‘I ran away from there a couple of times and had a rough spell when they caught us and brought us back, like we got a pretty harsh flogging for it. We were kids at that time, I suppose we deserved it. We was on bread and water for two days. It was punishment so we wouldn’t do it again, because I suppose you could say I was leader of the rogues.
‘I was leading them because I was the fair one you see and I got the punishment a fair bit because the fair ones were the ones that done too much leading I think, telling the other kids to go because we felt sorry for the darker children with us. We more or less mothered them and I had my nose broken a couple of times because when they caught us I’d stick up for myself. I had my nose broken twice. They just taped it all up and it come good.’
After running away from the girls’ home she’d been resident in from the age of two, Elsie was sent to a New South Wales Government correctional facility at 14. In the year and a half she was there she was sexually abused by a doctor as well as numerous men who would blindfold girls, take them to a cellar and rape them.
‘How they got away with it I’ll never know because it was run by the government’, Elsie said.
The men threatened the girls not to tell anyone about the abuse. Elsie said there was no one they could speak with if they wanted to. ‘We were told if we uttered one word we’d have our throats cut. We never revealed the facts to anyone.’
Elsie told the Commissioner that she was able to leave the facility in the early 1940s after being given a position as housekeeper and cook in a private home. Over the following decades she worked on pastoral properties throughout NSW, sleeping in tents provided by station owners. Still under government control, Elsie was assigned the last name of whichever property manager she worked for, which made later attempts to access records difficult. What she was able to access pertained mostly to the girls’ home and correctional facility.
‘A lot of [my file] is blacked out. There’s nothing really worthwhile. It’s a queer world, like you don’t know anything about your own life properly, who you belong to or where you really come from.’
In the early 1990s at the age of 68, Elsie met her mother for the first time. She found out about brothers, sisters and an extended family that had been separated from one another. Elsie’s mother wouldn’t talk about what it was like having her children removed. ‘Heaven knows what kind of life she had’, Elsie said. ‘She never revealed to a soul. She never would reveal any facts to us because she wanted us to go on because we were doing all right for ourselves.’
Throughout her life, Elsie didn’t speak about being sexually abused in the correctional facility. She’d told her children in general terms about conditions during her incarceration, but had only recently disclosed the abuse to one granddaughter with whom she’d developed a close relationship.
Elsie contributed to the Australian Government’s ‘Stolen Children’ report of 1997, and she was an advocate in seeking recompense for wages earned by Aboriginal people and never paid to them. She never made a formal claim or received compensation from the Australian Government or others.
‘We never ever got any pay. I never seen one penny. My first job was sixpence a week then it was 12 [shillings] and six a week. I had four children, battling, living in tents.’
Now living in residential aged care, Elsie said she was glad to be in a place specifically for older Aboriginal people, but she still battled to afford care items like a wheelchair she needed. She had a wish to return to the land on which she was born before she died. ‘I’ve always wanted to go back to see country.’
Having witnessed members of her extended family in disputes with the courts and service providers, Elsie recommended that child and family services be made more accessible for Aboriginal people.
‘The bad thing is when you see your children’s children get taken away, because it’s already happened to us. I’ve already come out and fight for that, see … I can see the wrong because I’m looking at what happened to us too and I can still see … Someone’s got to stop it. So that’s what I’d like to see, families living free you know.’