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Janelle Robyn's story

‘As far as I can remember … I was never wanted … The family structure was hard. There was no love. I was always flogged, bashed … I’d go to school, I couldn’t sit down. My hair was pulled. I was stuck in cupboards.’

Throughout her childhood Janelle was ‘shoved from pillar to post’ between relatives. When she was very young she was sexually abused by her step-grandfather, and from the age of eight, by her stepmother’s 16-year-old brother.

Janelle told the Commissioner, ‘There was a lot of incest in the family, with my brothers … it was just a thing that happened in my family’. Because she was sexually abused from such a young age, Janelle had no way of knowing that what was happening to her was a crime.

‘My stepmother and her mother were standing there watching it while it was happening … and they didn’t do anything to stop it.’ Janelle told her step-grandmother about her step-brother when she was 12. Her stepmother told her step-grandmother that she ‘led him on’.

‘So, from the age of eight, I was “leading him on”. So I thought that, “Well, it must be my fault”.’

In the late 1970s, when she was 12, Janelle was sent to a juvenile detention centre in New South Wales, for being ‘uncontrollable’. The centre was ‘scary, because I remember there was no human care. It was a jail. I was shoved in a little cell with a toilet’. As a child, Janelle spent years in detention centres and children’s homes.

The second detention centre was even more frightening. ‘Big girls in there. You were only a little girl and it was a fight for survival … Got beat up a few times, not just by the … girls, by the officers, too.’

The girls who were under 16 went to school at the centre. ‘I loved my teacher. She was the sunshine. She had a kind heart and the song, Sister Golden Hair … reminds me of her.’

After six weeks Janelle was sent to a youth training centre where, once again, the conditions were harsh. ‘I don’t know what they were training me for. I didn’t need training … I needed a home. Not to be shoved in some institution. It broke me.’

When Janelle returned from hospital after an operation, she was put into the infirmary at the training centre. She was the only one there, and every night the nightwatchman came into the room and sexually abused her.

‘I’ve never stayed in a place where I wasn’t somehow sexually abused, or mentally abused, physically abused’.

At the youth training centre, one of the officers would call girls into his office. ‘He’d say, “Do you want to go home for the weekend …” and I’d say, “Yeah” and he’d say, “Well, you’ll have to kiss my penis” basically … So then, yeah, you’d wanna go home, so you’d … To me, it didn’t mean anything anymore.’

Janelle was 14 when she was living in a youth refuge and became pregnant to an 18-year-old resident. He was charged with carnal knowledge and sent to jail. Janelle was sent back to juvenile detention as ‘uncontrollable’ and ‘exposed to moral danger’.

At the centre, Janelle was urged to have an abortion, because, ‘“the welfare system [doesn’t] want another unwanted child”. I said, “Fuck you. I’m keeping my baby”. I kept him. I got disgust. I was still slapped, still pushed … still made to scrub floors … I got no special treatment, but I didn’t get touched’.

At 16, Janelle was living in a housing commission flat with her baby. ‘I was going out, getting drunk and drugged up and … I was crazy. I was gone. Finally welfare stepped in and took him and made him a state ward.’ Although all her children ended up in care, all but the oldest have done well in life.

By the time Janelle returned to the juvenile detention centre for a third time, ‘anybody going to look sideways at me, I’m going to knock the shit out of them, officers or not. I didn’t give a shit … Nobody touched me because I was just mad, and that’s when they started locking me up … for days … I was gone, finished, mentally. Still am today’.

Janelle believes that her mental health issues are the result of ‘all the stress and the traumatic events. I can’t function as a human. I can’t commit. I can’t love … As a mother, I fail. I’ve had no parents. I’ve just had the government. And where did they help me? Where was their duty of care?’

Once she was released from the institutions Janelle became ‘even rougher. Drugs and alcohol. Speed. Anything. Pills. Anything to numb the pain … I had no family. I’ve never had family.’

Janelle has never been able to work. ‘I still can’t look in the mirror and look at myself and not think that I’m worthless or useless … I can’t get up in the mornings and just do a nine to five job. I’m not normal. They’ve taken that away from me, many, many years ago … I’ve learnt to exist. I’m not living. I’m surviving.’

Janelle has tried to take her own life every year until two years ago, when she met her partner. ‘[She’s] helped me even smile, just to talk about things.’

It has taken Janelle 50 years to tell her story, and she just wanted to get it out. ‘I don’t want it in. I don’t want to be burdened. It’s my baggage and I just want someone to carry it for a while, to see how it feels.’

‘I think I was ready to tell my story. I think I’m getting older now and I want the government to sit up and listen to what things really happened … You just feel like a number. I’m forgotten. I got lost in the system. Where’s the duty of care? I wasn’t even good enough to be made state ward. How’s that?’

Janelle would like to report her abusers to the police now. ‘I’m not a little child anymore that they can just tell me to go away … Now, with [my partner’s] help, [I’m] realising that I’m not that little child anymore, that I’m a woman, and in control and nobody can hurt me anymore.’

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