‘My life will be measured up from today onwards, you know what I mean, like my whole life I’ve spent looking for answers and it’s cost me everything, even my sanity. But here I am today.’
At the age of 12, Krystal was a ward of the state and resident in a Victorian correctional facility when she and other girls became subjects in a drug trial for the contraceptive, Depo-Provera. At the time she entered the facility, Krystal underwent an invasive vaginal examination and these continued on a weekly basis during the period of the trial.
‘They just pull up your dress. I tried to stop them. I’d do anything to stop them. I would usually try to tell them I had my period but then they would know next week – you couldn’t hold that excuse for two weeks in a row, ‘cause if you said this week, they’d know next week you didn’t have it. I would run away. I would refuse them, but if you refused them, you went to [isolation for] a day, till you would go to them ‘cause it was like prison. We were in prison.’
Krystal said she found out later the drug wasn’t approved for use in Australia until the 1990s, more than a decade after it was injected into her.
The drug was administered at a nearby hospital and at a meeting she’d attended there, Krystal thought staff were discussing the familial sexual abuse she’d experienced as a six-year-old.
‘I listened to them all talk about how promiscuous I was, and I didn’t know what the word meant. I was 12. This is when I first got there. So I go back and I get a dictionary and it meant people who sleep around and I could not believe it. That that’s what they called me, that that’s what that whole meeting had been about: me being promiscuous. And I thought they meant about me being molested, do you know what I mean? So I thought it was all my fault pretty much from that day onwards.’
Krystal said she knew it sounded ‘paranoid’ but she came to believe that as well as administering the drug, doctors at the hospital were involved in ‘taking out eggs’ and using them in an early form of IVF. She thought this had happened to her because ‘internals’ – vaginal examinations - that were meant to take 15 minutes took triple that length of time.
On some weekends, Krystal was given leave and during one period away, she got a tattoo. As this became common practice among girls, the facility trialled a system to remove the tattoos using a corrosive substance. ‘No pain relief, it was agony’, Krystal said. ‘And then they would say if it didn’t work the first time they would come back six weeks later and do it all over again on the same scar.’
Krystal said she became numb to the things that happened to her in the facility. ‘You didn’t feel pain. You had no one to tell. If you were in pain, who could you tell? No one would care anyway so you learnt not to.’
Throughout her time as a ward of the state, Krystal never had the sense anyone was looking after her, and she recommended that ‘a third party’ be available to check on the welfare of children in institutions.
‘If a kid would rather sleep under train lines and put themselves in that much danger rather than sleeping in their own beds, the signs are obvious that there’s something terribly wrong with these kids. Something’s happened to them.’
In adult life, Krystal had sought support through government-funded mental health services, but she felt most workers didn’t believe her when she talked about the correctional facility. As a consequence she’d moved, she said, into a system of ‘self-preservation’, whereby she sought to ‘stay out of this world’ and not ‘actually speak to people, apart from my kids’.
Krystal’s daughter, Emily, came to the private session and said her mother had been ‘the most loving, caring’ person, but had rarely spoken of what had happened in her childhood. One day, Emily attended a talk at which a woman described the treatment of girls at the facility, including the drug experimentation and tattoo removal.
‘When I heard about that, everything I’d ever known about Mum’s life, it made sense now’, Emily said. ‘I could come home, and I said to her, “Mum, I understand what happened to you”, and then that was enough, just the fact that someone else believed her story.’
In 2007 Krystal met the first mental health worker that she felt believed her story and it was a significant moment for her. ‘It just gave me another, how would you say it? She was the only person since I was a kid … That’s been the main thing for me; I was sick of not being believed.’
The work of the Royal Commission had been reassuring too, she said. ‘The relief of just being able to talk and be believed and the major effect that has alone. I mean you nearly wiped away 35 years of misery in a single morning.’