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Erica Jess's story

‘I'm going to pimp on you. I'm going to squeal on you. I'm going to tell the police on you.’

Erica was an outspoken ‘tomboy’ as a child, growing up in Victoria in the 1950s. She would fight to protect her sister and the other kids in the children’s home where they lived. ‘They were like my family.’ Erica had arrived at the home when she was almost five years old. Her father was Aboriginal and her mother was white. She and her sister never met their father. Their stepfather was violent and as a result the two girls were made wards of the state.

The children’s home was very strict. In a written statement Erica provided to the Royal Commission, she recalls her early years there as having ‘very little love and compassion’. When a new superintendent, Ross Conroy, came to the school when Erica was about 11 years old, the ‘corporal punishment increased’.

Erica noticed Mr Conroy used to touch the girls during sport. He also abused Erica and some of the others when he was on duty at night. In her statement Erica recalled one of the many incidents: ‘He had been hitting me and I was crying. I remember he pushed my face into his [crotch] and he was rubbing my face into his [crotch] … I was trying to get away and he lifted me up and put me on his knee. He started hitting me again on my bare bottom … saying I was naughty. At the same time, I could feel his erection against my stomach or my groin … He was also pushing me down towards his groin.’

Some of the girls used to talk about what Conroy did but, at the time, Erica didn’t understand it as sexual abuse. ‘As a child you weren’t really sure that they were perverted then because you didn’t know any better.’

Floggings were common at the home and Erica was constantly in trouble. On one occasion Conroy beat her so badly, including kicking her repeatedly in the stomach, she couldn’t walk – possibly for days, she can’t quite remember. Later in life, an injury caused by this attack was given as the likely reason she couldn’t have children.

When the headmistress became aware of her injuries, the police were called. A female officer asked Erica to take off her uniform and took photos of her injuries. Erica disclosed Conroy’s physical abuse at the time but she’s unsure whether or not she disclosed the sexual abuse. Later she was brought before the home’s Board to speak about Conroy.

However, he remained at the home and the beatings continued. Not long after the disclosures about him, Erica and her sister were sent away. The reason given was that there wasn’t enough room for them in the refurbished wing. ‘[Conroy] knew that I would speak out and if he got rid of me then things would go away, which they did.’

This also meant that the girls had to leave the school, where Erica had been dux. ‘As far as my education was concerned it just went downhill … He ruined my life. Absolutely ruined my life. And it wasn’t until I was 40 that I was able to turn around and get … to university – 40. It was too late for my career. That’s the tragedy. This bastard took so much from me. How much did he take from everyone else? …

‘I think the two things that he took from me was my education … and motherhood.’

Erica feels that people don’t understand how much childhood abuse affects people. ‘Even my partner doesn’t even understand. And that’s the tragedy that you have to live with.’

Erica works as a health professional. Recently, legal proceedings against Conroy began. Erica appeared at the committal hearing. She found it difficult to see Conroy and his family, milling around in the same rooms she was in. ‘If you are going to give evidence you need to really give it in private’, she said.

‘I want to continue to fight. I might be 65 but I want to continue to fight.’

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