Elva was taken into care as a young child, along with her siblings. Her mother had left the family and her father was an alcoholic who was unable to care for the children. Elva remained in care as a ward of the state until she turned 18 in the early 1970s. She lived in many institutions over that time and experienced neglect, physical and emotional cruelty, and frequent episodes of sexual abuse. When she tried to report what was happening to her she wasn’t believed. No one ever acted to protect her.
Elva’s family was Catholic, and most of the institutions she was placed in were also Catholic. Her first abuser was a Catholic priest, Father Percy, who lived on the premises of the orphanage in regional Victoria she’d been sent to. Elva was nine, and had broken into his home because someone had told her she’d find chocolates and wine there. Father Percy caught her and made her submit to his molestation.
‘Him abusing me was a way of him not telling anybody that I’d broken into the house’, she told the Commissioner.
Father Percy sexually assaulted Elva several times. She was later abused at the same orphanage by a nun, who came to her bed at night time when everybody was asleep. The nun, Sister Marina, sat on the bed. ‘Then she started fondling, she was telling me I was so evil; that she was doing these things to me to show me what evilness was about.’ These assaults also happened several times.
‘I knew what they were doing wasn’t a natural thing’, Elva said. But she didn’t fully understand that it was wrong. She didn’t try to report it, but she spoke of it to other children at the orphanage and heard stories of similar experiences.
‘I believe that most of the nuns knew what was going on, but rather than confront it they tried to hide it.’
In addition to the sexual abuse, beatings and other physical punishment occurred all the time. Elva was beaten for refusing to eat maggoty food, and for wetting the bed. When she was 14, she ran away. This began a sequence over the next four years of placements at different residential facilities and psychiatric hospitals, punctuated by further sexual assaults and attempts to run away.
‘I was getting very depressed, and I was not coping too good psychologically with depression and I always wanted to go home to my mum. Every time I ran away it was to go home to her, but she would call the police, or the nuns would come and get me, or – things like that, and bring me back.’
At one institution Elva was threatened with sexual abuse by an older woman. She took an overdose as a way to escape, and was sent to a psychiatric hospital as a result. There she was sexually abused by a male nurse. At another she was stripped and internally examined – this happened several times. ‘The internal examinations were very very yucky.’ At one point, having run away but with nowhere to go, she went to a police station. She was sexually assaulted by a male police officer there, and when she later told another officer about it she wasn’t believed. Eventually she gave up on reporting.
‘I didn’t feel I could trust any of them. I was too frightened that the same thing would happen again. I thought by telling them I had been sexually abused I was giving them permission to abuse me too.’
In all, Elva was abused by about eight different people. She came to feel it was her ‘lot in life’, she said.
‘Maybe I hadn’t been such a good girl after all, and that’s why it was happening.’
Elva was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 16. She’s been treated for that and other mental health issues ever since. That hasn’t stopped her from having a long and successful marriage and being a loving parent to her two children. ‘I’ve had a lot of psychiatric treatment over a period of 42 years. But as it turned out I found this art to be a wife and a mother, and also to give love – which I never had and didn’t know how.’
It’s her kids and her husband, she said, that have kept her going. ‘I’ve had a husband that’s stuck by me thick and thin, even when I’ve been so ill that people have said, “Walk away”. He hasn’t.’
Elva has still not spoken of her abuse to her husband or children. She disclosed it for the first time not long ago, to an advocate in a support group. With the help of the group she has plans to seek compensation from the Victorian government. ‘I would like to see the Victorian government [offer] some redress and compensation for what I experienced in the welfare system of the day.’
She is concerned about the lack of equity in compensation arrangements that sees some people receive sizeable payouts and others almost nothing. And, about to embark on treatment for a life-threatening disease, she is anxious about her financial situation.
‘I would like to see that the older we get that we’re going to get looked after and not find ourselves back in a home again.’