Felicia and her older brother Matt spent their early childhood in a Methodist care home in New South Wales until they were fostered by the Phillips family in the early 1960s. Felicia was only six years old when she had her first meeting with Mrs Phillips but she remembers the moment vividly. ‘The first thing she said when we walked through the door was, “Oh, I didn’t want them as old as this”.’
For the next five years Felicia and Matt were subjected to a regime of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of Mrs Phillips. She would beat them, deny them food and force them into ‘slave labour’.
Sometimes she would tie them up and leave them lying in a cold bath or punish them in other cruel and bizarre ways. Felicia told the Commissioner, ‘I had a hole in my tongue at one stage because one of the punishments was I used to have to stand with a peg on my tongue till it was so swollen’.
Felicia tried to report this and other incidents of abuse to welfare but they never interviewed her alone and always believed Mrs Phillips’ story over hers. ‘She just said I lied, I had lied to her so she put me there with a peg on my tongue and it only happened once or twice. But it happened every day. All the time. If I looked at her the wrong way I’d get it.’
When she was 12 years old Felicia ran away. Her brother followed shortly after, and the two kids ended up in separate orphanages. Two years later Felicia was fostered by the Stanfords, a devoutly Christian couple whom she liked, initially. ‘We were doing fine there really until Mr Stanford starting doing what he was doing, and then it just all sort of fell apart.’
Felicia was sexually abused by Mr Stanford multiple times from the age of 14 to 16. She didn’t report the abuse to welfare. After her experience with the Phillips she didn’t think there was any point.
‘People just don’t believe that these sort of things happen. And you jump out of one situation and into a sexual abuse situation and who’s going to believe you? I had such a distrust of anybody believing what I would say … In the girls’ home they’d tell you you’re not wanted, you’re a liar, people don’t want you, that’s why you’re here. So you end up with such low self-esteem that you don’t talk about it.’
She did, however, mention the abuse to a friend who lived nearby. She then told Mr Stanford what she’d done. A few days later he organised for welfare to remove her from the home. He gave them a trumped-up story about how she was stealing attention away from his other children. It was only years later that Felicia put two and two together and realised that Mr Stanford kicked her out because she’d reported him to her friend.
Felicia spent the next few years living in a boarding house with her brother. She then went on to build a successful career, marry and have kids. During this time she suffered periods of severe depression but never credited them to the abuse she’d experienced as a child.
‘I’m a real sceptical person and I’ve always sort of thought when people say they can trace things back to their childhood for crimes or whatnot or whatever, I’d say, “Oh, don’t be so ridiculous”. Until it hit me.’
Forty years after the abuse occurred, Felicia found that she couldn’t suppress it any longer. ‘I tried to kill myself. And it wasn’t because I had a bad family life, it was nothing. It was just it all came together.’
As part of her recovery she sought psychological help and after enduring two counsellors who were ‘useless’ she found the woman who is still helping her today. Felicia is now determined to drag all her old memories into the light and get control of her story – for her own sake and for her children.
‘I don’t want my kids to think, “What the hell is she talking about?” when you have repressed memories coming back out in your old age. God, my kids are absolutely going to die if I say half of the crap that must be buried in my background, so I thought, I’ve got to start talking about all this crap to get that out.’