Esther’s mother was 19 when she gave birth, at a children’s home in regional New South Wales. She had answered a newspaper ad seeking women who were pregnant and unmarried.
The women would live at the home until their children were born, assisting with the day to day running of the place. After the birth, they would leave but their babies would stay. And so Esther’s mum left her behind.
The founder of the home was a wealthy man, Mr Harris, who wanted to show the world what a difference diet and discipline could make to children. He expected that the children who were raised in accordance with his ideas would grow up in perfect health. They were given plenty of fresh food, but not immunised.
The matron who ran this home was very cruel. Esther was once placed in a cupboard, as punishment for being unable to finish her raw salad breakfast. When she escaped, the matron smacked her on the head with a wooden hair brush. Esther lost consciousness and the matron was dismissed.
In the mid-1950s, Esther was moved to another facility run by the foundation, also in a regional location. She was eight years old, and stayed there for four years.
During this time she was frequently sexually abused by Mr Ecclestone, a man who managed this home. ‘I was a bit late in developing, but he used to finger me, touch my boobs.’ He didn’t rape her, ‘but I think it was leading up to that’.
Esther knows that one of her friends was subjected to much greater abuse when she was ill for a long period, as Ecclestone had more access to her when the other kids were at school during the day.
She also understands that Ecclestone’s wife sexually abused a young boy in their care. This boy then ‘thought that [abuse] was okay, and he ended up interfering with a young boy when he got older’, and later tried to commit suicide.
When Harris visited the home run by the Ecclestones, they would never let the children be alone with him or his assistant. Esther assumes this is so they could not disclose the abuse to them. Many years later, she spoke to his assistant about it, ‘but she still didn’t acknowledge’.
Harris would force the children to have enemas, which he personally administered. If Esther had a bowel movement as a result of this process, her faeces were rubbed in her face.
Aside from the sexual abuse, Esther was tied to a chair and beaten with a strap until she was bloodied and bruised. She was also forced to box in a ring against other girls her age. ‘I’m pretty sure he used to get a thrill out of it. I don’t know. You don’t understand when you’re a child.’
When Esther was 12, she was moved to a home the foundation ran in suburban Sydney. She remembers this time as being relatively happy, because she was not sexually abused.
Two years later she was withdrawn from school, and sent to work in a business that Harris owned. Although her education had effectively ended, she could not read or write.
Esther met her husband when she was in her late teens. ‘I always wanted to be like everybody else, to have a mum and dad, and be a family.’ Her husband’s family rejected her for not being Catholic and having been raised in the home, but ‘he supported me all the way’.
While Esther was busy raising her kids, she didn’t feel the need to engage with counselling. Later on, when she worked as a nursing assistant, she would have flashbacks when administering enemas to patients. The head of the hospital knew Esther had been in a home and suggested therapy, but Esther never told her the details of her time in care.
Esther has explained some of her background to her husband. ‘I’m very lucky I’ve got a very patient husband ... I’ve still got hang-ups.’
Her sons know a bit too, and they are all supportive. She has spoken about the abuse with other survivors, as well as her counsellor. At this stage she has not reported it to police or made any claim for compensation.
As an adult, Esther tracked down her family and discovered she had a number of half-siblings. She gets on well with her father’s kids, and still keeps in touch with them.
However, after her mother died, she became estranged from her mother’s other children. This prompted her to write a letter, telling them her life story, but none replied.
Esther describes herself as being very family-oriented, and has many grandchildren. She has retained very strong bonds with three of the girls she lived with in the home, and looks forward to their annual reunions. ‘We’re like sisters ... That’s my family.’ There is, however, some division with other people who were in the home as children, but were not abused.
Sharing her story with the Royal Commission, and others in her life, has been beneficial. ‘I’m happy with my life. And this has more or less made it. It’s a big load off my shoulders, put it that way. It’s made a big difference.’
In spite of her troubled childhood, Esther maintains an optimistic outlook. ‘I have a very nice life. You’ve got two choices. We all start off with nothing, and we all go out with nothing. So what I do, I choose to be up here. I don’t let people drag me down.
‘And you’ve got to look at positives. I mean, your life is what you choose it ... Just because it happened to you, don’t let it happen to somebody else.’