Neglectful, alcoholic parents drove Kath from her home in western New South Wales many times as she was growing up. She moved back and forth between children’s institutions and her family until the early 1970s. When she was 14, she was picked up on the streets by police and taken to a large, government-run girls’ home in Sydney’s western suburbs.
‘I really struggled with the toilets. There was no doors’, Kath said. ‘And to this day I don’t show my body. I hate my body. We had to show our naked body every day. Every day. And we had showers with no doors.’
Life in the girls’ home was brutal. Kath recalls listening in the dining hall as another child was beaten in the kitchen by one of the supervisors, Greg Thatcher. ‘And oh the screams, oh my God, it was absolutely horrendous …
‘That’s all you hear in them places is screams and you can’t do nothing about it.’
As well as the physical and emotional abuse Kath was also sexually abused during her first incarceration at the home. One morning she argued too loudly with another girl and earned the anger of Greg Thatcher.
‘He come up behind me and he grabbed me on the back of the neck … he took me through the office and threw me down the stairs into the dungeons. I have never been so scared in all my life. The fear and the smell …
‘I started screaming, banging and kicking, I wouldn’t shut up.’
Kath heard an office door slam upstairs and a few seconds later Thatcher loomed in the door of her cell.
‘He said, “Get on your knees”, and I did …
‘Then he undid his belt. I thought I was going to get a belting. But then he undid his fly.’
Kath was forced to perform oral sex.
‘Then when he went to walk out he turned around, he said, “If you tell anyone, I’ll do it again”. I never did. Never told anyone.’
Kath was deeply affected by the abuse. She ‘felt like a dirty skank’ from then on, and was aware of Thatcher watching her closely for the rest of her stay. ‘I eventually got pins and I attacked myself. The saddest part is I still wear all those scars.’
Deputy Superintendent Mark Hartley was also brutal in his treatment of the girls and had a fierce temper. Kath recalls being grabbed on the breast by Hartley and squeezed so hard his fingers left bruises. Later when she tried to stand up for another girl, Hartley pushed her down flights of stairs and then threw her into the dungeon. She was terrified she was going to be sexually abused again.
‘While I was in there I was sitting on the floor, ‘cause I thought, “You know what, I can’t live like this anymore. I’m just gonna bump myself off”. So I started banging my head and I kept banging and banging and banging.’
Kath did not report her many injuries to the sick bay for fear of repercussions.
At first, she was in the girls’ home for about a year. She was sent there again as a 16-year-old and lived in terror. By this time she had developed a bad stutter and opted to work in the laundry many hours a day as this helped her avoid staff and other inmates.
After a few months she was sent to live and work at a Sydney hospital as a nurse’s assistant. The other workers there knew where she’d come from and gave her a hard time. Despondent, Kath fled the hospital after a week and landed on the streets of Sydney’s Kings Cross. She and a friend briefly became involved with prostitution and drugs. After being beaten up by a couple of pimps, a desperate and pregnant Kath fled the city and returned to her father in the country to have her baby.
Kath’s life has been difficult as she carries the scars of her childhood.
‘I am still that little girl, but I’m trapped in a woman’s body.’
She did not tell her family the details of her time in the girls’ home. Kath believed for many years that she had suffered the sexual abuse alone. ‘I honestly thought I was the only one. I never heard any other girls talk about it, and I never told anybody what he’d done to me.’
Only in recent years has she heard the history of the home and the long list of allegations of abuse and rape by staff there.
Kath has been able to access a mental health program and share her story with a psychologist. Being believed has helped her heal. She’s also been active in helping older Australians in need through various volunteer organisations.
She approached the Royal Commission in the hope some justice can be done. Kath knows Mark Hartley is still alive. ‘He’s out there living a life. We lost half of ours, and he still lives.’
She welcomed the chance to bear witness to what happened to her and so many others while in state care. ‘I’m so glad I don’t have to take this to my grave, because I didn’t want my family knowing my behaviour in life without a context.’