‘I came from a family situation of extreme abuse … and I had been sexually assaulted which involved strangulation, some weeks before I left home.’
Estella was in her early teens when she ran away in the mid-1970s. She said she was homeless for weeks or even months before being picked up by police. At that time Estella reported the sexual abuse by her father but described it as a ‘terrible experience’.
‘It involved, I think, six hours of cross-examination and then another six the next day. They were trying to get me to say it was my fault.’
Even though she had done nothing wrong, under the legal system of the day Estella was then charged with being in ‘moral danger’. She was made a ward of the state and sent to a government-run remand centre in western Sydney.
On arrival Estella was strip searched. A few days later she was given what she called a ‘gynaecological exam’. After the examination the doctor masturbated Estella, then left his hand on her genitals while he continued talking.
Estella remembered not being able to understand how something like that could happen in a place where she was supposed to be safe.
‘I felt so hopeless, you know, when it happened …
‘That was the start of my journey through the juvenile justice system.’
Estella said she wouldn’t have reported the sexual abuse, even if there was someone in the centre who would’ve listened. ‘I was very unlikely to offer information to an adult because I was pretty frightened as a child.’
Estella felt the first impact of the abuse almost immediately. ‘I couldn’t function at all,’ she said. Even after being put on anti-psychotic medication, she twice tried to take her own life. ‘The first suicide attempt I was hospitalised, but the second one I was punished.’
After some time in the remand centre, to her horror, Estella was sent back to her parents. ‘I was beaten so badly.
‘I had to stay there for months, until I turned 16, or risk going into an institution again.’
Again, no one from Community Services or Child Protection came to check on her, even though severe abuse at home was the very reason she became a state ward. ‘I had run away from a murderous situation,’ she said.
As Estella has gotten older, the impact of the abuse has intensified and taken a terrible toll on her health. She’s been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and struggles with low self-esteem and trusting others. She’s also often thought of suicide.
‘I’ve fought hard all my adult life … to get the help I need. But despite all that hard work and everything, you know, I never really got it or got much of it because there’s this attitude that people with these issues are hard to treat.
‘There’ve been so many severe roadblocks along the way … for some people it goes on and on.’
When she spoke to the Commissioner Estella was bed-ridden and on a number of ‘essential’ medications. ‘I guess I’ve sort of, the past five years or so, been trying to block everything out, and just stay in one spot in my bed.
‘I have, apart from you and the counsellor the other day, not really talked to anybody for years.’
In the late 2000s she received some compensation for the crimes committed by her father, and she may be eligible for more for the abuse at the remand centre. More than anything Estella wants to get her health back, and she said that any money would help, ‘just in terms of surviving any longer’.
Despite her very fragile physical and mental state, and the trauma she’s still dealing with, Estella was determined to share her story. ‘I am very glad that I’ve spoken to you,’ she told the Commissioner.
‘It did have a huge impact, when the Royal Commission was announced, and I have fought hard to try and bring these things into the open. I would’ve found it very hard to live with myself if I hadn’t.’