Gwen Iris's story

Gwen is not sure why she was made a state ward in the late 1960s. She was about eight at the time and her sister Margie, also placed under wardship, was a couple of years older. ‘My sister tells me that I’ve forgotten a lot of things.’

The girls ended up in a small Melbourne orphanage run by an aid society. ‘When we were first there it was really, really good.’

Kids were punished for misdemeanors but there were also outings and celebrations – even presents at Christmas. A new superintendent, Geoffrey Marsh, changed all that: ‘Christmas wasn’t Christmas any more ... You didn’t celebrate birthdays or anything like that. It just really changed.’

The children were sent out to foster families at weekends and during holidays. Gwen was placed with an older couple, Rose and Dudley Markham. ‘At first it was really fun being in a family situation, being able to meet ordinary children.’

But Rose got sick, and Dudley took over responsibility for Gwen. He also began sexually abusing her. This started with him watching her in the shower or bath. He never knocked, he just walked in. It quickly escalated.

‘At night time he’d come in to tuck me into bed and his hands would go all over. I’d say to him to stop it – that it wasn’t right – but he wouldn’t stop it. And he told me I wasn’t allowed to say anything to anybody when I went back to the home. And I didn’t, for a while.’

As a 10 or 11-year old, Gwen was raped by Markham. She told Margie what had happened, and Margie told her to tell Marsh.

‘I got told I was a liar … and I was making trouble’, Gwen said. ‘Foster carers are vetted, that’s what they told me.’

Over the next 12 months Gwen was sent back to the Markhams over and over. Dudley continued to rape and assault her. ‘It kept going on, and I ran away.’

She was picked up by police, and told them why she’d run away. The police reported her story to Marsh, who convinced them it was untrue.

Gwen’s behaviour changed as a result of the ongoing abuse. ‘I started wetting my pants, started misbehaving.’ Her grades dropped. ‘I went from being a really good student to getting Ds and Es. And I just used to get in trouble, and told to study.’ She started bullying other kids. But still no one believed she was being abused.

‘Every time I’d come back I’d say something and they would say “No. Dudley isn’t like that” … “They don’t do that” – that’s what I was always told.’

Dudley’s abuse came to an end when Gwen’s stepfather wrote a letter asking her to go and stay with her family – ‘For a holiday, and to get to know my mum and other kids’.

Gwen hadn’t seen any of them since being placed in care. About 13 years old, still a state ward, she was sent to join them in the remote Queensland town where they lived. She remained there for about the next four years, in what turned out to be new kind of hell.

Gwen’s stepfather, Tommy Ledger, was a paedophile. He sexually abused his own children, his stepchildren, and the foster children who were placed in his care.

Her mother definitely knew what Tommy was doing. ‘Because he would take the little kids into the marriage bed. She was there.’

Tommy sexually abused Gwen until she was 17, when Margie helped her get away. He was later charged with sex offences, and Gwen gave police a statement about what he’d done to her. The police weren’t interested when she told them about the abuse by Dudley.

When Gwen spoke to the Commissioner she was in a correctional centre, incarcerated some years earlier for her part in a crime committed with her husband. This crime involved sex offences and violence against a child. She told the Commissioner her experiences of sexual and other abuse were a big factor in how she came to be complicit in this offence.

‘I took a wrong path in life because I didn’t know any better. And I know that’s no excuse, but that’s what happened’, she said.

‘I know I’m not the only one, but when things happen to you in life like that it plays on your mind all the time. A lot of times you look for the same sort of partner. Someone who not just physically abuses you but mentally and verbally. I’ve done that twice, I’ve been married twice and both of my husbands have been the same …

‘I lied to the police. I was scared. It doesn’t make any difference. I knew it was wrong, because it had happened to me … As I said at my court case – I’m so ashamed, but I was glad it wasn’t happening to me. He’d already raped me that day and I was so glad it wasn’t happening again.’

As a prisoner, Gwen has had access to support services she never before knew existed, including access to specialised counselling and legal advice. ‘I’ve never ever known I could talk to anybody about it, till I come to jail’, she said. ‘Maybe if I’d known I could have got help, my life might have turned out better.’

She told the Commissioner that what she hopes for the future is that children will be believed. That’s what would have made a difference to her. ‘They need someone to be there for them’, she said.

‘They need to have someone there that’s on their side that can talk to them and they can talk to them and tell them everything. Because you feel so alone and you don’t know how to cope.’

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