‘There’s not any good at this stage trying to keep things secret or to ourselves, because we have done that for years – been silent and feeling like everything was our fault, we were to blame and not speaking about it because of the stigma that it left us with. I just think it’s great now it’s being told and getting out into the public, all the history of everything and for things to be righted a certain amount – no longer to continue as things have been.’
Elaine’s childhood as part of a large family working together on crop farms in New South Wales was happy until the situation changed dramatically when her mother died and her father started drinking. Elaine was 14 in the 1940s when she was charged with ‘being in moral danger’ and sent to a girls’ home in Sydney. After that she and her siblings became ‘like lost, separated people’.
Elaine likened her life for the next four years to that of her great-grandfather who came to Australia from Ireland as a convict. ‘He served time in the dungeons in Ireland and came here and was put out to work’, she said. Similarly, on two occasions in the girls’ home, Elaine spent time in the underground cells that were used as punishment rooms.
‘The first time I think it was to break my spirit because I must have been a little bit, probably rebellious. They used to make us scrub the covered walkway as punishment with toothbrushes and that, and I objected to that at one stage. And the next time I was put in there for mucking around in the kitchen and we broke some plates.’
During the second occasion Elaine was in the cells, Mr Blake, the superintendent, let himself in and tried to sexually assault her. He was interrupted and quickly left. The next day he told Elaine that it would be in her ‘best interest’ to forget what had happened.
‘He said, “I have the last say”, meaning that I could be left there till I was 21 [or] sent to a mental hospital … He had the power over me and I just wanted to leave the place anyway so I just was agreeable and left it as it was then.’
On the day of her admission to the home and several times afterwards, Elaine was sent to the visiting doctor for a vaginal examination. ‘He always wore a mask on his face so we only ever saw his eyes, and we called him Doctor Fingers’, Elaine said.
‘I do think he enjoyed doing it. He told me I was a silly girl and the other nurse held me down by the shoulder and my legs went up into stirrups and he told me not to be a silly girl. “Be quiet”, he said. All the girls had to have it done that came through there.’
Elaine told the Commissioner that the staff never showed care or kindness and told girls repeatedly they were not ‘worth the salt on our food’. Both male and female staff members used fists and knees to punish the girls for things like talking while working.
‘There was lots of very unpleasant things that went on. You weren’t allowed to have a drink of water because they didn’t want bed-wetters in there and that, you know. If we needed water badly enough in the night-time, the older girls told me pull the chain and get a drink out of the toilet cistern which lots of girls had to do because we weren’t allowed the water. And then if you spoke you’d be pulled out of bed and made to stand for hours shivering. You might stand for two or three hours on the spot. It was really cruel.’
Soon after Elaine came out of the home in the 1950s, she married and had four children in quick succession. Her relationship with her husband changed after she told him about being in the girls’ home. ‘I told him something about my past, and it was relayed to his mother, and I was no longer good enough for her son.’
The marriage dissolved and Elaine lost custody and access to her children. It was many years before she was able to reunite with them, but she never gave up hope of doing so, and said she now enjoyed a good relationship with them. In the intervening years she’d remarried and had another daughter. At the time of coming to speak to the Royal Commission, she and her second husband, Joe, had been together 55 years.
In the 2000s, Elaine saw a newspaper notice placed by the Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN) inviting contact from those who’d been in institutional care. Elaine rang them and found their support ‘marvellous’. Their positive response gave her courage to tell Joe about her experiences.
‘We’d been married so long and I’d never breathed a word about it because I didn’t want a recurrence of what had happened in my first marriage … Then I gradually told him as I got brave enough and to this day he understands.’
Elaine told the Commissioner she thought there was still a lot to be done to improve safety for children placed in care. ‘Some of the foster homes are not at all what they’re supposed to be. I mean, they put on a good front for the authority people that come to visit and take particulars from them, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty and they become themselves, they can become quite different people. Some of them are quite mean. And I mean they’ve got a trying, young person there to deal with and they can’t deal with that person, only through being mean to you to try and control you.
‘They need regular checks and the children need to be spoken to on their own, because you can’t speak out when that adult that’s been mean to you [is there], because after the people leave then you cop it again …
‘The only thing that stuck to me was I came from a very spiritual mother that had taught us – whether it’s true, whether it’s not – if you’ve got something to cling to, you cling to it, and that I believed: that God was my only friend.’