When Isabel’s mother became unwell she thought her two daughters would be safe in the orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy. She’d spent time there as a child in the 1920s and, although she’d been abused in foster care, she had only good memories of her treatment by the nuns. ‘She thought we would be fed, clothed and looked after like she was’, Isabel said.
Isabel told the Commissioner she didn’t know who her abusers were. At the age of four she would be lifted out of bed at night and taken to a dark room where a person would sexually abuse her. She remembers her pants being taken down and terrible pain in her vagina. A hand was put over her mouth to muffle her screams.
‘I don’t know if it was the same person … I was wrapped up and carried with a blanket around me. I couldn’t see anything. I just knew it was dark 'cause you don’t see any lights. I could hear the footsteps. I could feel it was cold. I could feel different things. I can’t identify if it was a male or female. I have no idea if it was male or female.’
As a small child, she noticed older girls with ‘large bellies’ who would leave the home and return with flattened stomachs. Looking back, she realised the person abusing her probably worked at the home and she thought the nuns must have known about it. ‘They would have had to work there for those steps, to come up there, so it must have been somebody who regularly did something.'
Isabel didn’t receive an education at the orphanage but as an adult resumed study and applied successfully for university. While studying in 2007, she heard news of the Queensland government’s redress scheme and applied for an ex-gratia payment. She received $21,000 after an assessment process which she found harrowing and resulted in her abuse being scored 32 out of 100. ‘I thought, is that the mark I get for the abuse that I survived?’
Until then, Isabel had sought to bury thoughts of the abuse, but during the application process memories came flooding back. She found it distressing and near impossible to recall and recount details of each occasion she was taken from her bed. ‘My life would have been better if it wasn’t for [the redress]. My body just shut down. All those memories came flooding back. I didn’t do that before.’
One of the hardest things, she said, was dealing with the guilt. The home had offered no comfort or nurturing and she remembered feeling confused pleasure on the occasions she was abused. ‘Why you get guilt is because there’s a physiological response to the cuddling, being gently wiped with a cloth, and you think I should be hating that, and the anger comes out; why are all these feelings coming out? Your body’s doing it. You’re not thinking.’
After marrying, Isabel had five children, but when her marriage broke down she had no means of support and her husband took custody of all but one of the children. He worked shift work as a tradesman and regularly sent the children to be cared for by friends. Isabel later found out the children had been sexually abused while in this care arrangement. She was horrified that sexual abuse had been repeated within her family. ‘It just shows the generations. My mother, me, my children. I don’t want my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to go through that as well.’
She’d never disclosed the sexual abuse to her family and didn’t intend to. ‘I don’t want them to know.’ She’d spoken briefly to her doctors about the abuse and her time in the orphanage, but she didn’t think they had much understanding of what it was like. Neither had ever heard of ‘Forgotten Australians’, and she was given a prescription for sleeping pills.
‘I said, "What would help me is to be nurtured". I said, "You can give me as much medication as you like but it’s not going to help".’
What would help, Isabel said, was secure housing, subsidised access to public transport, and help with costs associated with health care. She thought Forgotten Australians should automatically be put on an age pension when they turn 60. ‘They took away our childhood, they could at least give us that.’