‘No one gave a shit. No one cared. And that’s a horrible thing to grow up with.’
Gloria was describing the hands-off attitude of the various welfare agencies she came into contact with as a child. They just wanted to ‘tick the box’, she said.
That meant that when she was 10 or 11, in the early 1980s, Gloria was sent from a girls’ home in Victoria to join her mother interstate. Whatever checks were done by family services apparently weren’t sufficient to expose the situation she was being sent to. ‘If they went to that house there’s no way in hell that you wouldn’t know. There was no furniture in the house, there was nothing’, Gloria said.
‘The alcohol and violence in that home was ridiculous … Young girl like that, you got drunks all around, what do you think happened? Fresh meat for them.’ Gloria was molested multiple times, but didn’t tell anyone – she was too ashamed, she said.
One weekend Gloria went to stay with a relative. When she returned on the Sunday, the house was closed up and empty. Her mother had taken off. Gloria was 11 – abandoned and homeless. ‘True story’, she said.
Over the next year or so she ‘just sort of wandered’. She went to her grandmother’s first of all – ‘But her mob were all big, big drinkers, and fighting … each other all the time’. After a few months her grandmother left town, and then Gloria stayed with different people, mostly family. ‘What do they call it – couch surfing – that’s basically what I did.’
She also stole from time to time – food, because she was hungry, and clothes, because she needed them. She was eventually arrested and sent for five months to a juvenile detention centre.
Gloria was the only girl at the centre. A supervisor, Marissa – the sole female officer – decided she needed to have a ‘full woman’s check’ on arrival, to see if she had any sexually transmitted diseases. Gloria didn’t want to the examination. She was placed in a separate cell, away from the main centre, and told she’d stay there until she agreed to have it done. Gloria was not sexually active, and didn’t want to be internally examined. ‘So I’d argue the point. But she wouldn’t listen. She’d just say unless you have it, then you’re not allowed to come out to the other area.’
After about a week on her own, Gloria capitulated. She was taken to the hospital, where a female doctor began the examination, in full view of a male officer from the centre. ‘At the time I was really distressed. I was crying, I was upset, I was asking them to stop – but she wouldn’t stop.’ Instead, the doctor told Gloria she’d get the male officer to restrain her unless she lay still. These days, Gloria said, the experience would be termed sexual abuse. ‘It’s not the nicest thing in the world to have done at that age’, she said.
There were no separate facilities at the centre for girls, so Gloria used the staff showers. She had her own room and didn’t have any trouble with the boys. ‘I was tough as nails. They didn’t come near me.’ However, she was often verbally abused by staff: ‘”It doesn’t matter anyway ‘cause you’ll end up being a prostitute junkie, dead in the gutter one day”. Things like that. So there was never any support or anything like that, they just treated you like shit. But there was a couple that were okay.’
Released from detention, Gloria was sent to stay with an aunt in New South Wales. A series of placements followed, formal arrangements with foster families and informal ones with extended family members. At one foster home, she was raped by the son of the family. He tried to do it again a week or later, but was interrupted. He beat her up instead.
Gloria didn’t report the rape – she felt too ashamed. But she reported the physical assault to police, and the 18-year-old boy, Trent, was eventually charged and convicted. Gloria vividly remembers a meeting with her welfare officer and Trent’s father, who begged her to withdraw the charges. Rather than supporting her, the welfare officer took Trent’s side – think of Trent’s future, she was told.
‘I just think that at the time the department, you know the welfare, they should have given a shit. They should have cared more. They should have checked on you. I mean, flags go up – 17, 18-year-old boy just kicked the shit out of you – why would he do that?’
The constant moving meant Gloria missed out on her education. ‘I say, “Well, I was a pre-school dropout”, because I just never went to school.’ There were other impacts, too.
‘I was all over the place’, she said. ‘By the time I was 13, 14 I’d had something like 26 placements or more. It messed me up. Like I said, I have a joke about it now but I was an absolutely little nutter by the time I was 15. Now that I’m older I look at it and I totally understand why.’
She had her first child in her mid-teens. By her late teens she was a heavy user of alcohol and marijuana. But she managed to turn her life around. ‘Just one day a big bright light came on that’s just like, do I want the same for my kids?’
Gloria now works in social services, helping teenagers like the one she was. She recently went to police to report Trent’s rape of some 30 years before. She believes he sexually assaulted other girls as well. She has never had counselling or sought compensation – these options were never presented to her and she only recently found out about them.
She would like to see more continuity of staff in welfare services, particular those working with Aboriginal communities. ‘You get people that come through … they’re there for about three to six months, make lifelong decisions about children and they’re out the door. It’s just ridiculous.’ Too often they’re more worried about paperwork than the kids, she believes.
She would also like to see the knowledge and experience of local Aboriginal women better used – in training programs, for example, that could help bring the often non-Aboriginal welfare service staffers ‘up to speed’ with local needs.
In her own case, she believes the failures of the system played a major part in her situation.
‘It just snowballed. It never improved’, she said.
‘When I was younger I just thought it was my fault, of course. That I was unloved or I couldn’t be loved. As you get older you realise it’s not. But it took me a long time to get to that realisation.’