‘When kids are taken, they miss their family. They’re the only ones they know and feel loved by’, Coral told the Commissioner. ‘It’s been happening in my family for years. My nan and her sisters was Lost Generation and Mum was and now us.’
Coral’s mum was 15 when she had her. When Coral was five, she and her younger sister were taken from their mother by the Department of Community Services (DOCS). Their mother had become a drug addict and wasn’t able to look after them.
The two girls were kept together and placed in a series of foster homes in outer Sydney and regional New South Wales. ‘We moved around lots of different places’, Coral said. At one of the homes she was sexually abused by her foster father. She was nine or 10 at the time.
‘We ran away because of what was happening there’, Coral said. ‘All I remember is chucking my sister over a high fence and running [away].’
The girls were caught and brought back to the foster home. No one asked why they had run away. ‘They just thought we was rebelling and wanted to be with our family.’
More foster homes and short-term stays in residential facilities followed. When she was 11 or 12 Coral and her sister returned home to live with their mother. But they hadn’t been there for long before their mother started using drugs again.
‘We could only be there with her when she was doing okay’, Coral said. ‘Then when she relapsed we’d go to my nan.’ But her grandmother was an alcoholic, so staying with her was problematic too.
Eventually there was a court hearing and custody of the girls was given to their aunt. The girls stayed with her for a few years. ‘She had her own children and her own partner. In that care, that’s when I started using my drugs’, Coral said.
‘Thirteen, I started drinkin’. Smoking pot. I had my baby when I was 15.’
Coral gave the baby to his father. She had no choice, she said. She was told by Welfare – you can’t support him, you haven’t got anywhere to live. ‘More or less they told me if you don’t give him to someone who can look after him then we’ll take him. So I gave him to his dad.’
She hasn’t seen her son, now a teenager, since then. ‘No reason why I can’t’, she said. ‘But because he’s stable with his father and that, I don’t want to upset him … I just think it’s better off the way it is.’
Coral wasn’t offered any counselling at the time, or information about her options. She knew her baby’s dad, then about 19 or 20, had committed a crime by having sex with her. ‘At that time you just look for someone to look after you’, she said. ‘Because no one was listening to me and my family, I went to him.’
In the years that followed, Coral’s drug use took over her life.
‘I just used drugs so I didn’t have to think. To a point where I’d get money and just – that was my band-aid, in a way, so I didn’t have to think of what happened, and why. And blame myself.’
She had a second child when she was 18, who is now 11 years old. ‘She’s with my sister and my grandmother at the moment. My nan’s sick, she’s not drinking any more’, Coral said.
Coral first spoke about being sexually abused to her mother when she was 14. ‘She didn’t want to hear it.’ She didn’t speak about it again till about a year ago when she began seeing a counsellor in jail, where she is presently serving a sentence for armed robbery. The counselling has helped ‘a little bit’, she said, and she plans to continue with it. She is also taking anti-depressants, which help with the flashbacks of being abused that she gets all the time.
In prison Coral is taking the opportunity to improve her literacy and other skills, as these were badly impacted by the many moves from place to place she experienced as a child. ‘I don’t remember being at school’, she told the Commissioner.
‘I’ve been doing some education in here. Couple of months ago I just did a civil construction course … I’m working on my reading and stuff.’
Coral said she believes DOCS and similar agencies need to do better screening of foster parents and other carers. ‘They’d drop us off, that’s it. They’re just putting a front on and soon as that car drives away it comes out what they’re like, when you’re in their house for a few days, you know.’
More genuine assistance would have made a big difference to her, she said. As it was, she was frightened to ask DOCS for help.
‘Of course I was’, she said. ‘Because you ask for help and then they think that you’re unstable and want to take your kids. I’ve been in Welfare. They think that my children should go there because I’m unstable and I’m drug using - they don’t ask the reasons why you’re drug using and what’s happened. They think they’ve done their job – they push us out and that’s it. You don’t hear any support, nothing. I asked for support when I was 15 and had my son. But all they said is “We can’t help you; you need to find someone to look after him or we’ll take him”.
‘If they’d helped me then maybe I’d be in a stable house and have my kids.’