‘They took my virginity. I always say my virginity cost $13,000. It’s the only way I can make it sit pretty in my head.’
Gwen had already been in care in the United Kingdom before her family migrated to Australia in the early 1970s when she was 13 years old.
‘I left all my support systems … particularly my grandparents. I was very close to them and when I came here I didn’t have anyone to run to … I was uncontrollable … I was totally uncontrollable.’
The family lived in Queensland and home life was challenging. Gwen’s father was in the navy and absent for long periods of time. When he was at home he was an alcoholic and frequently violent. Gwen and her siblings were ‘disciplined very hard’.
‘When he used to come home from sea, we used to end up with nine months’ worth of hidings.’
Gwen didn’t settle into her Australian school and began running away and committing petty crimes. She came to the attention of welfare services and was taken into care when she was about 14 years old. She was deemed ‘in need of care and control’.
‘“Likely to lead a life of vice and crime”. I’ll never forget that sentence because I never did, even though they tried to insinuate that I did. But I didn’t.’
Gwen was placed in a state-run youth centre in Brisbane initially for five months and then ‘went in and out’ of the institution. On her arrival, she was subjected to an invasive examination by the medical officer, who inserted a speculum in her vagina and while doing so asked Gwen if she ‘did it for cigarettes or money?’
‘You went in, you stripped off, you got deloused, and then you had to go and see this fella. And you know, you get told to spread your legs and he does his doodah.’
Gwen resisted the regimentation and control of the centre and found the punishments harsh. To make her compliant, Gwen was drugged although she still ‘ended up in detention a few times’. But instead of being a punishment, Gwen ‘used to enjoy [detention] because I’d be there in a room of my own and I wouldn’t have to deal with any bloody rubbish’.
When she left the centre, Gwen returned home but ‘my mum just couldn’t wait to get rid of me’. She decided, even though she was still only 14 years old, that she could manage on her own.
‘I ended up nicking off, “Nah can’t make it here in Queensland, I’ll go to Victoria and make a fresh start”.’
She found work and accommodation but was coerced into helping an older woman in a crime and was caught, charged and sentenced to four months in a Victorian government-run youth centre.
‘I was intelligent, I was smart. I could work. All I wanted them to do was to just leave me alone and let me get on with what I was doing … “I’m trying to make a good go of things here”. Just because I’m 15 doesn’t mean I can’t do it. I’d already lived a lifetime before I got here … I knew what to do.’
Gwen found the centre ‘awful’.
‘When I was in remand, that was pretty good because I was a bit of a stand over there, everything had to be hunky dory. “Don’t mess with anything” … If somebody interfered with that, then I’d smash ‘em one but that was just because I wanted everything to be calm and nice and, “Don’t come in here and make ripples”.’
Gwen was then sent to the treatment section.
‘I went to treatment … that’s where you get all the drugs … They gave it to everybody … to make us compliant … [We] had no choice.’
Gwen was sexually abused by a group of girls just before she was due to be released.
‘The guards told these people that I was leaving … There was about four or five in the room and they were trying to hold me down while one was inserting a hairbrush in my vagina.’
She knows that a guard was aware of the assault but didn’t do anything to help her.
‘They brushed it off and said I was fine with it.’
Gwen left the centre the next day and ‘didn’t do anything about it because I was just happy to get away’.
Since then Gwen has had a number of long relationships, had children and worked consistently. She has also completed a university degree.
‘I’ve always been a high achiever. That’s what I expect from myself. I don’t need other people to be telling me [what to do].’
It wasn’t until the Queensland redress enquiry that Gwen first talked about her abuse.
‘That was the first time, as an adult that I’d had to face that … It was crippling. It really was. In the end I just put on the bottom of the statement “I just can’t go on anymore. Just take this for what it is. Do what you will”, which was really bad.’
She was awarded a small amount of compensation.
Gwen has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and has experienced a significant mental breakdown where she spent time in a psychiatric hospital. She has seen a counsellor for ‘most of my adult life’.
She has good relationships with all her children and the ongoing support of her partner. Now, Gwen is seeking advice from the legal service, knowmore, about a compensation claim against the Victorian centre, something she has not been strong enough to do before.
‘I don’t know how they got away with treating us the way they did for so long … I feel like I can deal with that now.’