In the late 1960s, when Jan was 10 years old, her mother died and the authorities immediately stepped in and removed her and her siblings from their father.
‘My mum was white and Dad was black and they said “That man couldn’t look after his kids” … My dad went to the police station. They told Dad they wanted to talk to him and then we had to wait out the front of the police station and then as soon as my dad went in and talked to the police person, the police came and grabbed us and put us in a big van.’
Jan was separated from her siblings and sent to a Catholic orphanage in regional Victoria, where she was sexually abused many times.
‘We were put in dormitories and at night – there was only supposed to be nuns there but men used to come through there. I’m pretty sure they were priests. And it was just pot luck if you didn’t get picked.’
There was no point reporting the abuse to the nuns, Jan said. They already knew what was going on, and one of them ‘used to do stuff too’. Plus, the priests used to threaten the girls: ‘They’d tell us if we said anything they’d get the little ones. Because we used to try and protect the little ones.’
Jan can’t remember exactly how long she stayed at the Catholic orphanage. At some point she was moved to another home where one of the ‘cottage parents’ sexually abused her. ‘I can still remember his horrible breath’, she said.
After a few escape attempts she was sent to a government-run reformatory for girls. There she was abused by some of the older inmates and by staff who would ‘offer you smokes for sex stuff’. Jan fought them but ‘they still got their touches and stuff like that’.
In her mid-teens Jan was sent home to live with her dad and younger siblings. She was given a ‘school exemption’ and required to work and look after the kids instead of continuing her education.
Jan’s father was a good man who tried hard to give his kids a good life – which was why she could never tell him about the abuse. ‘I thought he’d do something bad. And I thought he’d end up in jail, and I wouldn’t get to see him at all.’
Jan might have thought about reporting her abusers to police if not for an experience she had at 14. One night she was ‘pack raped’. Jan didn’t want to report it – ‘I was too ashamed about stuff. I just thought it must have been me, the way I walked or the way I talked’ – but her friend’s mother found her and took her to the police station.
‘They just said I was a little slut. And I was a virgin … I had bruises and everything over me and they just made me feel like I wasn’t worth nothing. I had to put a bunny rug around me with no clothes on while they said they were taking photos, but they were just laughing and saying bad things.’
Since then, Jan has never spoken to police about any of the abuses she suffered. After the rape she continued to live with her dad until ‘we got home one day and my dad was crying and he said “They’re taking youse again”. I don’t know. We didn’t know anything. They just used to do that’.
Jan spent some more time in a children’s home before she left state care for good at 16. The circumstances of her release have always baffled her. Instead of being put into the care of her dad or another relative she was released into the custody of ‘this older blackfella, he was just a friend at the time … I got released to him. That’s how it seemed to me … I thought “How did I get released to this fella?” And then I got raped and bashed for five years’.
Jan had several kids with this man before she was able to escape the relationship and save her kids. ‘I had to send them to his mum because it’s the only way they could get protected. Then I started running around and getting on heroin, which I was on for a fair while. I was on it since I was 12. I just ended up getting addicted to it and all that stuff.’
Eventually Jan managed to get her kids back. She worked hard to bring them up well, to the point where she was sometimes overprotective. When one of her kids was molested she bashed the abuser with a bat. ‘I don’t like violence coming out but it brought back too much shit and I said to him “No one’s ever going to touch my kids”.’
It’s only for the sake of her children that Jan is now considering seeking compensation. ‘It’s not going to take nothing back’, she said, but it might be worth it, to ‘give my kids a start in life’.
These days Jan still struggles with alcohol abuse, anxiety and physical health problems. When asked how she’s managed to keep on fighting all these years, she said:
‘Probably the young part of life when Mum and Dad brought us up. And plus I’ve had elders around – once I got a bit older just used to sit and talk to me, just in the park … And I’d just listen. And things seem – they don’t make sense but make you feel like you’re worth something. Yeah, I do feel like I belong.’