Gabrielle Ruth's story

When Gabrielle was two she and her younger brother, Rick, were removed from their alcoholic parents due to neglect. The children were made wards of the state and fostered to Mrs Summers and her husband.

‘To be honest with you, the person that I am today, I am really grateful to [Mrs Summers] because I think she’s given me my strength, my principles, my morals … I owe so much to her.’

Gabrielle has obtained her records from the time - dating back to the 1960s. One welfare report stated, ‘There is a good bond of affection between the foster mother and the children, and there is no doubt that Mrs Summers is to be complimented on the job she and her husband have done in rearing these children. They are delightful children’.

In the mid-60s, Gabrielle and Rick’s biological parents decided they wanted them back. There was concern about this, because they’d previously agreed to the Summers adopting the two children. However, the adoption papers were never signed.

One New South Wales Department of Community Services document stated, ‘There is always an element of risk in restoring children who have no recollection of their parents and this case is no exception. However … restoration is more likely to succeed now than later’.

As a result, Gabrielle and Rick were returned to their biological parents, Brenda and Hugh Hillyard.

‘In the time that I was there, there was domestic violence. There was physical violence towards my brother … The drinking started again.'

Welfare officers did visit the home. ‘In their [reports] it states that when they come to the house I seem really well and happy and well-adjusted … The thing is that … parents can turn around and they can make anything look good … but [welfare] didn’t know what was going on under the surface’.

Living with them was their half-brother on their mother’s side, Gerard, who was older. When Gabrielle was nine she came home from school one day to discover her mother and Gerard having sex. ‘They said to me that I was never to tell anybody about what I saw. If I did … they “would get me one day”.’

Brenda and Gerard fled the house, leaving Gabrielle and Rick alone with their alcoholic father. When she ‘blurted out’ what she’d seen, he belted Rick and got Gabrielle to sit on his lap. ‘And that’s where the sexual abuse started.’

In order to protect her brother from beatings, she would distract her father by saying ‘“Dad, come with me” … So, it turned out that I was basically prostituting myself to him, to leave Rick alone’.

Again they were in a household of neglect, not fed or clothed properly. ‘Then all of a sudden the Salvation Army came in.’ She and her brother were put into separate children’s homes. Hers was ‘absolutely horrible’.

When Gabrielle was 11 or 12 an aunt found her and eventually fostered her through the Barnardos program. However, this household was violent and exploitative. ‘I became a house slave.’

Because Gabrielle went to school with welts, welfare was called and their house was visited by a ‘lady from Barnardos’. She told Gabrielle that there was no room for her at Barnardos.

‘And I said, “There is no way you’re leaving me here. You do, I won’t be alive”. So anyway, she took me.’

About a year later Brenda and Gerard visited the home and took Gabrielle out for the day. She didn’t want to go but the staff insisted. ‘They took me to this pub … and we sat in the car ... I was feeling really uncomfortable.’

Gabrielle managed to escape and went back to the home. ‘To this day, I honestly feel that my life was in danger.’ When Gabrielle explained to staff why she’d returned early and everything that had happened, she was not believed. In fact, she was disciplined. Gabrielle never saw her mother again.

At 18 she had to leave Barnardos as her schooling was finished. ‘And because I had nobody, absolutely nobody, I went back to [my aunt’s]. And I copped my last hiding when I was 21.’

Although Gabrielle has severe health issues, such as PTSD and bi-polar disorder, she has a lot to live for including children and grandchildren. She sees herself as a ‘protector’ and has taken in a lot of homeless kids. She’s done a number of family searches and found other siblings, as well as aunts and uncles, which has given her a lot of strength. But it’s been 20 years since she saw her brother, Rick. ‘I would give anything to see him just one more time.’

‘I know I’ve been through a hell of a lot in my life. And I don’t wake up going, “I’m going to feel sorry for myself”. I’ve been determined not to be like my biological mother, even though I’ve had two failed marriages myself … I’m not an alcoholic. I don’t do drugs … I’ve fought really, really hard for it ... I’ve helped people. I’ve loved people. I’ve accomplished a lot. I just want to make an impact.’

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