Colleen was born with a medical condition and when her family emigrated to Australia in the 1960s she was enrolled in a school for children with disability. She attended the school between the ages of eight and 14. With several siblings and an alcoholic father, Colleen saw school as an escape from her difficult home life.
As well as the usual classes, daily physiotherapy sessions and other services were part of the school’s routine.
Staff at the school included two male orderlies tasked with assisting the less mobile students. When she was 12, Colleen recalled, a newly hired orderly began sexually harassing her and her friend Becky almost daily.
‘He used to get a thrill out of running into the lift and waiting for us when we were on our way back to class after physio. When we got in, he’d push us into the corner and put his arm up our tops and things like that. I had splints on both arms, and was trying to protect myself, and he used to laugh. He was very strong.’
Colleen said the image of the orderly watching children leave school each day still sticks in her mind.
‘He’d sit there with his legs open just smirking at me, he was sort of sadistic. He’d be saying, “Come in the car with me, please, before you go. Just come in the car with me”. I always felt sickened.’
Colleen said she didn’t know what to do about the abuse, and simply learnt to accept it as part of her school life until one day, as she left her physio session alone, the orderly forced her into a storage room.
‘It’s the time I’ve found most difficult to live with, the room was dark and it’s where all the callipers and children’s aids were kept. He pushed me in and locked the door, and basically manhandled me with his hands. He pushed them into my underwear and pushed his hand inside me. I was crying and kept telling him to stop, then there was a knock on the door. Becky was calling my name, she’d come looking for me.’
At first Colleen said the orderly ignored the knock, but opened it when there was a loud thump a short time later.
‘The other orderly had come and he shouted at him to get out. He never attempted that again, but still went on with the manhandling in the lift.’
The sexual abuse continued for two years until Colleen left in the mid-1970s to attend a state high school.
At 17, Colleen left school and began drinking ‘extremely heavily’.
‘By 19 I started to be hospitalised, I was in and out of psych wards, and that went on until I was 24. I made suicide attempts, a lot of that was probably not being able to cope with the shame and the guilt of feeling like I was a shocking person. I was from a very religious family.’
Due to her alcohol dependence, Colleen received the invalid pension from the age of 21. She joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and in the 1980s, married an older man she’d met while in the program. They were divorced a year later.
Colleen found sobriety in her late 20s and has remained well.
In the 2000s, she decided to seek professional help and later the same year, found the courage to report the abuse to police.
‘What was difficult is that some months after that, the police rang to say he’d committed suicide. I felt sick. I’d never had the opportunity to tell him how what he did for his sexual pleasures affected me. I had no sex education, and the great thing now is parents telling children about things that shouldn’t happen, and if they do, speak up. That’s something I never had.’