‘Dad did seasonal work. I suppose you can appreciate the fact back then in 1952, 1953, being Aboriginal, it was very hard to move around. Dad always provided with seasonal work. We never lived in a house, like hot water or anything like that. We were always on the river bank near where the work was. We lived in tents with bedding, proper bedding, warm. My mum was great in making what we call a “wagga”, that’s a hessian bag with cloth on it, stuffing, to keep us warm.
‘I never ever remember being hungry when I was with my father and mother. School, later on in life. One of his sayings was, “All my children will be educated” – that’s the whole 10 of us – “and what you need to do is take the white man’s knowledge and use it to your own advantage”. Which as you can testify, it has happened. Those early years were carefree yes, from what I can remember up until five.’
Jessie was removed from her parents in 1957 at five years of age and placed in a Catholic orphanage in northern New South Wales. Throughout the eight months Jessie was there, she was ‘subject to sadistic behaviour’ by the Sisters of Mercy nuns. ‘You were in there with people who were supposed to be brides of God’, Jessie said. ‘To me they’re brides of Satan. I hate them with such a passion.’
When Jessie wet the bed, which she began to do from the time she entered the orphanage, she would be taken by a nun to the laundry to ‘be taught a lesson’.
‘I was stripped naked and made to bend over with my legs apart and then the first time it happened I didn’t know what was happening. All I felt was this horrific burning, stinging sensation on my private part, vagina. Something was being rubbed there and it was so painful is all I remember. No matter that I screamed with the pain, I was then caned on my backside with the cane for crying and trying to get away from her.’
Terrified, Jessie would lose control of her bladder during the beatings which infuriated the nun who’d give her ‘more and more of the cane’ while screaming that she was ‘dirty and lazy’. Jessie learnt later that ‘the red plant’ being rubbed into her genitals was chilli.
Jessie told the Commissioner that she was relieved to be reunited with her family but the feeling that she was ‘filthy’ continued. ‘I’ve grown up with that all my life’, she said. ‘Feeling like that until counselling. And I haven’t got past that.’
There was no one to tell about the abuse and Jessie was afraid if she did speak up she’d suffer even more. ‘Looking back in my life I know I expended so much energy to cover up the abuse I suffered in my childhood.’
In 2013, Jessie saw a pamphlet on childhood sexual abuse in her workplace and it resonated with her. ‘When I read that pamphlet I actually believed it. I believed it. It said that someone will listen to your story. No one will judge you, just listen.’ She began seeing a counsellor, but because she’d ‘never trusted anyone to talk to’, it took many sessions of late and missed appointments before she went regularly and felt able to tell him about the abuse. The therapy, which she was continuing, had been really helpful, she said.
Jessie had told her partner ‘a little bit’ about the abuse and she’d spoken with her children in general terms about her time in the orphanage. ‘The main thing with me is my kids don’t know me. They don’t know who I really am. They do know this mother, and I do have a wonderful relationship with them, but I’m always hiding something.’
In her work, Jessie had been drawn to jobs in health and community services. ‘You’ve got to care about other people and not about yourself’, she said. ‘Which is good in lots of ways because you don’t get to dwell too much on your own pain, because someone else is suffering.’
Currently working with families, Jessie thought more could be done to bridge the divide between communities and government services, including the Department of Community Services (DOCS). She noticed that when matters went to court, the fact that someone was living below the poverty line was sometimes used as the justification for removing children. Finding suitable placements for children at risk was often difficult, she said, but family and community conferencing offered hope.
‘Aboriginal children, you can’t always place them with kin cause you can have 70 or 80 members of a family come in and they’ve got a record as long as your arm with concerns …
‘I know a lot of elders, I’ve known them for years. It’s about time they started taking charge of their community. They talk about, “Oh this one over here’s doing ice”, or “That one’s neglecting their kid”. I said to them, “This is your community. You’re elders in this community”. Where I come from, 40 and up you can be an elder. That is something that you have to earn. You don’t go gossiping about who’s on ice and that. Go and help that person.
‘I don’t think, there’s not enough of this family conferencing with DOCS … They do not go out and search for family members or community members and they do not empower them. I know how they talk to them. I’ve had many an argument with case workers, “Don’t be so disrespectful”, you know. At least give them some respect, or even if they’re talking to clients, you know. I think there’s not enough of that family conferencing. There’s not enough tracing or using of [Aboriginal] Land Councils. You could ring any Land Council and say, “I’ve got a kid in here, his name’s so and so, this is his dad”. Ninety-nine point five per cent will be able to help trace his dad, and then he can go back to community. And listen to the advice of some of the communities.’
It was difficult to think about her time in the orphanage, Jessie said, but she was ‘sick of living in silence’.
‘I’m tired of people not knowing what happened to us. My mother was Stolen Generation …. We don’t know her story. We can see her pain, but we don’t know her story.’