‘I have always been forgotten about and shoved in the corner because no one wants to hear my voice. I've always been thrown in the "too hard basket" and I never understood why. I feel that I have now found my voice through being able to share my brief story with you and finally after all these years have a chance to be heard.’
Chanelle was removed from her parents as a baby, and made a ward of the state in the late 1970s. Although she is Aboriginal, the NSW Department of Community Services (DOCS) placed her in long-term foster care with a white couple. ‘I believe I should have been placed within my own culture, and not up for sale to a white family that had no idea about the Aboriginal culture, and never cared about it either.’
The Brennans lived in south-western Sydney. Mrs Brennan was frequently ‘really cruel’, being physically and psychologically abusive, though ‘could be loving and caring, but it’s like you’ve got to catch it when it’s there’. Although Mr Brennan ‘was a very kind, generous, loving man’ he was ‘overpowered by his wife on every decision he made. He was never able to properly be a father’.
Mrs Brennan’s mother often cared for Chanelle at her house, where a foster uncle, Herbert, also lived. Herbert sexually abused Chanelle and numerous other children in the family for many years – ‘he’s got no barriers. He doesn’t care, little boys or little girls’. Most of this abuse occurred at this house or in the holiday home he owned in a coastal town.
The family was aware that Herbert had previously been convicted of child sexual abuse. Her grandmother tried to protect Chanelle from Herbert, making her ‘sit somewhere that she could see me.’ Even so, anytime her grandmother walked out of the room ‘he’d start with me, and I’d have to do it’.
When her grandmother caught Herbert and Chanelle naked together in bed, after he had sexually abused her, it was Chanelle who was yelled at to get dressed and leave. ‘So I went into my room and I cried. What have I done wrong?’ Chanelle also remembers her grandmother massaging her breasts to make them grow.
Although DOCS workers were present throughout her life, Mrs Brennan would always be with Chanelle when they questioned her about the placement, even answering on her behalf. This made it impossible to tell them about any of the abuse. It was also hard to build trust with the workers, as they changed frequently.
When Chanelle was 10 years old, Mrs Brennan was having a conversation with her sister about Herbert abusing other children. ‘I said, “He’s done that to me too”, and they just both looked at me. ... And then it stopped.’
Mrs Brennan waited until Chanelle was 13 before telling DCCS what Herbert had done. Chanelle received some compensation for the abuse she experienced, but is unsure who provided this.
A couple of years later, Herbert was convicted of sexually abusing Chanelle and other children, and sentenced to three and a half years in prison.
Chanelle became pregnant in her late teens and Mrs Brennan agreed to support her in caring for the child, but then later took her to court and gained custody. ‘So much had been taken away from me already it was such a massive stress for me. I had it let go.’ This remains distressing for Chanelle, who has a fractured relationship with her son. ‘He’s lost, he’s confused, he’s angry at me.’
Chanelle described the impact of being removed from her Aboriginal culture. ‘I have struggled and suffered a huge identity crisis, and only through my own strength have I today been able to feel comfortable with who I truly am.’
Although she regained contact with her birth family, this has also been problematic at times. ‘My Aboriginal family have suffered their own horrific abuse, so over the years they haven't been able to show me any support at all.’
Chanelle has been diagnosed with a number of mental health issues, and has trouble maintaining stable housing. She has used drugs, and self-harmed, as coping strategies. ‘I self-harmed since I was approximately five years of age. I remember the very first time I had cut myself at that age.
‘I used to bang my head as a baby as a result of abuse, I rock and still do to this day – it’s a horrible habit I'm still trying to not do, but I had obviously learnt to soothe myself as a child. I use to burn myself and stick things inside myself that no-one ever knew, because of my abuse.’
In the last couple of years she has been able to stop engaging in self-harming behaviours. ‘You get to a point where you either let it swallow you up, or you say, “Okay, enough is enough, I can’t do it anymore. That happened then, and this is my life now” ...
‘You have to find a way, otherwise it eats you alive. Other people’s mistakes – and they’re massive mistakes that they’ve put upon you – that you can never shake. You can’t ever get rid of it.’