‘We were taken from our parents because we were neglected children, but we were just as neglected in the homes – we were fed, but there was no love, no understanding, no education.’
Diane was six years old when she and her siblings were taken from their alcoholic mother and put into state care. They were told that they’d only have to stay for a few weeks until their mother got a house and a job. A few weeks later their mother did get a house and a job and arranged to pick them up outside court.
‘And we waited and waited and waited, and Mum never turned up. So they made us wards of the state.’
The time was the 1960s and the place was a state-run receiving home in Sydney. From there, Diane was separated from her siblings and shipped off to regional New South Wales to live with one foster family for a few years and then another.
The first family were fine and the second one were ‘lovely’. Unfortunately for Diane, the lovely family had a disabled son who needed all their attention so when Diane was nine they sent her away. She went to live with the Mitchell family, and encountered sexual abuse for the first time.
The perpetrator was her new foster father, Jim Mitchell. Diane was 11 years old on the night when Jim grabbed her on her way to the shower. He sat her on his knee and put his hand up her dressing gown. ‘He didn’t penetrate or anything like that’, Diane said, ‘but I knew it was wrong’.
When another foster girl appeared, Jim jumped up and sent Diane on her way. Diane immediately told the girl what Jim had done. ‘And she said “You have to tell someone”.’
Sometime later, Diane spotted Mrs Phelan working at one of the other foster homes nearby. Mrs Phelan was the ‘relief mother’ who looked after Diane and the other kids whenever the Mitchells went on holidays. Diane told her what Jim had done.
‘Mrs Phelan told me it was a good thing that I told someone … She told me not to mention it to anyone, that she was going to get it all sorted out.’
Mrs Phelan was true to her word. Several days later the authorities showed up at Diane’s school. Diane can’t remember if it was the police or someone from Welfare, but whoever it was they immediately got her out of the Mitchells’ place and into a new home.
Diane remembers going to court a few times over the next few months. Jim Mitchell was eventually removed from his post as a foster father, but other than that Diane doesn’t know what happened to him.
Diane enjoyed some uneventful months at the receiving home, but it wasn’t to last. When she was in her early teens she and her older sister were fostered out for weekends to some distant relatives that they knew as ‘Aunty Gina and Uncle Harry’. ‘They were horrible people’, Diane recalled, ‘they were really cruel to us’.
At first, Uncle Harry was not sexually abusive. That changed after Aunty Gina died.
‘He used to do some horrible things, but he never, ever sexually penetrated … And when he knew that it was that time of the month I was just his niece and he was just looking after me. He had nothing to do with me in that way at all. Nothing whatsoever. So I used to pretend all the time that I still had my period.’
Diane tried to tell a staff member at the receiving home what Harry was doing to her but the staff member only chastised her for being ungrateful. ‘She told me to count myself lucky, stop being selfish.’
Diane also tried to tell her dad what was going on. She phoned him up one day and asked him to come visit so that she could tell him something important.
When the visiting day came, staff told Diane that she was forbidden to talk about Harry. They then arranged for her to meet with her dad right outside the main office where their conversation could be monitored. When Diane’s dad asked her what the big deal was Diane said ‘I’m not allowed to say a word’. He never asked her about it again.
It was Diane’s sister who ultimately helped her escape Harry’s abuse. The beginning of the end came when Harry wrote a letter to the receiving home ‘and tried to do it in my writing, saying that “I don’t want anything to do with my family again and I’m going to marry Uncle Harry”.’
Diane’s sister intercepted the letter and showed it to the staff. This time they were unable to ignore the danger. Diane was moved to a ‘nice’ foster home and never had to see Harry again.
Diane left care in her mid-teens, married young and had several kids. She now has grandkids too. Through all the ups and downs of her life she’s managed to keep a good sense of humour and an eye on a better future. She believes that the best way to protect kids is through education. But this education should focus on parents and grandparents, she said, rather than the kids themselves.
‘You could explain to the kids what to look out for, but they’re going to lose their childhood looking for things that may not happen and being too aware of things and not experiencing life. And I think if the parents and the grandparents are around to take note of these things, maybe then it could be a lot safer. We can’t stop kids from being kids.’