In the late 1990s, NSW Department of Community Services (DOCS) staff removed four-year-old Ella, her younger brother and two sisters from their mother and made them wards of the state. For the next three years the children moved between different carers until a more permanent placement was found with a young married couple, Susan and Jeffrey.
Susan and Jeffrey physically abused all the children, and in particular Ella who, although only seven, challenged the couple and was protective of her younger siblings.
Jeffrey also sexually abused Ella and her younger sister, and this was known by Susan, who on occasions made Ella sleep in Jeffrey’s bed.
‘That’s when I get really angry’, Ella said. ‘And I think, how could she not know? Like, I don’t know if it’s true, but my mum said to me that we had urine infections around that time. Like, just little things, to me, like, you can’t be that stupid. I’m not stupid, and for me to have this feeling like she knew, I don’t think – I think she didn’t want to know. I think she knew and she didn’t want to believe it.’
Ella described responding to the abuse with a deep anger that was soon directed at everyone within and outside the home, including Susan and Jeffrey, and teachers and DOCS workers. Her sister by contrast became withdrawn. DOCS workers were alerted to the sexual abuse when Ella’s sister started asking others to touch her genitals, and they reported their suspicions to NSW Police.
Ella told the Commissioner that she and her sister were interviewed by NSW Police, but no action was taken against Jeffrey. She was told later there wasn’t enough evidence for the case to proceed.
‘I don’t know what kid can remember what clothes they wore, what exact night the parent went out, and I can’t get him charged because I don’t remember that? How does that work?’
The children were removed from the couple’s care, but returned to the house after Susan and Jeffrey separated and no other placement options could be found.
‘And now we got taken off her, right? They split up in the middle of the week after it came out, [and we] got put back with her, even though they knew she was as well physically abusive to us with the belt, the whip, the cord, putting pepper in my mouth, soap in my mouth, and picking on me again.
'The caseworkers went to her, they gave her a course or something to do because of the way she was talking to me. and she tried to tell them, “I talk to her that way because I’m the closest to her. I treat her like my daughter”. … But what I didn’t understand is why DOCS stuck me there with her.’
When Susan met another man and had her own child, Ella and her siblings were moved on again. Throughout her teens, Ella lived with more carers, most of whom she thought were attracted by money rather than any sense of wanting to be with or care for children.
‘You get a whole lot of pension for a foster kid, per kid, and you get reimbursed for everything you paid for’, Ella said. ‘So I can say honestly that only two of my carers would have done it without the money – like did it – they were spending the money they got actually on us, you know what I mean?’
Ella said that apart from a short interview with NSW Police, she couldn’t recall anybody ever asking her about the sexual abuse.
‘I don’t remember anyone saying, “What he did to you was wrong”. I didn’t know about that until I hit school and then all these domestic things came out about no sexual abuse, no domestic violence …
'I knew it wasn’t right at that age he touched me but, you know, I was only seven. I wasn’t at the age where I could have said, “No”, and gone and told someone. But my sister didn’t even know it was wrong, but I did. I kept it a secret and she just asked a person to touch her down there.’
At 18, Ella was deemed an adult and support from DOCS suddenly ceased. Some kind of transition program would have helped, she said, to build a career and learn activities of daily living.
‘My health went down. I haven’t been to the dentist. I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to do anything like that, because I was never taught. I don’t know how to pay a bill. I just got a house and I cried at my first bill because they’re trying to tell me I have to pay $40 a fortnight from my $100 payment. This can’t be right.’
In 2014, Ella again reported Jeffrey to NSW Police. A detective with whom she spoke was supportive and also scathing about the previous handling by police of the matter. Ella told the Commissioner she was hopeful this time of a successful prosecution.
‘He’s got another family, he’s got another home, he’s got a life, he’s got a career. He’s got everything. How does that work? People get more jail time for punching someone in the head drunk – five years it is now for hitting someone.’
She had doubts though about her ability to withstand the rigours of a court case. ‘I’ve had a lot of debating in my head whether to go through the court and everything, because I know I’m helping kids, but I know that I’m screwing myself up. In two years, where am I going to be?’
Ella also expressed doubts about other 21-year-olds being able to recount their experiences in out-of-home-care to the Royal Commission, but she hoped her story would help others.
‘I say thank you. You made me feel really comfortable. I feel comfortable talking about this to you guys, and I feel like I’m actually being heard, you know, someone does care about the effects it does have once you hit 18. Like you think you’re screwed up as children. You’re more screwed up being left out there, so thank you for that.’