Daniella's story

Daniella was made a ward of the state in New South Wales in the late 1960s when she was four years old. She’d just witnessed her father murder her mother when she and her younger sister, Zoe, were taken into care. They went initially to an infants’ home, then on to a government-run children’s home before finally being placed in a Catholic orphanage. Two other siblings were placed with relatives.

Nuns in the orphanage were brutal, Daniella said. As much as she hated the beatings and humiliating punishments for wetting the bed, it was worse to see Zoe, three years her junior, being whipped.

On one occasion Daniella told a nun she was ‘going to dob’ on her for caning Zoe. The nun laughed and said no one would believe an Aboriginal child’s word over a nun’s, a statement Daniella took to be true.

There was little separation of boys’ and girls’ accommodation in the orphanage and boys of mixed ages slept on verandas that adjoined girls’ dormitories. One night, Daniella was suddenly woken by three older boys. One of them, Billy Walker, ordered Daniella to hold down the legs of another girl in her bed, and then he and the other two boys raped her. Walker threatened Daniella that if she didn’t do what they said, she’d be next.

Daniella told the Commissioner she still felt terrible guilt for the sexual assault. While the rape was occurring, she’d seen a nun near the girls’ dormitory door who she thought must have known what was going on, particularly because within a few days both Billy and the girl had disappeared from the orphanage.

Over following years, Daniella tried her best to escape. She felt responsibility for Zoe, but living there had become unbearable. Each time she absconded, NSW Police would return her to the orphanage and she’d be beaten by the nuns. A police officer had once remarked, “She doesn’t sound very nice”, in reference to a nun he’d been speaking to on the phone.

At 14, Daniella again absconded and this time changed her name to avoid police detection. She lived on the streets for several years and has been homeless on and off in the decades since. She used drugs and alcohol to suppress memories and manage her feelings of guilt.

‘I saw too much, but I had to deal with it every day. You had to make an air bubble where you didn’t feel it, you didn’t see it. You were just oblivious to it and it was happening right next to you. You shut down. You become emotionless, you become like a robot, you just work by automatic. All emotions just seem to evaporate.’

Throughout her life, Daniella has seen numerous mental health professionals and been diagnosed with a variety of illnesses, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She’s been given medication and electro-convulsive therapy, but had never disclosed the sexual assault. Only recently has she found a therapist in the public health system with whom she feels comfortable, because ‘he lets me talk, he hasn’t got an agenda and he doesn’t judge me’.

Daniella said she hoped things had changed since she was in care, but she still worried adults placed in charge of children often didn’t have the experience or skills to look after them. She recommends a closer eye be kept on institutions and things be put in place so children felt free to speak to someone they trust.

‘I still find it hard to have emotions. People go to hug me and I go, “Oh no”. I’ll shake your hand, but touching makes me cringe.

‘I’ve always got to have me back up, always got to scan the room, always wait for that next thing. I still sleep with one eye open. I don’t relax very well. I can’t afford to … I deserve to be happy. It’s not fair. I should be happy.’

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