‘I was removed from my family as part of the assimilation policy to eradicate the Aboriginal race. The whole idea to strip me of my identity and culture to become domesticated servants to the colonial society was unforgiveable. I spend a lot of my time feeling depressed most days. I will never know what it is like to live with my biological family, learn about my culture and family history. I feel that I don’t fit in anywhere in society.’
Clara was born in the 1950s, and as a baby was removed from her mother and placed in an Aboriginal mission in regional Western Australia, run by the Baptist Church. ‘I cannot remember this and do not know why I was taken by the authorities and placed at the mission.’
She does remember always being hungry. ‘The food at the mission was no good. The porridge had weevils in it. We were forced to eat this.’ Chores were hard and took up most of her time outside of school.
‘One was collecting milk in a small billy can from down the farm. I did not have any shoes. I was forced to walk on stony gravel barefoot. In winter it was so cold and the ground was covered in frost that I couldn’t feel my toes. Polishing the floor boards in the cottage was another chore which was done every week. I and other children had to crawl along the floor on our knees with a tin of wax and a rag scrubbing the floor. Watering the roses was also my chore. I hated doing this.’
Clara was subjected to physical and sexual abuse by staff and other children. A quiet, shy child, she was flogged almost daily for wetting the bed or minor misbehaviours, and was bullied by her older peers. Her female houseparent was vicious, and once ‘cracked me over the head with the copper dipper before choir practice and I was forced to attend practice with blood running down my face’.
From the age of eight she was sexually abused on numerous occasions by a man who worked on the mission, and also by some of the older boys. ‘When I was 15 two boys at the mission sexually assaulted me. The actions of them and the man ... turned my life upside down.’ She feels she was an easy target for abuse ‘because I didn’t know how to stand up for myself, that’s what’.
As a result of this sexual abuse Clara became pregnant in her mid-teens, and was sent to a city hostel to await the birth of her baby. After her baby was born she was forced to sign adoption papers. She became pregnant again, and was made to give this second baby up too.
‘I was totally devastated by what the government had done to me by taking my children away. I had no control over what they had done. I was forced to give my children up. This is unforgiveable. I was forced to sign those papers under duress.’
Despite these pregnancies she was never visited by welfare during her time at the mission, and was not offered any support.
‘I was on my own, just had to cope with it then. Strange: Baby. No baby in your arms ... It knocked me senseless.’
As an adult, Clara has lived a lonely life and experienced extreme sadness, depression, shame, guilt and embarrassment.
‘My life after the mission was a terrible sadness to me. The loss of my own identity and the loss of my children was taken from me. I turned to alcohol to drown my sorrows. I became an alcoholic. It was the only way I knew how to cope at the time.’
Clara has now been sober for two decades. ‘I began to realise that alcohol was not the answer and I made the decision to stop drinking ... Unfortunately the damage is done and in return I have serious health issues.’
It was not until she was in her 30s that Clara began speaking of her mission days. ‘I kept a lot of things inside. Nobody knew I had these two kids.’ It was alcohol that enabled her to start talking about her childhood. ‘It gave me courage.’
Clara made an application to WA Redress and received an ex gratia payment. Being a very private person she did not feel able to talk in detail about her experiences ‘only part of it ... the shame of it all, the less people know I always think the better, then they can’t talk about you. I just shut off’.
‘They did offer counselling but I didn’t like talking to people. This is very brave of me talking to you [the Commissioner].’
When raising her other children she was careful not to subject them to the treatment she had received. ‘No one wants to get flogged. You know I never touched my children. If they wet the bed, so be it ... I didn’t want them to experience what I experienced.’ She has reunited with the daughter who was adopted out, but not her son. ‘I don’t think he wants to come this way.’
At one stage she took her kids to see the old mission. ‘I didn’t really want to, but then I wanted them to see where I grew up. Lot of bad memories there ... Hoping to go back there again soon just to show my granddaughters, so they can understand why I am the way I am ... Sometimes I feel embarrassed about growing up in there. I didn’t grow up into the normal home, I didn’t know my mother at all.’
Clara has now had a couple of counselling sessions, but ‘never really spoke about my terrible experience, like my terrible life, how I grew up’. She lives with health problems related to her previous heavy alcohol use. ‘It all stems back from when I was little.’