‘I’ve been running all my life,’ said Cloris of years of brutality that began with an abusive, alcoholic father and continued with sexual and physical abuse by staff at a notorious residential care facility for girls in Sydney in the 1960s.
The rural annexe of the facility was even worse, said Cloris, who was often distressed when recalling incidents that have haunted her for nearly half a century.
It ‘was a concentration camp. The only difference was we didn’t get gassed’.
While public attitudes to children who report sexual abuse have changed over the years, ‘what they done to us girls will never change’, Cloris said.
When she was younger, Cloris had run away from the orphanage and convent her mother had placed her in to protect her from her father. Cloris’s escape from there led to charges of being ‘in moral danger’ and being ‘uncontrollable’ and she was sent to the girls’ institution.
Life during her 12 months in the facility and at its rural annexe was a series of humiliations which included Cloris being dragged by the hair and starved.
In Sydney ‘they had no doors on the showers, no doors on the toilets. They could stand there and watch everything … but people got treated worse than I did – trust me’.
At the rural annexe, where Cloris was sent twice for months at a time, it ‘was worse than prison. You got no mail, no radio. You didn’t know what time of day it was. Only allowed to use your vocal chords 10 minutes of the day’.
She agreed it was somewhat like the vow of silence taken by a nun, except she’d ‘rather have been a nun’.
The rural annexe was ‘a jail within a jail’, she said. Girls would be spirited out of the Sydney facility late at night in handcuffs and put on a train for hours to have their hair ‘hacked off’ on arrival.
Marched constantly around the 12-room annexe, girls had to keep their eyes lowered at all times and were subjected to strict regimens which included 50 to 100 push ups ‘all the time’.
‘Because I couldn’t do it and I back chatted that I couldn’t do it, I was thrown in isolation’, in a room with a concrete floor, Cloris said.
‘Because I was stressed out, I was screaming. I had the hose put on [me] and that’s how I stayed all night.’
In Sydney Cloris said there were ‘so many incidents of psychological, physical and emotional abuse’ that it was difficult ‘to know where these ended and the sexual abuse started’. She ‘blocked out’ a lot of her experiences with the exception of two clearly-recalled rapes.
The first, when she was 15, occurred after she had ‘yawned in the dining room’ and was told to stand in the corridor by the institution’s superintendent, Mr Fairleigh, who felt his authority was challenged when she asked what she had done.
She was thrown into the ‘dungeon’, a well-known punishment at the facility. ‘You really didn’t have to do much to get thrown in isolation. It’s pitch dark. You’ve got a door, you’ve got no windows, no nothing.’
Isolation periods were usually for three or more days in which girls were fed nothing but bread and water. Cloris was drugged as well and there was no point resisting because ‘they can do whatever they like to you while you’re in there’.
‘They feed you Largactil which turns you into a zombie.’ A man, who may have been Fairleigh, approached Cloris who was curled up in one corner. He ‘grabbed me, pulled my pants down and got on top of me and sexually assaulted me’, she said.
After months in the country Cloris returned to Sydney but then ‘escaped’ during an outing. ‘I just wanted to go home.’ She was 16 by this time and sick of being treated badly. Not knowing her location, she was soon found by police and taken back to the institution.
Sent to the annexe again, ‘this time I stayed five months’, Cloris said.
‘I do not know how anyone can come out of that place sane. I’ve never been so humiliated, degraded, in my life.’
‘I would hate to see anyone that worked there today. I really would,’ Cloris told the Commissioner. ‘I would not be responsible for my actions.’
When the time came for her release from the institution, she was called to ‘the office’ in Sydney and told by another superintendent, ‘I’m going to teach you a lesson so you never come back again’.
‘I was sexually assaulted for the second time which I am not going to give you details [of] because it’s to protect innocent people,’ Cloris said.
Within a year of her release, Cloris gave birth to a son who her mother made her adopt out. ‘Throughout my life I’ve been abused, tortured, tormented. I needed something that I could love, that was mine. I needed that child more than it needed me.’
But, told her child had already been adopted when she went to claim him, Cloris, who ‘didn’t want to live any more’ moved interstate and committed a crime for which she was sentenced to seven years in jail.
During her incarceration, however, she was treated humanely and with ‘compassion’ by the man who ran the prisons in that state. ‘He saved my life, that man,’ and she said she’d love to give him a big kiss today.
In the years before she came forward after hearing about the Royal Commission’s public hearing into the institution, Cloris had ‘buried’ the memories. Now ‘sometimes I lock myself in my place for a couple of days and just cry and cry and cry’.
Cloris read excerpts from her child welfare file to the Commissioner.
‘Very, very angry.’ Cloris asked, ‘if I’m mentally retarded and emotionally deprived, why would any judge send me to places like [the home] or [the annexe] … and not a hospital?’
Cloris has never told anyone about her sexual abuse and will never tell her family because she feels ashamed and dirty.
She asked that Fairleigh be reported to police by the Commissioner.
‘I want him charged.’