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Judith's story

‘I came because – I don’t know if it sounds silly – but it’s like that little girl hasn’t grown up and she’s with me all the time. And it’s like I’ve got to help her, and to help other kids, because cruelties like this shouldn’t happen to children.’

Judith grew up with her family in a small country town in New South Wales. She experienced a lot of ‘racism and ridicule’ at school for being Aboriginal. ‘School wasn’t that happy a place, we didn’t go to school as much as we could.’

Her mum would sometimes leave the children for periods of time. They would usually be cared for by relatives, but on some occasions would be totally alone, stealing food from local farms to survive. ‘We were very isolated, and loved, and abandoned at different times.’

Their grandfather would educate them in Aboriginal culture, ‘tell us about the spirits in the trees, how fish could hear you walking’, and taught them corroboree. ‘We just came from Aboriginal people which didn’t have much contact with the mainstream world, even though we were fair-skinned.’

When she was 12, Judith was deemed by authorities to be ‘in moral danger’, as she would go to parties with her older sister. She was sent to a residential training school in Sydney, while her siblings stayed with their mother.

It was the early 1970s, and the school environment was harsh. Being placed in a holding cell for long periods of time was a regular occurrence. ‘You’d get a certain look, from being locked up all the time, like you’d just start withdrawing into yourself.’

The school’s superintendent, Kevin Potter, began physically assaulting Judith shortly after she arrived.

‘It was like he just had the right to do that ... it wasn’t really a belting, it was dragging you by the hair of the head, and jerking you by the neck, and banging you sideways. ... He never really hit, he just sort of hurt you other ways, or grabbed at you, or pinched at your breast.’

Judith was a particular target for Potter, and the violence continually escalated. She could never understand why the other staff didn’t help her. Other girls would do what they could, warning her when Potter was coming, but ‘he’d just stalk you’.

Potter would also assault Judith in the middle of the night. ‘He’d pick the mattress up and slam me into a wall ... I don’t know why the other officers were letting that happen.’

One day, Potter dragged her from assembly and viciously hacked off her hair with a big pair of scissors, leaving blood running down her neck. A girl on garbage duty later found one of her plaits, still with the ribbon on it, in a bin. When she returned it to Judith, ‘I cried my eyes out’.

Another time Potter came and took her into his office. ‘And he abused me sexually. It wasn’t sexual intercourse but he got me to get over his lap, my pants down, and then he spanked me really hard. And then he abused me. ...

‘Before he did that, he closed the blinds in his office, and I really thought I was going to die. I thought he was going to kill me, ‘cause the room was really dark too. And so I felt so ashamed and disgusted with myself, and so low.’

Judith doesn’t know how she got out of the office. She told an officer she trusted about what Potter had done to her. After this, Judith did not see him very much.

The ongoing abuse shattered Judith’s self-esteem. ‘I really thought I was the lowest form of life on the planet. ... I just really thought I was so low, that he was allowed to do this.’

When she was 14 she was told she was going home. ‘I just couldn’t believe it, it was like walking on the edge of a cliff, I wanted to go home but I didn’t. I was scared.’

Although being home was better, Judith’s experiences at the school had long-lasting impacts on her wellbeing.

Judith became very promiscuous, ‘no self-respect at all, I’d sleep with any boy, because I thought that they’d care about me’. As an adult, she was regularly beaten and hospitalised by a very violent partner, and ‘just thought that was normal’.

She misused alcohol and drugs, had low self-esteem, and experienced ‘horrible anxiety attacks, where I’d think I had the devil in me’. Therapy helped her understand her panic attacks ‘as a build-up of life stress’, and to manage them without medication.

Even so, Judith still has flashbacks to the school, the holding cell, the scissors – ‘It’s like a sick comfort zone’.

Telling her story to the Royal Commission is part of her healing process, and wanting to help other children gave her the strength to do so. ‘I really believe that this will help me put it to rest.’

Judith has an adult son – ‘a good man’ – and now cares for a young relative. She has worked hard with government and elders in her community to get a healing farm for all ‘kids that need help because of the abuse that’s going on today’.

Judith didn’t report Potter’s abuse to the police. ‘I just thought it was the white world, and nobody was going to believe me ... I lived out away from white people, even though I’m fair, so I didn’t know much about white Australia, and then when I went there [the school] that was my main contact, and it wasn’t very good at all.’

Although Judith is aware that she can make a police report now, and believes Potter should be punished, she feels conflicted. From personal experience [at the school], she knows what it is like to be locked up.

‘I feel sorry for him, I don’t like him but I feel sad that somebody’s got to be locked up. ...

‘I just feel sad as a person, that someone’s so warped that they became that way. He must have been a child of someone’s. ... I just think, it shouldn’t have happened, and maybe something happened to him.’

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