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Doreen Alice's story

‘A lot of stuff I forgot. It’s just in that compartment where I just sort of don’t want to go right in.’

In the early 1960s, when Doreen was two years old, she and her siblings were placed in a children’s home run by the Sisters of Mercy in Queensland. Their single mother had to work, and ‘in those days they didn’t have child care’.

Doreen told the Commissioner, ‘There was no love … I was two years old when I went there … it took me a long time to even be with a person, you know what I mean … It took all of us a long time to sort of be close to someone, because we didn’t have that really closeness … didn’t have any kindness’.

The orphanage was a cruel place. ‘A lot of it I’ve forgotten … but I’d never forget, you know, like when the nuns used to … One day one of the girls wet the bed and [the nun] made … that young girl walk down the aisle with the wet sheet over her head and we all had to line up on each side and punch her.’

Because the girls were ‘only tapping her … she got one of the older girls there to get up and punch us’. Doreen told the Commissioner, ‘She was a very mean woman, that one … very cruel. It’s just these things, I mean, these things I do remember … and there were other things. But I have to really, really get back there and think about it’.

The children would get caned ‘round the legs, big welts on your hand’. They would be made to sit outside until the early hours of the morning, picking head lice out of each other’s hair. There was no toothpaste. The children brushed their teeth with lye soap.

‘The food was atrocious … The only good meal we ever had is when they had a one-day birthday party for all the kids, and all the families sat together and that was only about once a year. That was the only time we had a really good feed.’

Doreen’s job was to get the hot water, so the children could wash their own sheets. ‘[There] used to be this big boiler … the outside of it … I think it was asbestos … I had to light a fire under that and build it right up … I was probably about seven or eight … The laundry was … under the building. It was pretty dark down there. I’d take a couple of girls with me all the time … I was too frightened to go there alone.’

The children were sent to stay with foster families on weekends and during the holidays. Doreen was sent to stay with a family on a farm.

When everyone else was out on the farm, working, Doreen had to ‘stay back and like wash up and just clean up … I was just starting to develop … The old grandfather, he used to follow me around everywhere. A few times he’d come up behind me and rub himself up against me and try to feel my breasts. I was sore and I had to get away from him’.

Doreen doesn’t know what happened, ‘but they ended up sending me back to [the children’s home]. I told the nuns why … “This man was touching me … coming up behind me”. Nothing was done about it’. The nuns just ignored her.

‘There was one priest … we were all sort of sitting on these stairs and he had his hands … and he started feeling my breasts. Oh, look, I jumped up real quick and moved away … never went … near that priest again after that. I just didn’t want to go near him.’

Doreen left the children’s home when she was 12 and went to live with her mother. It was a relief to be home, but ‘I didn’t know how to handle it … It took me a long time … I just didn’t know how to handle things … You’re going out and you’ve got this freedom and you just don’t know the rules. You don’t know what you’re supposed to do’.

Doreen didn’t cope well with school after she came home. ‘I was sort of little bit growing up at that time too quickly before my age … and … school rules, it was sort of like … I was back at [the children’s home]. All the rules and that.’ She left school and started working at about 14 or 15.

Doreen started to drink at 13. ‘Sneaking … I just couldn’t handle being out … I didn’t know how to do it, so I just sort of started drinking.’ Her mother noticed and said, ‘“Look, if you’re going to drink, drink in front of me”. I don’t know whether she felt guilty … You just don’t know. She never spoke to us’.

As well as her struggles with alcoholism, Doreen has suffered from anxiety, panic attacks and depression. She takes anti-depressants, but has never spoken to her doctor or a counsellor about her time in the children’s home. ‘I do have my days when I get really down. I just don’t want to … I’ve gotta sort of get away from everything.’

Doreen has only been back to the children’s home once since she left, and it made her feel ‘sad, angry … just sad and angry … it made all these feelings and everything come back’. She doesn’t ever want to go back there again.

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