‘Everybody says, “Oh, that’s the past, let it go, put it behind you”. But you do for a while and then you’ll smell a smell, hear a sound, and it all comes back again.’
Debra was removed from her mother in the 1960s, at the age of five, and sent to a Church of England children’s home in Brisbane. She experienced a lot of violence at the home, including vicious beatings.
Emotional abuse was common as well, and included ‘being told that no-one loves you and that’s why you are in a home’. Neglect included food deprivation. ‘There was a severe lack of compassion and care. Unfortunately I knew no other life than the home, so assumed this was normal.’
Sometimes the nuns would break the children’s personal items to punish them. As an adult Debra still fears that anything she owns ‘will be taken away from me, or broken to hurt me’.
Every holiday period the children would be sent away with families who volunteered to take them in. She was sexually abused at almost every placement she went to, including many instances of digital penetration.
‘And it wasn’t just the men. You know people think, “Oh, the husbands did it, or the grandpa”, it was the kids, too. The kids did terrible things to you ... And it wasn’t just the boys in the family, it was the girls, too.’
She estimates that over the 10 years she lived at the home, and the four holidays she was sent on each year, only two of the families did not sexually abuse her in some way. ‘There were a couple that were really good.’
Debra told the nuns about the abuse when she was around eight. ‘I did complain once, and I got such a flogging for being such a liar. I’m a dirty little girl, I’m a liar ... It was like, “There’s no way, no way. They’re good people, you should be lucky that you are going with them, they picked you out of all these girls to take you on holidays”.’
She was told that ‘if something had actually happened it must have been my own fault and my own doing’. After saying she no longer wanted to go on vacation, Debra was punished severely by a female worker at the home.
‘I got a hairbrush and a coathanger broken over me, and I had such a big bruise like this all the way around my butt. And when the social workers came to the home I made sure that I had my bath at that time, so when they walked in they could see me, so that they could ask what happened. And then I got another flogging for doing that.’
She told the social worker she had been beaten, ‘and it was like “No, nup, no, you didn’t, I never saw a thing”.'
When she left the home Debra fell pregnant to an abusive and alcoholic man, and he became her guardian until she turned 18. They married and had further children.
Debra left him and formed a new relationship, but her second husband was also abusive. When she told him about the abuse ‘he just threw it straight in my face and said, “Well, you must like it then because it was done to you”. So I never ever told anyone again’.
She understands that her relationship choices were influenced by her upbringing. ‘The way we were raised in the home, you know, a man says “I love you” and you’re with him. Who cares what he does or what he says or anything. As soon as somebody says “I love you” that’s the end of it.’
A number of her siblings were also abused in care, but each of them ‘all deal with it differently. We’re all from the same gene pool but we all do it differently’.
Debra has issues with depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (‘we had do things so ritually in the home’), and finds it difficult to trust other people. ‘I feel that everyone has an ulterior motive and will harm me.’
Her experiences in the children’s home and with her first partner have made her very concerned about being trapped. ‘Even now I’ve got to have a window open a bit, if I’m in a room and my kids come and close a door I panic, I think they’ve locked me in.’
This fear has impacted on the way she’s engaged with therapy and support. ‘I’ve been to counsellors. I’ve never told them the extent of the abuse because they might think I’m loopy – so they’ll lock me up. Because I don’t want to be locked up.’