Gail was only a baby when she was placed in foster care in England. Then, in the late 1940s when she was five years old, she was brought to Australia and placed in a home for migrant children in Western Australia run by a philanthropic society.
Gail lived in a cottage with a number of other girls. The cottage mother was emotionally and physically cruel.
‘She was a real cruel and sadistic woman … If you wet the bed she would put your head down the toilet, make you stand outside with your wet sheets. She would lock you in a broom closet if she thought you’d done something wrong or disobeyed her.’
The woman would also routinely denigrate all the children. Gail remembers being told she was ‘from the gutter’ and that she ‘had nobody’.
‘So you grow up thinking that … We were just treated like slaves. I don’t remember anybody being nice down there.’
The humiliations continued until the woman was fired when Gail was in her mid-teens. She and the other children had earlier tried to report her behaviour but to no avail.
‘It took a long time for anyone to believe. You’re only a child, you don’t get believed at all. You’re from the gutter. Who believes anybody who’s from the gutter? Never believed us.’
As Gail grew older, the home organised for her to work for families as a cook or cleaner or nanny. During one posting she was pack raped by three boys who had befriended her. She was 15.
‘I can never get over that. Can’t stand anybody touching me. They [at the society] didn’t believe me … Nothing was done about that … It had a big impact on my life. You just felt dirty because they blame you for everything, “You dirty little thing”.’
Gail was transferred to another family and found them to be open and supportive.
‘I liked that job. I looked after a little boy … They treated me like one of their own … I would have stayed there only a farmer up the road started molesting me … I didn’t know how to stop it and in the end I just got in touch with the home and said, “I don’t want to stay here anymore. I can’t”.’
Gail reported the sexual abuse to the society but again, nothing was done.
‘They don’t believe you. They didn’t believe anything you said … I was too scared to say anything … That was the best job I ever had … they treated you like a human being.’
Gail’s schooling had always suffered and she found it difficult to apply herself to study. She became pregnant and the society made her marry the father. He was abusive but the relationship continued for many years. Finally, Gail divorced him and received custody of her children.
‘It’s been a lonely life ever since … If anybody got too close and I felt threatened I can’t handle it … Couldn’t handle anyone being around me. So, I just closed right off. I’ve got my family … they’re my life now … but it is so lonely.’
The Child Migrant Trust has assisted Gail in tracking down her English family, including siblings she never knew she had. This has taken almost 15 years.
‘My poor mum when I first met her, I’ll never forget the words she said to me … “Mum, it’s Gail, darling. I’ve come to see you”. She looked at me and said “I know who you are but bastards took you away from me”. It must have been devastating for all the families.’
Gail was in her late 50s when she first met her mother. She still has great difficulty understanding why she was removed from England.
‘They wouldn’t let me go back. Said I was better off in Australia and look what happened … We all question what’s love. We all question that … you question what is love because you never had the cuddles and the kisses and the goodnights and the stories – anything that your parents would give you. I’ve done it all for my children but … I can’t understand what love is.’
Gail made an application for compensation through Redress WA but found the process difficult. She feels that the system didn’t centre on the abuse and ongoing trauma of individual survivors.
‘I think the outcome was disgusting really … to me it was like a means test … every child had something done to them … everybody should be treated the same and get the same.’
She would like to see more financial assistance for all child migrants brought to Australia so they can spend longer periods getting to know their families overseas.
‘I only met my mum a few times and the couple of times I did see her it was like an hour here or an hour there … that’s not enough.’
Gail still feels immense shame about the sexual abuse she experienced. Telling her children before she spoke to the Royal Commission was very difficult.
‘It’s been rubbed into you all your life that you instigated everything that happened … I had to tell my kids – [I felt] dirty.’