Charmaine was born with health problems and was placed into a Sisters of Mercy orphanage in Brisbane as an infant in the early 1960s. Her siblings stayed with her mother, so she was all alone there. ‘I used to cry for my family.’
Growing up, Charmaine was confused about her Aboriginality. She would look at her arm, noting the colour of her skin, and ‘I was very sad. I didn’t know who I was ... I didn’t know if I was Aboriginal or white’.
The nuns ‘used to just do nasty things, hit me all the time’ without any cause, and Charmaine feared them deeply. Punishments were vicious and arbitrary, including being caned and having her head smashed into the table at mealtimes. The houseparents did not treat the girls any better. One of the male carers, Alan, ‘was really cruel to all of us. He used to hit the black people, not the white ones, and it was really nasty’.
In this environment Charmaine developed into a quiet, anxious and solitary child. ‘I was in my little shell all the time, and crying.’ The other children would not play with her, and called her names because she has an intellectual disability. ‘And I couldn’t tell the nuns because the nuns would’ve hit me.’
The Sisters would peer through the curtains to watch the children as they undressed, ‘and that made me nervous, frightening too’. When the girls bathed ‘they used to watch us all the time ... I didn’t know what to say. And get dressed in front of them. I felt real shame, I didn’t like them looking at my body’.
Alan also sexually abused some of the girls.
‘He used to come into the room, looking all at the women when they were getting dressed, and take advantage of them. And I felt all that, from that person. And I didn’t know what to do.
'To tell someone, I didn’t know who to tell. He was sneaking into the rooms when we were all sleeping, and I knew what was going on ... I was a bit frightened for myself.’ The children were too scared to even talk to each other about what was happening.
Charmaine felt isolated and unsupported, and does not remember ever being visited by a caseworker. Although there was a school at the home, Charmaine was sent to a special facility for children with learning difficulties. Even at the school she was never asked how she was – ‘they never talked to me’.
For a while Charmaine was fostered by a white couple on weekends and holidays. They had wanted to adopt her, and she does not know why this never happened. All the same, her time with them was her ‘saving grace’ and she has happy memories of this period.
When she was 15, one of the nuns told Charmaine ‘your grandmother used to work in the kitchen for the nuns ... And then she found out that I was living in the home ... All that time and none of the nuns didn’t tell her I was there’.
At 16, Charmaine was sent to work as a domestic in a residential facility, and the people there were kind to her. She had to give a percentage of her wages to the orphanage until she left a few years later.
At the time she left the home to reconnect with her Aboriginal family, she felt extremely anxious about the prospect of leaving the home to live independently. She found her mother and grandmother, and went to live with other relatives.
The abuse Charmaine experienced at the home continues to haunt her in flashbacks and nightmares, and she often finds it difficult to cope. Although she received a payment from the Forde Inquiry, she is unclear of how this came about. Her extended family took this compensation before she had seen a cent of it.
Charmaine has never received an apology from the home, or the Catholic Church. She is supported by a local Aboriginal service, who will assist her with any future redress schemes or other claims.
Her own children now know of the abuse she experienced, and are also very supportive. ‘They’re bringing me happiness in my life at the moment. And I just want to be happy, I don’t want to have the back flashes and that anymore. I just want to get on with my life, with my children and that. And be a happy grandmother, one day.’