In the early 1960s Isa was made a ward of the state shortly before her 10th birthday. Her father had lost his job, and the family was living in a tent under a railway bridge in a New South Wales coastal town. One night the police arrived and took Isa and her siblings away.
‘These people came in cars and took us all away, and placed us in a jail. We were left in a cell, my brothers and sisters and I – left in a cell overnight with no beds, no toilet facilities. Locked up.’ The children were taken to Sydney the next day, and after a court hearing were dispatched to various institutions. The family was never together again.
Isa was sent with her little sister Margie to a children’s home in Sydney. After a few months, she was placed with foster parents – Tom and Cindy Winterson. Margie joined her there several months later.
Isa lived with the Wintersons for about three years. Throughout that time she attended the local school and went to church on Sundays. The Wintersons had two older children of their own and another foster child, a boy a little older than Isa. No one seemed to notice that Tom Winterson was sexually abusing Isa, from soon after she arrived at his home until almost the day she left. Isa, though, is convinced that Cindy knew exactly what was happening, all along.
‘She knew. She knew. Just hid. You can’t find a bloody sheet in a wardrobe and expect that it was from a cut finger.’
Over time Winterson’s assaults became increasingly violent. Once Margie was living with them, he had a potent threat to use on Isa. He said that if she didn’t do what he wanted, he would kill her little sister – and Isa believed him.
‘He’d hold a knife against Margie’s throat while he was raping me. She had no idea what was going on. I didn’t want anything to happen to her.’
Eventually, Isa said, she confronted Cindy with what was happening. ‘I told her. I said he’s doing things to me that he should be doing to you.’ But it made no difference. And there was no one else she felt she could tell. No one from any government agency came to see how things were going. And at school: ‘You don’t know anybody there, you don’t trust anybody.’
Around about Isa’s 13th birthday, Winterson took her out in his car one night to buy ice-cream. ‘We did get ice-cream eventually’, she said. ‘And he stopped on the way and carried me into the back of the station wagon, had sex with me, and he didn’t withdraw in time, so he put a rubber hose up inside me and blew water inside me to flush me out. And that hurt a lot. And he threatened to kill my sister if I told anybody.’
Isa’s stay with the Wintersons came to an abrupt end just a few days later. She had an argument with Cindy one evening, who threatened to send her back to the home. ‘And I said to her again, “I want to go back. I’ve told you, he does things to me that he shouldn’t be doing”.’
Isa believes Cindy was finally prompted to act.
‘That’s the only scenario I can come up with. Because I screamed it out – ‘I said, “He’s doing things to me!” I actually screamed it out. And she couldn’t ignore it.’
The next day, Isa and Margie were removed from the Wintersons’ care. ‘At school, one minute they just came to the classroom and the teacher came and got me, and I was put in the car, never to go back to the school again.’
She was taken to the police station. ‘I remember a female officer asking me all sorts of questions and I was there for hours.’ Margie was sent to a home for babies and young children, and Isa was returned to the institution she’d been in to start with. She had a medical examination there, but nothing came of it.
‘Just lay down, that’s it, done, put your pants on, go back to your room.’
Isa told the police everything, but they didn’t believe her. No one believed her, she said. That’s why even now, some 50 years later, she has not reported her abuse. ‘I thought about it a lot of times, but they didn’t do anything for me then, I shouldn’t imagine that they were going to change.’
Nor has she made any claim for compensation. She couldn’t afford the legal fees, she said.
‘I haven’t got the money to do that. I’ve thought about it. I was never offered compensation, I was never offered an apology. I was offered nothing. I was a child, and I was told to keep your mouth shut and sit in a corner.’
Isa was transferred to another institution, and then for a year to another foster family. ‘I wasn’t a sociable child. I had a lot of issues, and I’m afraid they couldn’t understand.’ Eventually she was adopted by a family member. She left school young and got together with her first husband when she was 16. He was the first person outside the system she disclosed her abuse to.
‘He was great … he totally believed me. He was really the only one that I ever went into any detail with. Probably the first person I ever trusted.’
Isa lives in Queensland now, near her children and grandchildren. Looking back, she said it was her own strength that brought her through her experience of abuse. That’s all there was to depend on. ‘It’s amazing how tough kids are. People just look at them and think – they’re just kids, they’re just nothing. But we’re tough little shits.’