Emilia kept putting off coming to the Royal Commission but eventually she felt physically well enough, with her ‘head on straight enough’, to tell her story.
She grew up in Melbourne in the 1960s and 1970s with a very violent father and a ‘prostitute drug addict scumbag’ mother. The family had a mad dynamic that revolved around secrets and lies, with a level of abuse from both her mum and dad ‘like you wouldn’t believe’, Emilia said. Her father would kill any pets that she brought home while she watched. He also tried to kill Emilia more than once.
Due to her parents’ previous marriages Emilia has lots of half-siblings, including a half-sister with a severe mental illness. When Emilia was nine or 10, her mother gave testimony in children’s court that she was a really bad child. ‘Really she just wanted to get rid of me.’
Emilia was sent to a state-run children’s home. It was bewildering at first. No one explained to her who did what, or called her by her name unless she was in trouble. Her roommate Sandra was a big 15-year-old girl who ‘beat the crap out of her constantly’ until Emilia decided she’d better make friends with her.
The negative chorus from the staff at the home was loud and constant: ‘If you were any good, your family would want you’, she was told. ‘If you were any good, you wouldn’t be here.’
Physical abuse was rife. There was one nice staff member, the elderly and kind Mrs Greene, who acted as a kind of house mother. One teacher, sick of Emilia’s constant requests to go to the toilet, shook her so violently that she broke her arm against the table. Mrs Greene made sure that Emilia was sent to the hospital.
- The kids at the home went to the toilet in groups because it was safer. But one day Emilia was so desperate she went alone. She found a man called Peter Gray, who worked in her cottage, sorting through girls’ underwear in the laundry area, looking at them, sniffing them and putting a pair in his pocket. He seemed to be trying to find the dirtiest pair. He eventually noticed Emilia watching him.
- She said to him ‘you dirty undie nicker’ or words to that effect. He flew into a rage and she ran into a toilet cubicle. Gray forced his way in and began touching her all over. Emilia started screaming and he tried to gag her by forcing a pair of underpants into her mouth.
‘What makes me sick is that he’s known as the angel of the street kids … and he was there.’
When he stopped, Emilia ran past him and vomited into a sink. Then she turned and yelled at him. Gray smiled and said, ‘You’ll get worse next time’.
Despite her yells, nobody had come to investigate. So she reported Peter Gray to the woman in charge. ‘She wouldn’t believe you … She’d always say “You’re a naughty girl … Why do you have to say this stuff … He’s a nice young man”. And then you’d get punished.’
Emilia sometimes tried to tell Mrs Greene what went on. ‘She’d just go quiet. She wouldn’t know what to do. She was just a little old lady.’
At one point Emilia decided to run off to her grandmother’s place, though she wasn’t sure where that was, and live safely with her. So she and a group of mates took off.
A man enticed them into a laneway with the promise of money and cigarettes then blocked the exit. He grabbed Sandra and raped her. He then approached Emilia who managed to duck past him. The man ran off. Emilia called the police, who said, ‘If you little shits weren’t runnin’ the street it wouldn’t happen’.
They drove the children back to the home. Sandra got no medical treatment or counselling, even though staff were told what happened. The girls had a bath and were put to bed.
When she turned 13, Emilia’s wardship at the home ended, and she was taken back home. But life with her mum, and her mum’s ‘pervert boyfriend’, was miserable and dangerous.
Visiting social workers only talked to Emilia in front of her mother. Since her mum had told her ‘I’ll kill you if you open your mouth’ she kept her mouth shut. ‘They could have come and seen me at school. I would have told them.’
Emilia ended up on the streets when she was 13, after she hurt her mother’s boyfriend in self-defence. It was a good move. The streets were ‘the safest place I ever lived’.
- Emilia got her life together despite great odds, getting good work and housing. But the impact of the childhood abuse ‘40 years down the track’ has been deep and far reaching.
- ‘I witnessed kids being raped … What I went through … kind of isn’t that bad but for some reason it’s just messed me up so bad.’
- Emilia has post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and borderline personality disorder. She sometimes wakes screaming in the middle of the night. ‘It makes Romper Stomper look like a day in the park, my story’, she told the Commissioner.
Emilia’s file notes say that she was a good and highly intelligent child. So she wants to know why no one told her she was being protected from her family, and that she wasn’t ‘a piece of crap’.
She’s now looking at making a claim for compensation. The assaults made on her at the home were ‘a new form of death and misery’. Staying with her parents would have been better. ‘The worst they’d do is try to kill you or belt the crap out of you … none of this sick stuff.’