Elsa’s first memory is of the Nissen hut where she and her family lived when they arrived as new migrants from Europe in the mid-1960s.
Her next memory is of being lifted from a bath tub onto a bench to be dried. The bath is high up, so no bending is needed to get the child in and out. It’s this detail that tells Elsa the memory is from when she was three and lived for some months in a Victorian Government home for children.
Elsa’s parents had separated and Elsa’s mother, an alcoholic, was unable to care for the children. Elsa and her siblings had been sent to the home until a place where all of them could live together became available.
After some months the children were moved to a family group home run by the Presbyterian Church. The house parents were George and Iris Watson. The children were emotionally and physically abused by the Watsons, Elsa told the Commissioner. Elsa was also sexually abused.
The physical abuse occurred on a daily basis. It usually took the form of beating with a wooden spoon, administered by George at the end of the day. The children lived in constant fear of the beating to come that night.
Some episodes of abuse remained particularly vivid for Elsa. One involved her younger brother, who had a slight speech impediment and couldn’t pronounce George’s name correctly.
‘He used to cop beatings for that’, Elsa told the Commissioner. ‘One time all us siblings were lined up in a row and my youngest brother was picked up by the scruff of the neck and beaten in front of us because he couldn’t say the man’s name. He would say “Say my name” and every time the kid got it wrong he would be slapped hard enough that his whole body swung. And when he came back again he was asked again, “What’s my name?” and when he couldn’t say it properly he’d cop another one. And we had to stand there and watch this happen and that kid was a toddler. That was horrific …. Mental torture. That was done to distress us, and for no other reason.’
George’s abuse of Elsa began when she was very young, before she’d started school. He would wake her at night to take her to the toilet, and while she stood at the sink afterwards to wash her hands he would sexually molest her.
None of the siblings spoke about the abuse to anyone. ‘You’ve got to understand the level of fear we lived with. The threats – “you don’t tell anyone what goes on here, ever”. We were very frightened.'
Elsa did receive counselling while still a young child, apparently because of concern about how emotionally withdrawn she was. And she recalls one official inspection.
‘My guess is that maybe eventually [authorities] did realise that something was going on, but by then the damage was done. And then they compounded it by putting in place somebody else who was doing exactly the same thing.’ The couple who replaced the Watsons continued the abuse, Elsa said.
When Elsa was 11, she and her little brother went to live with their father and his second wife. Their father wanted the other siblings as well, but welfare authorities wouldn’t allow it. The separation of the siblings caused a rift between them that was only repaired when Elsa reached her 20s.
For Elsa the trauma has been long-lasting. She blamed the Watsons’ abuse for a later episode of sexual abuse by some older boys. A friend she was with ran away but Elsa felt unable to, and for years felt ashamed of what then happened. And it was why she didn’t act on her husband’s abuse of their seven-year-old daughter, for which he received a two year jail term. ‘When I saw signs I put it down to me being paranoid, and I discounted them’, she told the Commissioner.
‘I didn’t want to tell her that bad things happen.’
Elsa spoke about being abused for the first time in her 20s, to her older sister. She now receives counselling through Relationships Australia. She is very clear about the lessons she wants to share. Education is vital, she told the Commissioner.
‘Children from a very young age need to be told by somebody who cares about them that there are parts of their body that they have a right to say, “You don’t get to touch me there. You’re making me feel uncomfortable”.’
As well, she added, children in care need to know how to protect themselves.
‘We didn’t know … No-one ever came to us. No-one ever said, “You can talk to me if something is happening that feels wrong to you”. If someone had come to us and said those words, and said “And we will not tell the person you are talking about” – we might have felt safe enough to say something to someone.’