As a baby, Debbie was placed in a regional Queensland orphanage with several of her siblings. It was the late 1950s, her parents had separated, and her mother struggled to care for the children on her own. Debbie stayed at the home for more than 10 years, returning to her mother for short periods.
The Sisters of Mercy nuns who ran the orphanage physically and emotionally abused the children in their care, and forced them to do hard manual labour. Sometimes Debbie would be required to take tea over to the priest in the presbytery, and he would touch her inappropriately on the upper body and tell her that she was lovely ‘in a way that caused me to feel uncomfortable’. She would tell him the nuns needed her to go back straight away, in order to escape from him.
The children would often spend time with other local families during holidays, and the nuns would tell them ‘we need for these people to keep taking you, to give us a break’. Debbie was six when she was first sent to the Walton family for the Christmas vacation.
Mr Walton was well-respected in the community. He and his wife were raising their grandchildren, and had looked after other children from the home before.
While Debbie was staying with the couple Walton would regularly come into her room and sexually abuse her. ‘I'd just close my eyes when I felt him put his hand in the leg of my pants and insert his fingers inside me. He did this on numerous occasions, and I would say that it occurred daily ... He also grabbed me and did this while we all swam in the creek near his house.’
Debbie knew that this abuse was wrong, but didn’t have anyone she could tell about it. Her one attempt to disclose to nuns at the home did not go well.
‘I did tell two of them, and they took me up the Mother Superior, and … they all just told me I was a liar ... slapped me backwards and forwards across the face, pulled my hair ... it’s a very violent reaction.’
Debbie was sent to the Waltons for several holidays until she left the orphanage at 11 to live permanently with her mother.
The physical, emotional and sexual abuse Debbie experienced in care has impacted upon many aspects of her life. Her school work suffered and she never reached her dream of becoming a nurse to take care of others. She has had difficulties with sexual intimacy, and trust issues with men, as well as experiencing nightmares, depression, and troubles with concentration.
While she and her husband love their children, she feels that she was too strict with them and regrets physically punishing them when they were growing up.
Around five years ago Debbie told her husband of more than 30 years about what Walton had done to her. She made an application to the Queensland redress scheme, receiving $12,000 and counselling support.
Starting to speak about the abuse to the redress scheme, and then with the Royal Commission, was very hard. ‘I just got to the stage at the end of last year, I didn’t want to leave my house. I was waking up every day crying, shaking.’
She went to see her GP, who recommended antidepressants. Although she didn’t want to take medication she eventually agreed, after the doctor warned her that ‘If you get any lower ... you won’t come back’.
Debbie tries to keep busy so that the bad memories are not so present, but when she stops and has time to think, it all comes flooding back to her. ‘The problem is I’ve put it to the background, ‘cause all my life I’ve put myself out to help others. I’ve always helped others.’