‘In the home we all had duties and my duty was to work in the nursery. We had 20 cots in there and … I had no idea what was happening, but I’d be working in the nursery with the missionary, Sister Louise, changing nappies and in that between-two-worlds you can see the picture of me there bathing children in the bathtub, and I used to see these white cars pull up and I’d skip to the cars and I’d say, “How many babies have we got today?”
‘You know, I didn’t know till it must be years ago now thinking, these children were taken away from the hospital. They come from somewhere. Ten years ago I reckon I realised what had happened and it struck me about 10 years ago. I was skipping out there to: “How many babies have we got?”, and I’d be singing when I’m walking to the welfare car you know and I’d be really, really happy that we had more babies coming in; all the cots were full.’
As a baby, Dorothea was taken from her mother and put into a Northern Territory children’s home administered by the Aborigines Inland Mission. And she remained there until being sent out to work in the early 1960s when she turned 17.
Her childhood and teenage years were spent in ‘a prison’, Dorothea said, with physical beatings and feelings of fear commonplace among the children. She recalled being strapped at the age of 11 because she’d opened her eyes during mealtime prayers. Afterwards she’d gone looking for salt water to bathe the bleeding wounds on her legs. On two occasions she’d spent a week alone in the home’s ‘jail’. She also remembered one girl being chained to her bed day and night because she was always trying to run back to her family.
Dorothea was seen as a ‘favourite’ of Mr Drysdale, one of the missionaries in the home who’d cuddle her and give her extra attention. Dorothea regarded him as a ‘man of God’. Drysdale often took children swimming at waterholes and beaches around the area and during these times would get in the water with the children. Dorothea told the Commissioner that when she was about 10 years old Drysdale pulled her into him and held her very tight. She felt ‘something pressing’ against her and when she swam away she saw his penis was outside his shorts.
‘Immediately after that incident I felt uncomfortable and afraid to want to be in his company alone’, Dorothea said. ‘I felt a shame and started to think it was my fault and was a bad girl for this missionary to behave like that. I felt too scared and too ashamed to tell anyone about Mr Drysdale and what happened because I’d be punished and put in the jailhouse … for telling lies against Mr Drysdale and it’d also be a severe belting with the leather strap from one of the adult missionaries.’
The abuse from Drysdale combined with the physical and emotional neglect had left Dorothea feeling angry, hurt, sad and ‘most times, worthless’ throughout her life. She was a loner, she said, and found it hard at times to connect with others. When she was in her 40s she met her mother, who told her she’d been carried around in a coolamon as a baby while the women went digging for bush potatoes. But it was hard for them to form a bond.
‘She wasn’t my mother. I knew who she was. I found her hunting. She’s on the back of an old ute with all this gumleaf on the back with a big bullocky on the back. All my brothers and sisters were full-blood; I was the only half-caste one … that’s why I was taken.’
Dorothea had her mother come and stay with her for six weeks. ‘I thought I better try, but there was no Mum. I never use that word. She didn’t feel like my mother. I knew she was my blood mother but I couldn’t love her. I couldn’t tell her I loved her. She was a stranger in my house. I didn’t really want her there … I was very happy to be back on my own.’
When her mother died, Dorothea helped organise the funeral and spoke at the service. ‘I said, “I’m not the one that suffered. She was the one that suffered. There’s no person would want anyone to come and take their baby out of their arms”.’
What had helped Dorothea survive she said were her children and her faith. She held Bible studies in her home and went to church but kept mostly to herself and at times, particularly when she was younger, she’d felt separate from other Aboriginal people.
‘I wanted to mix with white people. I lived a different life. I went to nightclubs and going to the races and going to fashion parades. All the white people, they had beautiful clothes and beautiful things. I didn’t go and sit down there with all my mob from the home where they were just sitting around the barbeque with their alcohol. I mean I went to a few of them you know. They did fight amongst themselves and I didn’t want to see them wrestling on the floor there, on the ground and hurting each other. I love them. I care about them but they see me as being different.’
Dorothea didn’t tell anyone about the abuse by Drysdale and only told her daughter she was attending the Royal Commission on the morning of her appointment for a private session.
‘I don’t know why I’m here. Like I say, God works in mysterious ways. Now I know why I’m here: other children. Yeah, that’s what I’m here for – to make it a better place for children.’