‘I saw Hey Dad on TV and I used to watch that. And now Rolf Harris, which is very sad … and I thought I’d have a go at doing it [reporting] but it just broke me … No one was listening to me … and that set me off.’
Cynthia only recently made a statement to police about the sexual abuse she experienced from her foster father in the 1970s. In a copy of that statement that she gave the Royal Commission Cynthia wrote, ‘I always felt that the molestation was wrong and I never knew what to do about it and held it very close to me. I now feel I am able to talk about the matter and have brought it to the attention of police’.
But the Sydney police paid little attention and belittled and dismissed her claim. She lost faith in the process and experienced a mental breakdown. Cynthia stopped pursuing her foster father to focus on her own wellbeing.
When she was two years old, in the mid-60s, Cynthia was taken from her family. ‘They took five of us away … from the mission … Why did they do that? Because it took away from me learning my culture … I’m educated … they call me a “whitefella wannabe” because I’m in the middle … I’m not a blackfella anymore because I’ve been educated. That’s how my family sees me.’
Cynthia was fostered by a non-Aboriginal couple who already had two children of their own. Her first memories are of the foster parents. Cynthia’s foster mother was continually racist and physically and emotionally abusive. Her foster father was sexually abusing her when she was about 12 years old.
‘I think it was happening all the time but I didn’t sort of take it in until then. [When I was 15] I actually could start saying “No, No” and then that’s what I started to do … he kind of got the hint.’
The abuse stopped but Cynthia remained confused by the man’s behaviour. ‘I didn’t see it as abuse … because he manipulated it so well. I thought that was my home.’ From an early age, her foster mother coerced her into silence about the treatment she received.
‘At eight Mum said, “Don’t tell anyone our business. What happens in this house stays in this house”. From eight – I still remember that. I never spoke up.’
When a welfare officer came to visit, an occurrence Cynthia can only recall happening twice in all those years, her mother reinforced this with a threat. ‘That’s when Mum used to say, “Don’t tell anyone our business or you’ll be taken away from here” … so I sat with the person and, “Yeah, it’s good, it’s good”. And Mum would be walking around giving me the glare.’
Cynthia kept in contact with her foster parents after she left home and joined the defence forces. ‘It’s all I knew’. She told her husband about the abuse when she was first married but ‘I just got on with life’.
Cynthia had a long and successful life in the defence forces and continued working after leaving her unit. In the 2000s, when she was studying, Bravehearts, a support and advocacy organisation, came to her school to give an information session. This was the first time Cynthia had heard the word ‘molestation’. ‘That’s when I broke down and I said, “Hey, that’s what happened to me”.’ Since then, she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and has received support from a psychiatrist and her GP.
Cynthia told the Commissioner that she was hypervigilant as a parent. ‘My children weren’t abused or molested – they were safe with me.’ She refused to let them participate in any activities that might have put them in the way of abusers or the authorities.
Cynthia’s daughter, Taylor, who also attended the session, said that her mother’s strictness in the home was because of ‘the fear of us being taken away like Mum was taken away … Because Mum was taken away we’ve never been able to get to know our family or have our own culture at all’.
Cynthia has always felt vulnerable to racism and the judgment that she is a ‘dirty black abo’. Growing up she felt this every day when her foster mother would refer to ‘those people’.
‘I know that I grew up in a racist family’, she said.
‘In the force, I felt all right. There was none of that. Everyone was great. Then when I got out to have my kids of my own, that’s when I started feeling it again because that’s how society makes you feel.’
Now, she believes she has ‘to get better in myself’ and she is considering seeking compensation from the New South Wales Government. Her children sustain her and she has been able to forge a sustaining and loving relationship with her birth mother, ‘She just calls me baby … [Finding her] was like winning lotto’.