‘The purpose of this is not to talk about an attack on a nine-year-old unprotected girl who had the wherewithal to thwart a physical/sexual attack on her, but to tell you about the institutional response to this event.’
Hazel was born to ‘an intelligent, yet lowly educated’ mother in the 1940s, who could neither find nor afford any suitable accommodation for the two of them. ‘There was no benefits, there was nothing. And she’d been relying on the goodwill of friends, so good friends told her I should go into a home, and I’d be better looked after. And of course, she’s never been in one.’
Her mother did not want Hazel ‘to be removed from her care and placed into a state or religious institution’. Instead she chose to send her to a Protestant children’s home in suburban Sydney when she was four, so they could still have visits.
‘In this home, we endured savagery with beatings, punishment, lies and oppression that children should never endure.’ One of the matrons would proclaim ‘you don’t show a child affection because they’ll want more’ as a way of defending this cruelty. All of the children were assigned a number which staff used to refer to them. ‘If I was ever called by my name by staff members, it was because they had forgotten my number.’
At this time only girls were accommodated at the home, and they slept in dormitories. One night when Hazel was nine, two unknown boys came into her dormitory while she slept.
‘I woke up to find male hands around my crotch and fingers trying to penetrate me. Never one to freeze in a panic, I realised that the hand had had to slide down under the bedclothes because the blankets were tucked very tightly into my bed. I also realised that if I released the bedclothes I would be susceptible to open attack by someone I knew was bigger than me.
‘I pushed myself down lower into the bed violently wriggling the whole time to un-lodge the hands that were grasping my genitals. The attacker removed his hand to pull back the blankets to which I sprung up and started yelling and verbally abusing him. While I was struggling, I heard another boy attacking the girl in the next bed to me who was terrified but also compliant with fear.’
Hazel grabbed a chair and threatened the boys, and kept making noise until other people started waking up. The boys ran away, and Hazel and the other girl went to the matron’s quarters which was quite a distance from the dormitories. They banged on her door until she woke up, and told her what had happened. She did not believe them at first, but went to her window and saw the boys escaping over the wall. After sending them all back to bed she locked their dormitory door.
The next morning another staff member woke them and yelled to the matron that ‘we were indulging in childish hysteria which shouldn’t be encouraged. We told her what had happened and she refused to believe us. She then punished me for leading this hysteria with physical work and the removal of parental visits for the next two weeks’.
Hazel continued to be punished, accused of having an ‘over-sexualised’ imagination and ‘attention-seeking’. The other girl stopped supporting her, too. ‘I asked Matron for help but she said there was nothing more she could do. She left her job soon after. The police were not called.’
Another time Hazel was sent to stay with a family. The wife took her to visit a retired neighbour, and he sexually abused her while they were picking fruit on his property.
As time went on Hazel was taunted by staff, visiting clergy, and the other girls about her ‘fantasies of men and sex’, to the stage where ‘my humiliation drove me inwards and I began to become fearful of sex and any sexual behaviour as a teenager’. Her mother was advised that she had been telling lies, so she did not feel she could tell her about the abuse.
Hazel’s experiences at the home ‘helped shape my attitude to authority which has been rebelliousness in spite of my constant efforts to harness it’. As an adult she became a strong advocate and activist on women’s issues, and campaigned for the closure of the children’s home.
Her personal relationships were impacted upon by her upbringing. ‘I’ve never really had a relationship that was overly successful, sex-wise or otherwise.’ As a mother she didn’t know how to treat her daughter with care and kindness, and has now had ‘to forgive myself for how hard I was on her’.
‘When my daughter was born I only knew cruelty, I’d never known anything else. Now I wouldn’t say I was cruel, but I was very hard on her, very, very hard – even when I thought I was being soft. I was fiery tempered, I was filthy tempered. And it was just watching other people with their own kids, and realising you didn’t have to be hard for every misdemeanour, just observing brought me round.’
As her daughter grew up, Hazel would explain her own behaviour: ‘This is my problem not yours. I’m learning to deal with this ... this is nothing to do with you. This is me learning to deal with my own weaknesses.
‘She was fantastic ... She just taught me about humanity and life’.