Ilsa doesn’t recall exactly when she was removed from her family and placed into care, but she does recall that her mother was sick and she and her siblings were placed in different homes according to their colour. Her two younger brothers were placed in foster care with the Fletcher family, while Ilsa and her remaining siblings were sent to different orphanages due to their darker skin. ‘Our parents separated after we were removed and they became alcoholics. I believe that our removal caused this.’
As an Aboriginal girl growing up in 1960s Western Australia, Ilsa faced constant racial discrimination. At the orphanage, Caucasian girls were allowed to grow their hair while Aboriginal girls were given crew-cuts. Non-Aboriginal children were given better food than Aboriginal children, and Ilsa recalled an occasion when her father visited and presented her with a teddy bear which was subsequently confiscated and given to a white child.
Ilsa would often visit the Fletcher home in order to spend time with her younger brothers. Mr Fletcher would pick Ilsa up from the orphanage and take her to the beach with her brothers, where he would sexually abuse her.
While her brothers were occupied ‘Mr Fletcher would take me out to the deep and play with [me]. And kiss me. I couldn’t swim. He knew I couldn’t swim’.
Ilsa would cry and ask him to stop ‘but he wouldn’t stop’. Fletcher would also fondle and digitally penetrate Ilsa when towel drying her after the swim, and again later when giving her a bath at his home. ‘Mrs Fletcher turned a blind eye.’
Ilsa tried to disclose the abuse. ‘I reported it to Mr Harper, my welfare officer, that “he keeps kissing me. I don’t like that, kissing me all the time”. And I forgotten about the telling about the water and in the bath and everything.’ Ilsa recalled Mr Harper was very kind and she thought ‘he was the best adult’, but does not know if anything further happened about her disclosure. She believes Fletcher also abused her younger brothers.
Ilsa was made a ward of the state but doesn’t know exactly when. At various times during her childhood she was placed in foster care. On at least one of these occasions she was sexually assaulted by the sons of her foster carers. ‘While I was young I lived with various foster carers and I was sexually abused there by boys, the sons of my carers.’ After being returned to the orphanage at 12 years old, the staff would give her cigarettes. ‘I was only 12 but they was giving me smokes. These were adults. And I still smoke today and I would love to give it up.’
After spending time in various institutions, the Department of Child Welfare stopped moving Ilsa around and left her to fend for herself. She was approximately 14 at the time and only received schooling up to Year 9. She became homeless from her early teens onward and spent much of her teenage years living on trains. During this time she also started abusing alcohol. She has struggled with homelessness and alcoholism ever since.
At 18 Ilsa entered her first relationship and had her first child at 19. She has been married twice, however both of her partners died tragically.
As an adult Ilsa experienced a mental breakdown and was placed in a psychiatric facility. ‘They would drug me up when my visitors would come, and so I’m like a zombie. I would see them and hear them but I can’t talk to them.’ She has also experienced insomnia most of her life. ‘I have broken sleeps, and you know I wake up two or three times a night, in the middle of the night. So I’m not settled.’
In recent years, Ilsa was awarded $25,000 compensation as part of the WA Redress scheme. However, embarrassment and shame stopped her from reporting the sexual abuse she was subjected to. She has never received continual counselling or psychological support to address the abuse she suffered in her childhood. ‘I fear to bring those memories out.’
In spite of numerous life challenges, Ilsa has been employed in a variety of roles most of her life, obtained vocational qualifications, plays various musical instruments, creates artworks and writes poetry. ‘But I wasn’t happy with it all. I just turned my back on music, my art. And that’s the impact.’
Ilsa’s children give her strength despite the difficulties in her life. ‘Writing … and my [children]. They weren’t planned but they made a difference to my life.’