‘It was just hell. That’s all I can say.’
After being deemed to be at risk of neglect, Ellena was made a ward of the New South Wales state in the early 1960s when she was eight years old. The following year she was placed in a government-run home but kept running away because she was frightened and wanted to go back to her mother. On each return to the home, she was given an internal examination by ‘Doctor Fingers’ who ‘played around’ with her.
Six years later Ellena was sent to another government institution where she exhibited behavioural problems and was told she ‘was mental’.
‘I wasn’t mental’, Ellena said. ‘I just couldn’t understand why I was getting punished.’
In that place, Ellena found someone who cared about her – a staff member who’d take her out on excursions and buy things for her. ‘That was all right. I really loved her’, Ellena said.
But she wasn’t there long and for the next three years she was moved throughout the state, staying in different girls’ homes and shelters. At 17 she was placed in a girls’ home that also functioned as a correctional facility, and there she encountered extreme physical and emotional abuse as well as sexual abuse perpetrated by male staff members and other residents of the facility.
‘I didn’t get a chance going in there … Speaking up for myself, I always got punished. I just couldn’t understand the punishment. I couldn’t understand the isolation you know.’
Punishment was particularly severe in the ‘dungeon’ where ‘you got bashed every time you go in it’. Ellena recalled being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night to scrub the walkway with a toothbrush and being punched so hard in the face and stomach by the superintendent that she fell over. She began self-harming by cutting because going to hospital offered a brief reprieve from the rest of the violence.
At one stage, Ellena was sent to an annexe of the home for further punishment. In that place girls were forced to march rather than walk and were isolated from each other and the outside world. They worked breaking up concrete with sledgehammers and at times had to labour with only a cup of tea and a sandwich as daily sustenance. They had to keep their heads down at all times during the day and at night sleep facing the door of their cells. Speaking was forbidden and when Ellena one day looked up when a staff member spoke to her, her sentence was extended from three to 11 months.
‘I got told all my life I was nobody. Yes, I was nobody. You know why? Because I had four different names, I’ve had different dates of birth. I’ve had a number … as a name. I never ever had a name … I didn’t know who I was. That’s why I couldn’t read and write and I couldn’t defend myself. I hated the world because I come out of nobody to have nobody.’
There was never anyone for Ellena to tell about the treatment in any of the homes, and she hadn’t ever reported it to NSW Police. Nor had she sought compensation.
The violence of childhood continued into adult life as Ellena found herself in abusive relationships. Her children had to manage her numerous attempts to take her own life as well as her continued self-harming.
Ellena’s daughter, Lorraine, accompanied her mother to her private session with the Royal Commission and described a childhood in which she’d had to parent her mother.
‘I had to teach her to read and write as I went through school as a child’, Lorraine said. ‘It’s difficult enough to be a child but as part of a parent as well. There’s still days now where sometimes I have to be like the mum because she’s crying and upset and she can’t deal with things. That whole lack of education, the whole lack of her parenthood that didn’t teach her. She gets upset. I don’t know how to be a mum. I didn’t have a mum. There’s a lot. I was sexually abused growing up for 10 years and then on top of that I had to tell Mum, knowing her life. I held it in thinking, well I don’t want to upset her anymore. Would I really want to put that on my mum? In a way it affected both of us, because [of] these stories I had to hear as a kid growing up where Mum would be upset.’
It was distressing for Ellena to find out after many years that a partner with whom she’d been happy had been sexually abusing her children.
‘[They] didn’t want to hurt me anymore so they kept it from me’, she said. ‘If I knew when she was little, and they’d told me, told me when they were little, I could have dealt with it. And they didn’t because of my upbringing.’
It was important to Lorraine that her mother tell her story. ‘It’s been a long time coming. I think for Australia, considering we’re such a multicultural country, it’s a long time too late. I can go out now and be told, “I can accept this person, I can accept that person”, but if I say “I’m Aboriginal” I see the down brows, I see the looks. No one’s multicultural when it comes to Aboriginals, and that’s a shame. I think Australia should start, and you know there’s still a lot of denial out there, but as I say to Mum, “You’re doing a good thing for history, for my children, for the children after that”.’
Ellena told the Commissioner she thought she ‘was going to die in here today’ telling her story, but was glad she had come forward. ‘Here I am, I’ve made myself.’