‘Who could believe that one child could be abused by so many different people?’
Estelle was three years old when she began her long and horrific journey through the child welfare system. Her mother had walked out on the family and her father, unable to care for the children on his own, put them into care.
After enduring a year or so of brutal discipline at a Sydney receiving home in the early 1960s, Estelle and her sister Claire were made wards of the state and fostered by Mr and Mrs Davenport.
To the outside world Mrs Davenport appeared to be a ‘pillar of the community’. Behind closed doors ‘she was nothing more than an evil, narcissistic woman’ who often beat Estelle and her sister with a feather duster and wooden spoon.
Mr Davenport never hit the girls but he had other ways of abusing them. During their bath times and in the mornings after he’d stepped naked from his shower, he would watch them from the doorway and masturbate.
To make matters worse, the Davenports had a family friend named Clive who would take the girls out on weekends and molest them. One time when she was eight years old, Estelle was forced to stay the night at Clive’s place. First he molested her in the bath while his wife was making dinner.
‘We then had dinner and his wife went to bed. I didn’t want to go to bed because I knew what was going to happen and I was terrified so I told him I wanted to watch the telly.’
As soon as Estelle sat down on the couch, Clive sat beside her and put his hand down her pants. ‘He asked me if I liked what he was doing and because I was so terrified I told him I did. He then made me do things to him.’ The incident culminated in Clive laying Estelle down on the couch, covering her mouth with his hand and raping her.
‘He told me not to tell anyone as this was our little secret and that I was very special … I never told anyone about it, not even Claire. Clive’s abuse went on for about seven years until one day Claire worked up the courage to tell Mrs Davenport.
‘She didn’t believe Claire so she asked me and I told her it was true. We still weren’t believed so Claire told her about another girl, a neighbour of Clive who he was also abusing. We were taken to her place and the so-called adults decided amongst themselves that they would not do anything about it as they didn’t want to upset Clive’s wife.’
Later Mrs Davenport did report Clive to Child Welfare and they sent an officer to investigate. He took Estelle and Claire aside and ‘told us what horrible girls we were, that we should be grateful to have a roof over our heads, that we could be living in a children’s home or worse, on the streets. Well, Claire chose the streets’.
Claire was eventually picked up by police and sent to a state-run training centre for girls where she experienced many more years of abuse. Separated from her sister for the first time in her life, Estelle fell apart. The Davenports quickly tired of her and sent her back to the receiving home. She was 12 years old.
Violence, abuse and degradation were meted out regularly at the home. At night the staff locked the doors and abandoned the girls to a ‘free-for-all’ during which Estelle was often pinned down by older girls who ‘took turns doing whatever they wanted to me’.
During the day staff would sometimes inflict ‘virginity tests’ on the girls. ‘Two of the staff would force your legs apart while another one would inspect you. It was so degrading and I’m pretty sure I didn’t pass but no questions were asked of me.’
As horrific as it was at the home, Estelle knew there were worse places. One day her mother arrived to reclaim her. Estelle didn’t want to go – ‘I hadn’t seen her since I was three and the only memories I had of my mother were her handing me around to all these men’ – but Welfare ignored her protests, and so just before her 13th birthday, Estelle found herself living in a squalid flat with her mother and her mother’s partner, Mick.
Mick and Estelle’s mother physically and psychologically abused Estelle and encouraged their friend Gerrard to rape her.
‘I spent the next 16 months being beaten, tortured, raped and sold to Gerrard for the night by Mick and my mother so they could buy beer and cigarettes. For 16 months at night I lay huddled in the corner under my bed praying that he would leave me alone for just one night. But night after night he always came.’
During this time Estelle was regularly interviewed by doctors and welfare workers. They saw her bruises, her broken bones and the cigarette burns on her skin, but none of them lifted a finger to help her.
Ironically, when Estelle’s mother made a complaint about Estelle’s behaviour, Welfare responded immediately. An officer came round, chastised Estelle for her ingratitude and shipped her back to the receiving home.
From the receiving home, Estelle went to a government-run girls’ home. On her first day a female staff member took her into a secluded room, told her to get undressed and then conducted an ‘internal examination’.
‘A few days later I found out she was the laundry lady. I was too scared and embarrassed to tell anyone what she had done to me, and she knew how vulnerable I was and that she could get away with doing it to me again. Which she did.’
From there Estelle moved back to live with the Davenports.
‘Although I didn’t have to endure any more beatings from her I still had to put up with Mr Davenport and his perverse actions. Not long after arriving back there I decided my life was not worth living and I made what would be the first of many suicide attempts. Nobody asked me why I did it, nor was I offered any help.’
Estelle stayed with the Davenports until she got married and moved out at age 20. She went on to have several children. ‘I love them but I can’t show them. I can’t touch them. I haven’t been able to touch them since they were three.’
Around 2005 Estelle reported her abusers to police. They arranged for her to give her statement to a ‘specially trained police officer from the child protection unit’. Estelle began by telling this officer about Mr Davenport.
‘And when I finished he said to me, “He would be an old man by now and he should be able to live out the rest of his life in peace”.’
This response crippled Estelle and it was two years before she felt strong enough to talk to police again. The second time around she spoke to a detective and received a fair and compassionate response. The detective ‘worked tirelessly’ for years and eventually Estelle’s mother’s old partner, Mick, was tried, convicted and sentenced to 12 years in jail.
None of the other abusers have ever been charged.
Meanwhile, Estelle has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative identity disorder and depression and is receiving ongoing counselling. Estelle’s counsellor attended the Royal Commission session with her. She was able to articulate some of the positive changes Estelle is yet to see in herself.
‘It has been tough going and it’s been a long time but finding your voice has been really important and I think you understand yourself. Emotions are still very difficult for you but you socialise more than you did, you laugh more than you did.’