In the mid-70s, when Jelena was in her teens, she came across her mother’s address and fired off an angry letter. Her headstrong German mother was soon on the doorstep with the truth. Jelena had been told that her ‘druggo’ parents had dumped her in a home. However, when her father went to jail, leaving her mother with no income, she had been taken away and made a ward of the state.
‘Mum asked Welfare for help and we were taken’, Jelena said. Her mother had remarried, and was back on her feet, but had never won her long battle for visiting rights, or been given a photo of her daughter.
Jelena and her siblings were placed with a foster family in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. Some months later, when the family decided to keep her siblings and ‘return’ her, she was moved to Sydney and placed in a government-run children’s home for ‘wayward’ or ‘delinquent’ girls.
The staff there were hard and cruel. Jelena remembers being scrubbed in laundry tubs until she was raw, then painted with ‘white stuff’ to ward off scabies and lice. She also remembers ‘a nasty woman … who would put soap in our vaginas and our backsides because we had to be clean inside and out’.
The staff were also rough with the babies, and would belt the older girls if they tried to soothe a baby or sneak them stolen milk. Once, a worker put a pillow over the face of a crying baby. The next morning, the baby was gone.
To escape the cruelty, Jelena often ran away. After a couple of years, when she was about eight, she was placed with a second foster family. There, she was sexually abused by her foster uncle, who she remembered as ‘one sick bugger’ who kept a gun by his bed.
When she told her foster mother ‘he’s touching me, he’s hurting me’, she was slapped and called a ‘filthy girl’. When she told visiting welfare workers, she was called a ‘promiscuous child’ and charged with being ‘uncontrollable’. So Jelena started running away from her foster home as well.
Classified as a ‘promiscuous runaway’, Jelena would be sent to various institutions in Sydney or the Southern Highlands where they would usually ‘do another internal’. At the Sydney children’s home, girls checked for venereal disease would ‘come out crying’, Jelena said.
‘We were already sore from being scrubbed with Sunlight soap and stuff, so it was like, “What are youse doing?”’
At a Sydney remand centre, when asked why she wasn’t a virgin, Jelena was called ‘a stupid girl’ when she didn’t know what a virgin was.
Jelena would ‘do anything’ to stay out of homes. Barely in her teens, she lied about her age and got a shop job in Kings Cross where she rented a room until the police caught her and tried to charge her with prostitution. Also in her early teens, she and some other ‘runaways’ were drugged and held hostage above an inner city shop. They were raped for three weeks. One of the girls died from her injuries. The men responsible were deported.
Whenever she was sent back to her foster home, her foster uncle would continue to abuse her. On one occasion, he involved his underage partner in drugging and raping her. Once she’d left care, she reported him to the police. However, nothing was done, and she believes that he went on to abuse other girls who may also have been trafficked.
Jelena had her first child while living in an inner city halfway house under the guidance of ‘helpful and kind’ houseparents. They helped her to hide so that she could keep her baby. ‘They lost their jobs to save us’, Jelena said.
‘I’ll be always grateful for that because they showed, no matter what we’d been through, we were still people, we were still worth something.’
Jelena refused to be destroyed by her experiences.
‘I just refused to go down that path’, she said. She didn’t lose heart, and brought up her kids without any help from Welfare. When she moved north two decades ago to make a fresh start, most of her adult children followed suit.
When asked what got her through it, she said ‘work, work, work, work’, and a determination to better herself ‘no matter what’. She was also ‘really empowered’ by joining forces with other survivors. This has given her clarity, an ability to speak up without fear, and evidence-based validation that she was not ‘nuts’ or ‘full of it’.
About 10 years ago, Jelena made a successful claim for victims compensation, and obtained a settlement from the New South Wales Government. While she describes this as ‘shut up money’, and lost much of it in legal fees, the point was ‘to bring the perpetrators to their knees’. She wants those who are still alive to be brought to account.
Jelena has numerous children, and custody of two of her grandchildren. While some days are better than others, she tries to get up every morning and be grateful that she and her family have turned out okay, beaten the odds, and managed to stay together.