Cleo was five years old in the late 1940s when her father placed her and her sister into a Salvation Army children’s home in Melbourne. The girls were very close, and during the 10 years they lived in the home they went to great lengths to protect each other.
As a young child, Cleo constantly wet the bed. Staff at the home would physically and emotionally abuse her whenever it occurred, including forcing her to have cold showers which triggered intense migraines. She never told anyone about the way the staff treated her because she was scared of receiving harsher punishments.
‘You don’t know [who] to tell because as a child you just accept what is happening is normal.’
She was punished so often by Salvation Army staff that her sister would go out of her way to try and protect her. As a result, her sister was beaten by several staff members whenever she tried to intervene, which Cleo hated. Cleo was further punished for her sister’s actions, but never forgot her kindness.
After several months of being at the home, an older girl took an interest in Cleo. This girl began to follow her around, which Cleo was then punished for because of a rule stating younger girls were forbidden to have contact with older girls. Before long this girl circumvented the rule by visiting Cleo at night time.
The girl would climb into her bed, hug her and fondle her genitals. This happened several times a week and Cleo didn’t tell anyone because she didn’t think it was wrong. She was starved of affection and found comfort in the girl’s attention.
‘As a child I was never hugged, never held, and suddenly someone was in bed with me holding me and stroking me. It was a feeling I’ve never known before. It wasn’t until later that I was meant to have guilt from that.’
At the time, Cleo found the physical abuse from the workers more traumatic than the sexual abuse from the older girl. However, after several months, that began to change. Cleo believes she started wetting the bed as her body’s ‘involuntary response’ whenever the girl came to her bed. Because of this the girl stopped visiting her at night and left her alone.
To this day, Cleo doesn’t know the girl’s name. She never reported her because she was scared she would be ‘strapped’ in front of everyone.
She remained at the home until she was 15, feeling relieved when she finally left. Her parents never visited her during her entire stay in the home. Her sister left one year before her and it wasn’t until Cleo was in her 20s that they reunited. She said her sister was terribly shaken from her time in the home. Seeing Cleo reminded her sister of the physical punishment she endured at the home, which affected their relationship.
As an adult Cleo struggled with depression and at one stage she had a major depressive breakdown. She has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. Relationships have been very difficult to maintain and her marriage dissolved when she was in her mid-30s, which she found devastating. These days Cleo feels isolated and describes herself as a ‘very sad person’.
‘It’s amazing how it blights your life. It’s not just the time you spent in an institution, it’s beyond that.’
In the late 1970s, Cleo first told her ex-partner about the abuse she experienced. She found that disclosing took a weight off her shoulders. When her children were old enough, she also told them of the abuse. She is glad that she has a great relationship with her children despite her marriage to their father coming to an end.
When she was in her 60s, Cleo received $60,000 compensation from the Salvation Army, with the assistance of Broken Rites. She is now seeking legal advice about making a further claim against the institution for her financial losses over the years.