Irene’s mother left her with Mrs Swan when she was two years old, but came back for her, before she was officially placed in foster care in Queensland. After accessing her welfare file recently, Irene found a handwritten letter from Mrs Swan stating that she had wanted to keep her.
‘She fought for me through Children’s Services. She wanted me. She had my clothes, toys, waiting on my return and somewhere along the line, Children’s Services decided that that wasn’t a good place for me to be at. So when I found that out, that made things worse, because all that’s happened to me wouldn’t have happened.’
Children’s Services placed Irene with Mr and Mrs Fisher in the early 1970s. They had a number of other foster children, and several adult children of their own. Irene was puzzled when a welfare officer took her to meet her real mother when she was seven.
‘I thought they were my parents. I didn’t know there was a difference between black and white. Didn’t know that they were … I was only seven when they come around … Left me there with Mum for the whole day. Mum was really happy. She hadn’t seen me since I was little … She was introducing me to everybody …
‘Everyone was calling me Irene. I thought I was Gail … They’d been drinking. That’s the first time I’d smelled alcohol and that … It sort of started scaring me … I remember sitting in the park with Mum and the … dogs were fighting and the old black fellas there … were trying to break it up, but that terrified me … That’s affected me all my life. That’s not how you’re supposed to [be] introduced to people.’
Irene didn’t see her mother again until she was about 13, and then not until she was 18. ‘Never really met Mum much.’
Irene told the Commissioner that when she was living with the Fishers, she was sexually abused by Mr Fisher and also by an elderly neighbour. ‘I remember [Mr Fisher] having me in the bedroom … laying me on the bed … and him being on top of me. And he had sex … because I remember it hurting and that.’
Irene recalled that she went missing one day and was discovered under the house next door, with her elderly neighbour lying on top of her. ‘I just blocked that out.’ It was only when she ran into a woman who used to live in the house, who reminded her about it, that memories of the abuse started to come back.
As an adult, it has been very difficult for Irene to trust people, especially men. She has been involved with three violent partners. She has problems with depression, but doesn’t want to go on anti-depressants, as suggested by her counsellor, because she fears it will prevent her from being able to look after her children properly.
‘I never said nothing [about Mr Fisher] until years later, until I got to about 16.’ When Irene was 10, Mrs Fisher died, and she was sent to live with one of Mrs Fisher’s daughters, Olivia. Olivia noticed that Irene was upset when one of her foster sisters, Paula phoned and told her that Mr Fisher was complaining that she hadn’t phoned him on Father’s Day.
When Irene told her that he had sexually abused her, it led to revelations that he had abused other female relatives and foster children, including Paula.
Olivia took Irene and Paula to the police, but the police told them that some of the evidence from relatives was too old to be admissible in court. Irene and Paula’s cases were separated, so there was no corroboration heard and Mr Fisher was found not guilty.
‘It was an open court case. I remember it was embarrassing because … people [were] just coming in. I didn’t know ‘em and … they really make you feel bad. You have to describe it and “What did it look like? Did it get hard?” They make you feel really bad … They even said Paula made it up and she’d rebelled and I think they just said, “What a drama queen” or whatever, about me.’
Irene told the Commissioner, ‘I can’t change the past’, but she hopes that she can make things better for her children in the future.