As an infant in the early 1960s, Helen was sexually abused by her father, with her mother’s complicity. Then, when she was three, her mother abandoned the children – ‘She just disappeared, she walked out. We found out later she’d done this with another child previously’ – and her father vanished as well.
The kids were scattered among several orphanages in New South Wales. Subsequently, her youngest brother was taken in by a family that went on to adopt him, ‘and he has had a terrific life with his new family’. By contrast, Helen and her younger brother Jimmy went to a foster family, the Arnotts, and didn’t fare nearly so well.
At first, though, Helen was overjoyed. ‘I remember thinking, “Great! I’ve got somewhere that’s a beautiful house, and somewhere I belong, and someone that’s happy to have me belong”.’
But there was someone else who was happy to have Helen nearby. ‘Uncle Doug’ was a friend of Gina, Mrs Arnott. ‘He lived next door. He groomed Gina and even got her to put in a gate between the properties. So, when I was only a child, I’d be walking down the side path and he’d grab me through this gate.
‘And then he’d take me down into the garage.’
The nine-year-old sought help. ‘I tried to tell Gina that Uncle Doug was not a good man and not doing good things to me. But she said “You’re making it up” and “Don't be silly”. She shut me down.’
Mrs Arnott’s sister made the situation worse.
‘She never really accepted us kids. She made you realise you were an outsider and that you’d better know your place. According to her, me telling about Doug showed that I was “boy crazy” and “a slut”. That’s what they both said.
‘I said, “What does that mean?” They told me to look it up in the dictionary.’
Officers from the Department of Community Services visited monthly, but Helen was scared to speak up. ‘They never acknowledged me, never interacted with me – I was treated as a nobody, as if I didn't exist.’
She wasn’t the only one being ignored by bureaucracy. Early on the Arnotts had been told they would be able to adopt Helen and Jimmy, just as their younger brother had been. But the applications were continually put on hold and then knocked back.
‘The reason given was that they couldn’t find my father and get his permission. But then they found him, and he gave permission for our youngest brother, but not for me and Jimmy …
‘I felt Mr Arnott had given up on us because he couldn’t get approval to adopt. Their feelings towards us and ours towards them weren’t mutual, it was becoming strained … They were insinuating they didn’t want us there anymore.’
Eventually, when Helen was 12, it was decided the children should leave. They were driven to a Sydney children’s home. ‘I got out of the car first, then turned around for my brother, and the car drove off. I started screaming, “They’ve taken my brother!” until the caretaker hustled me inside and said, “No, he’s going to another home down the road”.’
Later that year, sister and brother were reunited at a rural children’s home, but the trouble wasn’t over. Jimmy admitted that ‘terrible things’ had happened to him alone at the boys’ home, and Helen recalled that he blamed her for having to leave the Arnotts. Meanwhile, she was subjected to grooming and inappropriate touching by one of the staff.
Helen’s adult life was blighted by the insecurity and lack of trust she suffered in her youth. Describing her outward persona as one of ‘wearing armour’, Helen had a nervous breakdown and tried to take own life.
In later years she found happiness and security in a second marriage. But even then there were struggles. ‘I’d go shopping and something would trigger me, and I’d say to the kids, “C’mon, c’mon, let’s go!” They’re wailing, “Mum, Mum, what about the trolley, what about the food?” and I’m like, “We have to get out of here.”
‘I was having a panic attack. But the kids were good. They’d say, “Don’t worry, Mum, we’ll try again tomorrow”.’
Helen has never considered approaching police or seeking compensation. She blames a fear of authority figures. But she has found a great counselling service, and says that being with other survivors made her feel she wasn't alone. In fact, the strength and insight gained have inspired Helen to become a counsellor herself.
‘In the end, what’s happened has happened,’ she said. ‘It’s what you do with what happened that’s important.’