Christine tries to avoid anything that might trigger memories of her abusive childhood. That means she doesn’t watch TV or read the newspaper. But she does sometimes listen to the radio, which is where she heard about the Royal Commission. ‘I just hope something comes out of it for the next generation of kids that are in care’, she told the Commissioner, ‘and things can get stopped’.
Her experience as a child was that things didn’t get stopped. First of all, living with her mother on a New South Wales Aboriginal mission and then in different foster homes, Christine was repeatedly sexually assaulted. Though the Department of Community Services (DOCS) and other services had a role in her care for many years, Christine was left in and returned to abusive situations time and time again.
‘I was never safe. And I couldn’t understand why the agencies kept sending me back all the time. Like the hospitals, the police – these are people you go to who you think are helping you.’
Christine was the youngest of her mother’s four children. The older three were left with their father when Christine, then a baby, and her mother moved to the mission in the mid-1970s. Her mother started a new relationship at the mission, with a man who was violent not just to her but to Christine.
‘In Indigenous culture you don’t take a child from one family to another if they’re not from there’, Christine said. That, and the fact that she’s fair-skinned, may partly explain the crimes committed against her at the mission, she said.
For the next few years she was raped not only by her mother’s partner but also his male relatives. The internal and external injuries she received from these assaults meant she was taken to hospital many times, by ambulance which arrived at the mission with a police escort. But despite this official knowledge of what was happening, she was always sent back.
Christine has recently accessed her DOCS files, and with the help of a doctor and counsellor went through her medical records. ‘I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it’, she said. ‘It says in there that I’m lucky to be alive. Who rapes a baby?’
Christine and her mother left the mission eventually, and as a 10-year-old Christine found herself in DOCS’ care and in the first of multiple foster home placements. She suffered further sexual abuse at most of these, from the foster father at one home, older kids at another, friends of the foster carer at a third, the foster father and his sons at a fourth.
There was just one home, managed by nuns, where she felt safe and cared for – ‘they were lovely’, she said. But she was moved on from here, as she was from everywhere else.
Regular visits from DOCS didn’t provide Christine with the opportunity to talk about what was happening. ‘[They came] once a month or whatever it was, to see how we were going’, she recalled. There’d be cups of tea and biscuits. ‘The carer would put the big front up. And then DOCS would leave and then all the bad things would still be happening. I thought that person coming was supposed to be coming to help me. That person didn’t come and help me so I didn’t speak to them.’
A while later, she did try to speak out. On one DOCS visit she and the officer went to the park and she told the officer what was happening. Back at the house, the officer told the foster carer what Christine had said. And then she left. ‘I got bashed and raped – so I never spoke again.’
Christine left foster care when she was 16. She got into drugs for a while. They kept the pain submerged. ‘That’s how I survived’, she said. One day she found the drugs weren’t working for her any more. ‘So I just stopped.’ With the support of a youth worker, she got employment as a room attendant at a Sydney hotel. The job gave her a first inkling of self-confidence.
‘That’s when I thought I’m worth more. I’m not just worth sitting around being on drugs all day. That’s when I kind of believed in myself a bit.’
At 18, Christine had her first child. Her pregnancy and his birth defied the medical advice she’d had, that lasting damage from her childhood injuries meant she’d never be able to carry a baby to full term. Her son is now in his late teens, and she’s had three other children as well.
It was the birth of her first child that took her back to education. Christine was illiterate when she left school. She went there to be safe, not for an education, she said. When her son was very young, she went to her local library and told a librarian that she wanted to learn to read so she could help him. The librarian gave her simple picture books to practise on and that’s how she learned, she told the Commissioner.
‘Now my son’s got me a tablet, so I’m on the tablet and playing around with it and whatnot and I absolutely love it … I love to learn, I didn’t have an education so I’m doing that now.’ She still goes to the library, and takes her kids – she wants them to know that education is ‘number one’, she said.
Christine has never reported her abusers to police – most of them are dead now, she said. Looking back, she wishes there had been more support and guidance available for her mother. ‘I always say why take the kid off the parent? Maybe help the parent, if it’s fixable. My mum was alcoholic and got with the wrong partners. Maybe if the people had helped her be in a better place to be able to take care of her children, maybe those things could have been avoided’, she said.
She has no connection with Indigenous culture, and nor do her children. ‘I don’t want nothing to do with it. I never did’, she said. ‘Culture doesn’t exist to me.’
She receives regular counselling, and accepts that she’ll need this for years to come. She’s had compensation through victims of crime, but hasn’t sought any additional payment from the government.
‘Give me all the money in the world, that’s not going to fix it. It’s like a picture right in your face every day’, she said.
‘People think I’m going to grow up and forget about it … It doesn’t work like that.’