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Isabel Jane's story

Isabel is an Aboriginal woman who lived in ‘a humpy’ in northern Queensland in the 1950s. She and her family moved to a mission when she was still a young child. Her stepfather regularly fought with her mum. Then, when Isabel got a bit older, he began sexually abusing her.

He’d stand in the doorway to her room and drop his pants, exposing his penis. ‘I was told not to tell or I could be killed. And … I carried it with me for years. And I told my mum … I used to wonder why they’d fight all the time.’

He was sent away from the mission for ‘brutalising’ Isabel and her mother but then returned and continued to be a fearful presence in Isabel’s life. When her mother was out he’d make Isabel lie on the bed. Then he would ‘check’ her vagina. ‘Didn’t touch me because I said I’d tell. I didn’t tell Mum for a long time. When I did there was another big fight.’

When Isabel was about 12, her mother needed to go to hospital in Brisbane for long-term treatment. Isabel didn’t want to be in the house with only her stepfather. She persuaded her mother to send her and her siblings to the mission dormitory and was shocked to discover sexual abuse was going on there as well.

‘Oh, you get away from a man doing it, then you got girls in here that are doing the same bloody thing.’ She was forced by the other girls to watch and take part in sexual activity. Fear of the older girls was ever present. ‘I lost my virginity to other girls and had marks and bruises. Also, if you told anyone what happened, it was like emotional blackmail.’

An old man would watch the girls when they bathed in the tub outside. ‘Men from the mission used to sneak around and climb up these big ladders … They’d perve in through.’

No one ever asked her at the dormitory or in the mission generally if she was okay. It all went unnoticed. ‘I’m surprised now that us who were kids were okay … I just found it appalling.’

Years later, Isabel told the Forde inquiry about the hard work she had to do in the dormitory. She received financial compensation, but didn’t disclose the sexual abuse from other girls, nor did she discuss it with her half-sisters. ‘It’s shame. You’re the first person I’m tellin’ it to.’

When the kids went home again, Isabel’s stepfather made her lie on the bed and pull her pants down so he could check if she was a virgin or not.

Isabel took off from the mission when she was 15. ‘I’d had enough.’ She ended up moving to Sydney with some older women, who looked after her.

Isabel came through the abuse of her childhood to complete her education in Sydney and get a job helping other women who’d done it tough. She was keen to tell the Commissioner about one of them – a woman called Elaine, whose mother was from the same mission as Isabel.

Elaine was raped violently and repeatedly by a priest in a Catholic home in Queensland. Isabel believes he trained her to never resist when he wanted sex, because later Elaine had sex with any man who asked her to.

Elaine developed a drug addiction, was treated for mental illness, and lived on the streets. Sometimes she did sex work for accommodation or money. If she didn’t have clean clothes, she’d steal them or walk around naked.

Elaine often came to Isabel’s office to have a shower. ‘She kept on having showers, showers, all day long. And then did her washing at night and dried ‘em. And did the same thing over. I said, “Why do you that?” and she said, “Oh well, you got to be clean for a priest, ‘cause he’s a dirty bugger”.’

Elaine died in 2015 and Isabel thinks about her a lot. She had children who were reared by foster carers just like she was. ‘Just like a big circle. Just going round and round.’

Isabel is not sure what keeps her going. She’s never had professional counselling. ‘I can pull myself up, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I just cry, cry, cry, cry.’

She used to love Sunday school as a girl, but remembers the teacher laying down the law about various things, and one of them was keeping quiet.

‘There’s predators in our Aboriginal community ... It’s like a big umbrella … It’s a secret. They don’t go to the police, they don’t … Some of them are coming out, I’d be one of them, but it’s still hidden. And I’m sorry to say that’s how it is. It’s under an umbrella. Go and tell someone. I encourage them.’

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