‘I remember looking out the window and I would often see people taking Fred out on outings such as Christmas Day and Easter. No one ever took me out because the nuns knew I would tell on them. I would tell someone what was happening to me.’
Ella can’t remember why she and her brother Fred were removed from her parents’ care but in the mid-1960s, when she was eight, Ella and Fred were made wards of the state. They were placed in an Anglican children’s home in a town in Queensland.
All Ella wanted was to be with her brother, but the nuns separated the siblings and wouldn’t allow her to see him. She spent all her time in the dormitory with the other girls.
One of the nuns in charge of the dorm made visits each night favouring three girls, including Ella.
‘You would hear the footsteps coming into the dorm and the nun would choose one of us girls. I felt relief when the footsteps did not stop at my bed.’
But when it the footsteps did stop at her bed, Ella was taken to the nun’s room ‘where we were alone’.
‘The nun would make me sit on the bed next to her and she would then take my clothes off and start to play with my privates’, Ella said in documents provided to the Commission.
‘I felt really uncomfortable while this was happening. She would also make me lay down on the bed and she would get on top of me while she was naked. I told her to get off because she was hurting me. The nun would make me touch her boobs. When she had finished what she was doing, the nun would tell me that if I told anyone my brother would get hurt.’
Shocked and confused, Ella was unable to comprehend what was happening. She said she just lay there and let it happen.
‘I never told anyone and no one would believe me anyway. The nuns would often tell me I was a bad person.’
In the 1970s Ella was removed from the home and placed back in her mother’s care. She doesn’t remember much of this time, but does recall her mother abandoning her. At 15 she was sent to a Salvation Army-run lodge in a different town where she was physically and emotionally abused. She was also abused by a priest who ran services at the institution. Ella recalls that the priest led children to a ‘dark room’ at the back of the church.
‘He would hold one of us at a time and pull our pants down and whack you with a cane or a belt with raised metal on it as punishment for being naughty. It seemed to happen more to me than other kids.’
Ella tried to tell an officer what was happening, but wasn’t believed. After attempting to report the priest for a third time Ella was moved to a mental health facility attached to a public hospital. She was never told why she was moved there but believes it was initially because she was a ward of the state and it was not known where else to send her.
At the hospital Ella was the youngest patient, which made her vulnerable. She was indecently assaulted by several different patients, both male and female. Ella tried to tell the doctors and nurses but they didn’t believe her. She couldn’t put anything in writing because ‘I could not write then’.
On one occasion, Ella ran away from the hospital after a patient attempted to rape her.
When she reached a particular place in the grounds and threated to suicide, a groundsman caught her just in time. He told her he believed her recounting of what had happened ‘and they talked me around’. But the incident was never formally reported.
Ella was transferred to another Salvation Army-run institution where she saw the doctor for an initial checkup. He tied her up and told her it was part of the standard procedure and ‘everyone has to go through it’.
‘I was naked while he had me tied up and I saw his hand in his pants and I wondered why his hand was going up and down. I asked him why his hand was going up and down and he told me to mind my own business. He then put white yucky stuff on my arm. It was horrible.’
Ella tried to escape that night, but fell from the roof and injured herself. After a stay in hospital she was sent to a residential facility in Brisbane. On admission, all the youth were told to strip naked and were then hosed with a pressure hose after which ‘some sort of poison to kill nits in our hair’ was applied.
At this point in her life Ella was angry and didn’t trust anyone, especially anyone in authority. She hated the guards at the facility who were cruel, often pulling her by the hair and dragging her down stairways.
In relation to all her attempts to report abuse, Ella said, ‘I felt bad for reporting it, because no one believe me and I would often be punished for telling about what was happening to me’. She tried to report some of the abuse to police ‘when I was a kid and they did not believe me’.
Discharged from state care at 18, Ella was homeless for many years. And without much of an education, a career was out of reach.
Ella has had flashbacks and nightmares of the sexual abuse as well as suicidal thoughts and she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She changed her name as an adult so the abuse, for which she has blamed and doubted herself, would remain buried in her past. Ella’s children have been in and out of her care for many years, which has been devastating and traumatic.
In the late 2000s she received $20,000 from the Salvation Army, which she thought was disgusting. Another $3,000 was paid as part of the Queensland government’s Redress Scheme which Ella said was unfair. She knew of others who not only received more compensation but did not get the Medicare levy deducted from their ex-gratia payment as she did.
Ella has never received counselling.
‘I do not think the money I received was fair given what happened to me in the institutions as a ward of the state’, Ella said.