Freda's story

Freda told the Commissioner that her mum had a little dog. ‘That dog got more love and affection than we ever did.’ Freda was belted and bashed by her parents, who were alcoholics. ‘Quite often they drank until they’d fall down’, she said. She and her sister were also sexually abused by their grandfather – in Freda’s case, it began when she was three.

To escape her family life Freda often ran away from home and would be picked up by police. In the mid-1960s, as a 14-year-old, she was sent by court order to a residential care home in western Sydney. She can remember the judge saying she was to have counselling while she was there, and the opportunity to complete her school education.

‘That was an order of the judge, and that never happened’, she said. Instead, ‘I was made to work like a horse, and I didn’t have any further schooling.’ She was also psychologically, physically and sexually abused.

Freda recently attended an open day at the home. It was the first time she’d been there since her nine-month stay, 46 years before. Her visit affected her powerfully. ‘I thought I was strong enough and I didn’t realise that I would have the reaction that I did have. Especially the anxiety.’

Walking around the spaces open to the public – the dormitories, the showers, the cells – Freda couldn’t breathe. She was taken back to the overwhelming fear she’d lived with during her time there. ‘When I was there I felt like I was cut off from the world, and I didn’t know if I was going to survive it’, she said. ‘You had no safety.’

Abuse of all kinds was meted out by staff at the home. The matron carried out weekly body inspections. After showering, each girl stood at the end of her bed, wearing only a towel. The matron would take the towel away and scrutinise the naked girl, front and back, looking for tattoos, signs of self-harm and other infringements such as plucked eyebrows. She made the girls squat and, wearing surgical gloves, would explore their vaginas with her fingers – ‘searching for contraband’, Freda explained.

‘I see that as sexual assault and humiliation – but also psychological assault, with her having complete control over us.’

There was also bullying and abuse between inmates. There was no point reporting such incidents as the assailant always found out and retaliated. Freda was molested by another girl, who made Freda kiss and masturbate her at every opportunity. One day a church minister Freda knew visited the home and she told him what had been happening. ‘He said, “Well, you’ve been a bad girl”,’ she recalled.

Freda was also violently assaulted by one of the supervisors at the home. He beat her up in the cell where she’d been put as punishment. Then he brutally raped her. She was left in the cell for several days, allowed out only to work. No one spoke to her. As it turned out these were her last days at the home before she was returned to the care of her family. Not long afterwards, aged 16, she got married. ‘It was just to escape my parents’, she said. Her husband, a friend of her father’s, was a much older man, alcoholic and violent. He was the first in a succession of abusive partners.

‘My history since I went through [the home] has been horrendous’, Freda told the Commissioner. ‘It had a flow on effect in every aspect of my life. I became a prostitute, I married and each time I married, I married someone that was domineering and not a nice person – someone that would harm me and bash me. Like all of my relationships ended up in domestic violence … Broken noses, broken bones, broken ribs, broken jaw, dislocated jaw, you know, teeth knocked out. That’s been my history and as a result I’ve had severe trust issues.’

She’s also had a troubled relationship with her children, she said. ‘I was always scared I was going to hurt them.’

Freda was addicted to heroin for many years, but in the late 1990s managed to get drug-free. ‘The turning point was when I owned my behaviour, as an adult.’ She had come to realise that the common denominator in the bad things that kept happening to her, was her.

‘I gravitated to people who were going to harm me, and I hated it. I didn’t know why I did that, and so then I thought, okay, I need to learn about me. I need to learn why I do these things. I need to learn why I used drugs or alcohol, I need to learn why I want to escape from reality.’

She sought counselling for about a year but long waiting lists and constraints on the number of sessions available meant it didn’t happen. At that time she had a $1000 a day heroin habit and was working as a prostitute to pay for it. She decided to enter a methadone program as a way to get counselling.

‘I knew they had skilled counsellors … If I went on the methadone program I could access a counsellor and they could teach me what was wrong with me and I could try and fix it. So that’s why I did it, and I stayed on the methadone program for six months.’

Freda applied for compensation through victims of crime and received a payout of $10,000. She had previously seen a lawyer, many years before, who’d advised her not to pursue a claim against the home because she had no chance of success. She told the Commissioner she believed every ex-inmate of the home should be given $100,000 in compensation.

‘Because how many of us killed ourselves? How many of us have gone down into abusive relationships and had husbands that beat us? How many of us lost our children’s love and respect because we didn’t know how to be a parent? How many of us lost ourselves in alcohol and drugs?’

Freda continues to have counselling and also attends Narcotics Anonymous. She has post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. And there was more adversity in her life; she lost custody of her sons, which caused a breakdown, a lapse back into drug use and ultimately a suicide attempt. ‘I’d got to the stage where I thought I’ve been through too much pain and agony, and I don’t want to go through any more – I’d had enough.’ She was found before the attempt was successful and she eventually recovered.

‘Today, I’m functioning’, she said.

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