‘People need to know. That’s why I encourage others to come forward because I used to be really scared and frightened – I still am a little bit – but I’m dealing with it. I’m not the guilty one.’
Dottie’s father died in the early 1960s, when she was three years old. Her mother was left to care for her large family alone on an Aboriginal mission in New South Wales, and whenever welfare would come to take children away she would hide them all. The mission was run by the Welfare Protection Board and overseen by a number of managers.
From the age of five, Dottie was sexually abused by male relatives, the most frequent offenders being two of her uncles. ‘All the girls around my age, and the young boys, we were all molested by all of our older cousins and a lot of our uncles. But I just didn’t want people to think that we were bad, that’s why I never said nothing. That’s why I only said about the two [uncles] that done it.’
This abuse began with fondling, but by the time Dottie was eight it included digital penetration and rape. ‘I used to be real sore and I couldn’t go to the toilet, I was too frightened to wee ’cause it was painful.’ Dottie’s mother noticed she was bleeding, but assumed she had started her period early.
The men had a lot of power in the community and ‘what they said, went’. They would threaten that if she told anyone she would get a hiding and be taken away by welfare officers. ‘That’s the reason we never spoke out.’
After leaving the mission, Dottie was abused as a young adult by her partner, who kept her captive for several years before she was finally able to get away with her children. She knows she was very protective of them as they grew up – they’d all sleep together in the lounge room, and she’d never hold parties for them as she didn’t trust anyone.
Dottie first disclosed the sexual abuse to her doctor (who is ‘like my brother’), 20 years ago and he remains very supportive. ‘When I told him he just let me talk. He sat and let me talk, and I just talk how I feel and that, and I felt good after I spoke to him ... He was the only male friend that I actually had that actually supported me in my life.’
She told the Commissioner that although she knows she is not to blame for the abuse she still feels some shame. ‘I wash myself four times a day. I scrub my body ... I scrub my face. I never used to look in the mirror. But now I look in the mirror ... I talk to myself. I look in the mirror of the morning when I get out, I look in the mirror and I say to myself “you can make it through this day”.’
The uncles and partner who abused Dottie are now all deceased. ‘I don’t know whether you can answer this for me, but even though they’re gone why is it that [I] still don’t feel safe? ... I’m having flashbacks more than I ever did.’
Dottie has been to counsellors and told them about the abuse, but didn’t find this very helpful. ‘I want an answer, but they can’t give me this. That’s it. I know how to breathe, well, sometimes I know how to breathe because sometimes it gets too much. I start, what you call it, gasping for breath, hyperventilating. Then I get all tingly, I can’t breathe ... But they never told me what do with my flashbacks. I can’t sleep, I don’t sleep.’
At one stage Dottie stopped going to the counsellor when she became suicidal, as she had been told that if she was in danger of self-harm it was mandatory for her counsellor to report it. ‘I didn’t want her to put me into a mental house ... I was frightened she was going to lock me away.’
Her grandchildren give her a strong reason to keep going. ‘I’m not going to do myself in ... Sometimes your mind just goes and you’re thinking, and if you’ve learned a way how to pull yourself back, well what I do is – how I pull myself back – is I look at my grandchildren.’
Since contacting the Royal Commission, Dottie is considering stopping her counselling again, so she can try to stop thinking about what happened. ‘I’m going to come to this and then I’m going to close the door. Because I’m having too many flashbacks and I’m trying to move ahead, and I can’t.’
Dottie realised there were many other people in her church and community that were survivors too, and wanted to help them. ‘How can I get them to come forward? So what I had to do was bring up my own demons.’ She made her experiences known in her local community, and people started contacting her.
Her husband is also a survivor of abuse and together they offer support with marginalised and at-risk people, including opening up their home. ‘To be at grassroots level you have to know it and been through it yourself to understand about trauma. And who better to talk about trauma than the people that’s actually been through it?’
Although some people on the community do not like what Dottie is doing, more and more people have started coming forward with their own stories of abuse.
‘The mothers actually come now, and there’s uncles that have to come forward. I’m talking about 65-year-old women, I’m talking about 50-year-old women ... I’ve got a lot of women that’s actually coming forward. And we sit and we share all of our stories together, and it makes it easier for them because they like it when we sit together and talk.
‘It’s easier for them to sit with and talk when there’s a mob of them around ... They don’t feel uncomfortable, and what I’m finding is that we’re all supporting one another. And by standing together, we’re strong.’