Ethel was born in Tasmania in the 1950s into a very large family. Moving around the state often, her father was regularly in and out of work or jail which attracted the attention of the welfare department.
When she was very young, Ethel was sent to ‘some psychiatrist, an old white-haired man’ who tried to abuse her. ‘He put his hand down my pants so he could feel my vagina … I bit him on the arm and he kicked me out of the room.’
When Ethel was eight the family home burnt down and she was sent to live with a foster family for a few weeks. While there, her foster father’s adult son would come into her room at night, wake her up and put his fingers inside her vagina. Ethel was too scared to report the abuse. ‘My dad brought us up that we didn’t talk to strangers and if we got caught breaking the rules we’d get a flogging.’
When she was about 10 years old Ethel was made a ward of the state and sent to a government-run girls’ training centre where she stayed until she was 16. During her time there she was abused ‘on numerous occasions physically, mentally and sexually’ by Mr Duffy, a staff member who was in his 50s at the time.
Aside from raping her, Duffy abused Ethel by inserting objects into her which resulted in permanent damage to her body. She told the Commissioner, ‘After [my son] was born they said there’s just that much tearing that was down there from before … bits and pieces just torn away from the young abuse ... He tried to stick his whole hand, his yucky hand, down my vagina, anally and objects sometimes … there was the end of a bat thing once and he tried to put these forceps things up there once’.
Ethel and other girls at the centre often tried to escape, but were always caught and returned to face severe punishment. ‘We ran away a couple of times … One of the staff there, she knew what we was running away to do. She let us out the window and we had to jump off a balcony, like the front balcony to get down to the ground to run away. And the policeman … he picked us up … we told him “help me”. He called us little sluts and little liars and “ya just need a good floggin’” and he took us back there. I actually got that, plus more.’
Before attending the centre, Ethel was a bright student with aspirations of becoming a nurse. ‘I was doing alright at school, wasn’t doing too bad. Had we ever had the opportunity to still go to school while we were there I would’ve followed my nursing.’
At the centre, Ethel was not educated but was instead subjected to hard physical labour. She was denied visits from her family and recalls a visit from a Welfare Officer on only one occasion the entire time she was there. ‘He [Duffy] told people we’d never get out of there ever, we’d die there. We’d never ever be [a] free person.’
While at the centre, the abuse from Duffy continued until Ethel had had enough. ‘It stopped when I bit his penis badly … it drew blood. I was hurting so much I just wanted him to hurt a little bit … I think I hurt him a lot … He punched me though, I think he knocked me out. I said “you ever touch me again next time I’ll bite it off!”’
Immediately after being discharged, Ethel turned to alcohol and had numerous encounters with the law. ‘Right from the time I got out of [there] I think not long after I got charged with drunk and disorderly under aged.’ Ethel has also spent four years in prison after involvement with ‘dirty cops’.
Ethel has been married twice and disclosed her abuse each time, but both relationships dissolved. ‘It’s hard for people to comprehend that it hasn’t happened to. “Oh why’d you let it happen? You could’ve stopped it if you wanted to.” How could you stop it?’ Ethel never formally reported the abuse after her experiences with police left her deeply mistrustful.
At 17 Ethel had her first child who died at a young age. She has had other children since but still struggles with trust and intimacy. ‘In marriages and relationships, if anything takes you close to where you were in that place a bit of hysteria happens and that’s it, the end of a relationship.’
Ethel no longer abuses alcohol but has attempted to take her own life on several occasions. ‘Sometimes you think, “yeah, you’re not gonna hurt me” … I blocked a lot of that out for years and then I blocked a lot of [my child’s] death out for years too and just three years, I think, until it just come tumbling back.’
Several years ago an investigation into the centre commenced and Ethel was approached for comment. While she did receive compensation, she did not want to relive her experiences there.
‘You didn’t want to listen to me then, why listen to me now? I’ve got nothing to say. All we wanted was for them to take us away from there where we were safe.’
Ethel has since discovered that Duffy is dead but this has provided little comfort. ‘But then there was a lot of people that knew. People knew, they just didn’t want to lose their jobs or anything.’ Ethel strongly believes children in care should receive weekly visits from a welfare officer with whom they can build a trustful relationship.
Now with adult children, Ethel hopes to move closer to her daughter and grandchildren with whom she is close. However she still struggles with her past. ‘It just wrecks your life, to this day. So many years after.’