‘I hated school. Wouldn’t go to school’, Delvene told the Commissioner. She described a carefree childhood growing up with her father and siblings in Sydney’s west in the 1950s. ‘I didn’t want to be in the classroom. I wanted to be outside.’ Unfortunately skipping school brought her to the attention of the Child Welfare Department. When she was 12 years old Delvene was sent to a girls’ home run by the department, ‘for wagging school, exposed to moral danger, and other things’.
Delvene has not shared the details of her story for over 60 years. Nightmares finally brought her to the Royal Commission. ‘I’m not sleeping too well, there’s a few things jumping in and out of me head … But I’ve just got to learn now how to deal with it. Gawd. It’s out in the open.’
Her time in the girls’ home has blighted her life. ‘It was disgusting … they locked you up, they belted you, you couldn’t speak what you wanted to say. You weren’t a human being.’ Beatings were commonplace as punishment for the smallest transgression. Girls with obvious bruising and abrasions were kept in isolation, away from visitors, until their injuries healed.
Delvene spent two years at the home, split into three stays. Her first, when she was the youngest child there, has affected her most of all. She recalls being taken to a doctor’s office soon after she was left at the home. At first a nurse was present.
‘They put your legs on the stirrups. And that woman walked out of that room and left me in there with that doctor. And they sort of touch you down below.’ Delvene described fondling by the doctor and a rough internal examination that left her bleeding. She has never been comfortable with medical examinations since.
The girls were also often strip-searched after seeing visitors. ‘They’d put gloves on and touch you up there to see if you had any smokes … You’d be in the nude. There’s nothing worse than being in the nude.’
Delvene was able to return home during her teens, but did not settle at school and so remained on the Child Welfare Department’s radar. She spent more time at the girls’ home. When she was 16, Delvene fled interstate to escape further threats from the Department. She married young and had a child. The marriage did not last. Delvene had a second baby adopted out. She felt unable to return to Sydney and her wider family until years later.
‘The place made me unstable … Now I’m learning from all this why I made those mistakes and why I was afraid of doing things through what happened in that girls’ home.’
Delvene has not spoken about her ordeal until recently. ‘I’ve tried to keep my dignity, do you understand?
‘We were brought up that way. Don’t open your mouth or that’s it … If I tell you someone touched us down below I feel weak and I feel dirty.’
In recent years the work of the Royal Commission has publicised the history of the girls’ home where Delvene suffered as a child. Delvene’s siblings and her nieces began to piece together her story and ask her questions, wanting to help and encouraging Delvene to seek help. But Delvene finds it too hard, and is now keeping away from her family.
‘I won’t go near them at the moment. I’m just embarrassed.’ She feels unable to share the details of her abuse even with her daughter. ‘I don’t know why. I’m just not ready for that.’
Delvene now has support from her partner and a professional counsellor. She also takes comfort in the friendships she has found through an evangelical church group she recently joined.
Delvene has suggestions for change. ‘You shouldn’t be locking kids up and you shouldn’t send them to doctor’s surgeries by themselves. Girls, even boys, as I’ve noticed. They should have a free place to go like a school if they have to be punished … not put into a maximum security prison where the outside world does not know what’s going on.’
Delvene hopes the Royal Commission will have an impact and spare children from the suffering she endured. ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever heal to be honest with you. I’ll have to live with this.’