Heather Sarah's story

Heather’s parents were criminals and she and her younger brother, Rob, had ‘been through the mill’ and ‘dragged around’. Heather became a ward of the state when she was two years old in the 1950s. She and Rob were split up and fostered.

That placement ended and Heather was sent to a reception centre in Sydney. It was there that she was told her brother had been killed in an accident. Heather absconded and when she returned shortly afterwards a staff member deliberately pushed her down the stairs. That was one of many severe physical assaults Heather experienced as a child.

Heather was sent to a girls’ home in Sydney’s west when she was around 10 years old. There she was raped by a male officer, Mr Stewart. ‘I know it happened the once. I actually think it happened more than once. But there’s a lot of stuff I don’t remember about that place.’

She doesn’t know if other girls were being abused by Stewart.

‘It was a feeling that you had that, yes, it happened to others but you didn’t really know.’

The girls didn’t talk about it.

Heather always feared she was going to end up in a worse girls’ home or in jail. She was constantly told by staff that her mother was no good and she was going to be just like her.

Thinking back, Heather finds it hard to grasp the ‘cruelty, the mindset of the people’ at the home. ‘My big thing is you have to be very careful who you put in charge of children. Because these types of people manipulate their way into these positions. They didn’t get there by accident.’ She said she realises, in hindsight, a lot of people knew about the abuse that went on and that the abusers were protected.

In her file it says that she was ‘disruptive’ and ‘mucking up’. Heather sees that as signs of her fighting spirit. ‘Sometimes I would just capitulate and do whatever I was supposed to do or had to do and then I, I don’t know, some little button would get switched somewhere, I’d just be off.’

Heather had had a good experience at a previous children’s home, where she was taught skills by people who ‘actually contributed’. One comment from a staff member came to mind. ‘He once told me that he’d like to see me go to university, thought I was very clever. And I think that little statement actually made a big difference to me.’

At 16 Heather was handed back to her father, now no longer in jail, but whom she barely knew. The welfare department made no follow up with her after that. ‘I never thought two things about that at the time. I just thought, “Okay, right, well here I go. I’m out”. But when I think about it as an adult it’s a horror. And nothing happened. I mean everything was just fine - in one sense. But God, what could have happened? If he was a different person?’

Years later, Heather found out the devastating news that her brother was alive and that the department had made a mistake by recording his death. Their father had gone to his grave believing his son was dead. Heather tracked Rob down and has had some limited contact with him since.

The childhood abuse affected Heather throughout her life including in relationships. ‘I’ve been married twice. The first marriage fell apart because I sometimes just couldn’t bear to be touched. Or I’d want to be by myself sometimes. I like to sit by myself sometimes.’

She has broken a cycle by being the first in four generations of her family to keep her own children. Her children are all well-educated and have ‘wonderful’ children of their own.

In the 1980s Heather’s children became aware of her sexual abuse. ‘[My son’s] words to me were, “I didn’t know that. I thought it was all fun”. Because I used to say about how I would pitch frankfurts and get caught, get into trouble or sit in the clink all that time and be quite content, thinking I was winning because I wasn’t talking. I was locked up but I was winning. I used to make it funny.’

Heather has not gone to the police to report Stewart because she has health problems and doesn’t think it would be worth going through the process. She hasn’t applied for compensation either but injuries she suffered as a child at the hands of staff are affecting her now that she’s older. ‘They [the government] should be looking after us with healthcare’.

She decided to speak to the Royal Commission after watching some of the hearings, and came to the conclusion that ‘they actually want to know the truth and I’ve never felt that before. I’ve felt as though people … they smile at you and give you a stare and ignore it.’

In a written statement, Heather gave the Commission a number of recommendations including:

‘Negative comments by politicians, media and the public hurt and reopen wounds. Blaming the victims MUST be stopped. Like comments made by a Senior Senator (who is supposed to represent the people of Australia) when asked about The Forgotten Australians, “they would not have been there if they weren’t promiscuous in the first place”. Statements like that really demand a rebuff from his colleagues … That comment undermined my self-respect and did nothing to undo the damage done in those years.’

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