Growing up as the eldest of eight children, Deidra would often have to skip school to do housework or look after her younger siblings. She also picked crops to bring income into the house because although her father worked, most of his wages went on drinking binges. He was a violent man who physically assaulted his wife and tried to sexually assault Deidra.
‘I tried to get Mum to leave him all the time. Now I can understand why she didn’t, and I couldn’t then, ’cause there was no money out there – no government money out there.’
Deidra eventually ran away and, deemed ‘uncontrollable’, was made a ward of the Queensland state in the 1960s at the age of 12. She was sent to a Catholic girls’ home that was ‘horrible’ and on arrival, put into a locked room for a week.
‘All there was, was a little slit up the top and they brought me a pannikin with water in it and one piece of stale bread a day for a whole week, and at the end of the week I was nearly going nuts.’
She absconded and went to Sydney where she was picked up by police and sent to a government-run girls’ home. In two different periods of incarceration in the home, Deidra was sexually abused. On one occasion she was put into what was known as ‘the lesbians’ dorm’ and a group of older girls attempted to insert a broom into her vagina. The girls teased her because she had a problem with speech but her screams got the attention of a staff member who took her out and placed her in another dormitory.
On another occasion Deidra had a migraine and couldn’t finish her cleaning duties. As punishment she was sent to the ‘dungeon’ for 24 hours. At night one of the staff members, Mr Hopkins came into the cell and tried to take her clothes off. She screamed and fought him off and he left, telling her she’d have to spend an extra 24 hours in the cell.
‘Ever since then I have never slept without a light on, ever. And I can’t sleep with the bedroom door closed. I have to have that open.’
As a consequence of leaving the light on, Deidra regularly had electricity bills of up to $800, and on a pension she had great difficulty paying them off.
In her childhood and teenage years, Deidra’s school and general education suffered. ‘In homes they don’t teach you about life. I was quite innocent compared to a lot of the girls. I wasn’t from the city with street kids and things like that. I was from a farm sort of thing and my mum never told me anything about the facts of life and things like that. So when I eventually did get out of the home I think – well, now I know – that you look for love, you look for someone to love you. That’s what you need and I fell in love with the first bloke that I went out with and fell pregnant. And as soon as they find out you’re pregnant, they ping you off, you know. He took off.’
Told that she’d never be able to care for her baby by herself, Deidra was pressured to give her son up for adoption. She never found out what happened to him, and at the time of speaking with the Royal Commission was still trying to find him.
When she was 22, Deidra spoke with her sister-in-law who’d also been in a girls’ home and she disclosed the abuse for the first time. She told one of her sisters and a brother relatively recently and at the same time let them know about the abuse by their father.
One of the consequences of Deidra’s early life was a succession of relationships that were violent or didn’t work out. She had adopted two children and brought them up well, but it was devastating to find out that her now ex-husband had sexually abused her daughter over eight years from the ages of seven to 15. The police became aware of the abuse but Deidra’s daughter didn’t want to pursue charges so the matter didn’t proceed to court.
Deidra told the Commissioner that she was a strong person. ‘I think all these things inside make me fight more for what I want, if you can understand that.’
She worried about children in care and said each of them needed a trusted person in authority to talk to, someone independent of the organisation or home they were in. She also recommended greater supervision of staff and the institutions themselves.
‘They need to check more on these people that have got these kids. If they get one report that something might be happening, it’s no good saying, “Oh you know, we checked and everything seems fine”, because it’s probably not. It’s probably not fine. There’s probably some truth in what’s happening there.’