As a child growing up, Deb hated school and was often truant. On a class excursion to the city as a 14-year-old, she and four friends separated from their classmates and ‘hung around the mall’ instead of going to the planned career orientation day. At the end of the day they joined back up with the school bus but by then their ‘absence was noted’.
Because Deb had been in trouble before, her mother had relinquished care allowing her to be made a ward of the state. After the school incident, Deb was placed in a government-run detention facility where ‘you didn’t breathe without asking’.
‘It was a horrible place’, Deb said. ‘It was dark. It just wasn’t a place for a teenager to be. We weren’t kids when we were there.’
Through the seven months in the mid-1980s that Deb was in the facility, she was sexually abused by Harry, one of the night staff. On his rounds, he’d produce cigarettes from the handle of his torch and give them to Deb and other girls in the dormitory. ‘Then he’d come around a couple of hours later and you’d have to earn your cigarettes’, Deb said.
Each girl would be taken by Harry to another section and made to perform oral sex. Deb assumed it was the same for each girl but no one ever talked about it. ‘Everyone just sort of ignored that it was happening to everybody else.’
On one of her visits home, Deb told her mother about what Harry was doing. Her mother said she was lying as an excuse to get out of the facility. Years later Deb disclosed the abuse to her grandmother who believed her.
After seven months in detention, Deb was transferred to a foster care placement which she loved. ‘It was really good’, she said. ‘I think I got a long way in my own life with foster care. I was really settled. I loved them to death, I really did, and had contact right up until a few years ago when my foster mum passed away. But my mother became involved in that relationship and it broke down. I just left.
‘I went into what they called contract care where a contract was drawn up between the carers, the welfare department and myself, and that lasted four months. And then I went back and forth into receiving homes and then eventually, I think I was 16, and the welfare department housed me.’
Deb told the Commissioner that she’d never thought of reporting Harry to the police and wouldn’t do so now. ‘Not to protect him, but he’s got family. He’s got kids, he’s got grandkids and I don’t believe his kids and his grandkids should have to live through his dramas.’
For 30 years, Deb blocked memories of the abuse at the same time as she blamed herself for it happening. She went to university but left after a year, and her relationships suffered because she was never able to trust anyone. Her suspicions transferred to her children who weren’t allowed to go to friends’ houses or parties, for fear of what might happen to them. She said that as a consequence her daughter no longer speaks to her.
Deb told the Commissioner that she now drove trucks for a living and liked it, but at times she still felt overwhelmed. She often had nightmares about Harry and she’d attempted suicide several times. In daily life she continued to manage the ongoing effects of obsessive-compulsive and post-traumatic stress disorders, and medications prescribed as treatment showed up on job-related drug tests so she wasn’t able to take them.
She’d recently started seeing a counsellor to deal with the nightmares and floods of memories. ‘I’m probably getting better with the time that I’m actually out of bed before I go back to bed, once I’m awake, but that’s probably about the only benefit so far.’
Deb’s partner, John, accompanied her to the Royal Commission. He said hearing her story helped him ‘understand what’s going on’, particularly when she experienced nightmares. He’d recently read some notes Deb made about how the abuse made her feel and said he ‘sat down in the hallway and bawled’.
‘I was a naïve 14-year-old kid that had lived in a country town all my life’, Deb said. ‘I knew nothing about any of it. I had no concept as to what was going on.’
One of the things that allowed the abuse to continue she said, was that Harry worked alone at night without any kind of supervision. ‘Never have one person in charge of anybody’, she said. ‘It should always be a team, it should always two people or more.’