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Doreen's story

The nuns at the orphanage made Doreen feel very uncomfortable. They would stare at Doreen when she was in the shower, watching her and the other girls unnecessarily closely.

They’d also rub Vicks into her chest, even when she didn’t have a cold or flu. It was ‘on your breasts, the way they did it’.

Doreen and her sister had come to live at the orphanage, in Sydney’s western suburbs, in the early 1950s. The nuns treated Doreen cruelly, telling her that nobody wanted her, and regularly caned the girls as punishment.

Her sister ran away from the home once. When she returned, they locked her in a cellar for three days without food or drink. Doreen tried to bring her supplies, but the nuns caught her and gave her six strokes of the cane.

Nutrition at the home was poor. Even though the children would spend days preparing a Christmas feast for the nuns and other clergy, they would be given a boiled egg for their own festive dinner. Doreen stole the apple from the pig’s mouth one year, and was caned for this too.

One holidays, Doreen was sent to stay with a foster family for six weeks. The foster father often asked her to sit on his lap – ‘with my legs open, and his in-between’. He would bounce her up and down, and sexually abuse her.

She remembers she was very physically developed at this time, and his own daughter was never asked to sit on him. ‘I could never work out why I was made to do that, and she never was.’

Doreen did not tell anyone about the abuse, as she felt she would not be believed. When she was 13, the orphanage was taken over for use as a facility for children with disabilities.

She remained there with her sister and a few of the other girls. For the next two years, they were made to look after the new residents. Doreen dressed and washed them and even had to change their menstrual pads, which was difficult for her.

‘I feel sorry for them, I do, but I don’t think it was fair for us to look after them. We were children ourselves.’

The girls were then taken out of the home by their aunty, going to live with her and their grandmother. Before long, Doreen fell pregnant. Her grandmother mostly raised her daughter, Janelle, for the early years as Doreen was deemed incapable.

She later got married and had another child. Her commitment to giving her children a better life than she had has kept her going.

Over the years, Doreen experienced low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and panic attacks. She had two mental breakdowns, has self-harmed, and misused prescription medications. She does not wish to have counselling, and is wary of being prescribed any further pharmaceutical treatments.

With undiagnosed dyslexia, Doreen struggled to continue with study. She is still illiterate. ‘I got a double whammy, and that didn’t get me through life.’

It was hard for her to find employment, though she eventually worked in factories. Her illiteracy has made many aspects of her life very difficult, including navigating transport, doing the shopping and looking after her finances.

Doreen now lives with Janelle and her family, and Janelle supported her to speak with the Royal Commission. Janelle described the difficulties she and her mother face together, and the humour they use to get them through. She has promised never to put Doreen in a nursing home.

About 10 years ago, Doreen started speaking to someone from a support organisation about her experiences in care. Although she is not interested in an apology from the institution, she would like financial assistance to help get proper medical treatment for her chronic health issues.

In her 70s now, Doreen recently got the first doll she has ever owned. ‘I went to a garage sale, and I picked up this porcelain doll. And I said to the lady, “How much is this?” She said, “It’s five dollars”.

‘I said, “You know what, I’ve never ever had a doll” ... And this lady said to me, “You have that one, darling, that’ll be your first one”. I have it in my bedroom.’

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