detention centre. ‘I didn’t know what it quite meant until it happened. He said to me, “It will be for one night and in the morning a department worker will come and see you”. That never happened.’
She was at the detention centre for a year. She was placed with girls of different ages and criminal backgrounds. While there, she was introduced to drugs and alcohol by other girls, and she was sexually abused by older female inmates many times.
Much of this abuse took place in a recreation hall on film nights, where there were other girls and staff members present. Celeste said she is sure others knew what was going on but she never told anyone, as she was scared what would happen to her if she made waves.
Celeste was eventually released from the centre but, with nowhere to go, she slept on the streets. Her father found her and took her to the welfare department, who placed her in a mixed gender youth hostel, where she was sexually assaulted by two older boys. She moved between a few hostels and spent a lot of time living on the streets. She was introduced to a group of older men who paid her to steal cars, which was how she fed herself.
During this period Celeste was still in contact with welfare services. One of her caseworkers regularly sexually assaulted her before he would hand over her welfare cheque. She reported him and was then allowed to go to a different office to collect her money. She was also often picked up by the police and was forced to perform oral sex on one officer to avoid being charged. She never reported this.
For a few months she was placed in a foster home, but an older son living there abused her on most nights, beginning with touching her and ending with raping her. When she was 15 she was placed in a share house with a man 10 years older than her.
‘I didn’t realise the implications of going into a shared housing situation with a strange male … He was threatening me. I felt as though I had to have sex with him. By this stage, it was almost as though I thought that this kind of behaviour was just expected of me.’
Celeste ran away from that situation to be with her boyfriend, and became pregnant while she was still a state ward. She gave birth soon after she turned 18. The couple married and had other children but the relationship later ended. Over the years, she has struggled with alcoholism and significant mental health issues, and has been unable to work for a long time.
But Celeste is very positive. She said she’s fortunate because her life could have been a lot worse. She has found counsellors very useful and has ongoing psychiatric care. She remains in close contact with her children and is now focused on recovery and getting her life back together.
‘I’d like to work. I’d like to finally be able to buy food without a second thought, not have to spend two days a week resourcing for food. I want to be a contributing member to the community, because just being allowed to do that, you get so much back …
‘Today is so huge. It’s a new life after today because, within myself, I can say I can step forward again now. I could never rest until I felt that I did something or maybe just enough to have it change for one other child, and we know that a lot of this is still happening and that’s why I’m here …
‘I’ve come with the intent to recover – and, wow, how awesome is it that the Royal Commission just all of a sudden comes along amongst it too? There’s got to be a God out there in some form or another, you know. It’s rough, but it’s also beautiful.’