The first children’s home Lara can remember was run by a secular, not-for-profit organisation in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. It was the late 1960s, and she was about six when she and her sisters were sent there.
A male staff member would regularly tie Lara to the bed so tightly that she was left with deep dents in her legs, and physically and sexually abuse her. If she tried to hide from him, he would beat her even harder when he found her.
She remembers that after one attack by this man she had a black eye, fat lip, and other serious injuries. ‘I was bleeding from my vagina. I believe he raped me more than once. I remember him clearly ... I was such a tiny little girl.’
Lara does not know the name of this man. ‘Can I say that perpetrators didn't take the time to introduce themselves, you know, and actually within the institutions I was in, not many staff did take the time to introduce themselves.’
There was physical abuse from other staff too. Lara would be bathed outside in the freezing cold, and scrubbed harshly until she bled. If she threw up from being force-fed, she would be made to eat her own vomit.
Life at this home was one terrible experience after another. ‘I remember just withdrawing and being in a world of my own. I did not mix with the other children. l remember being in grave fear of my life and safety. I gave up.’
She can’t recall all of her time there. ‘My time in this group home taught me what terror felt like, and the life lesson I took away from this institution is I am always to blame.’
After a year or two she was moved to a government home in the inner west. ‘On my first morning at this institution the school headmistress cut one of my pigtails off as they were not straight’, stabbing her eyes with the scissors in the process.
Lara was not given a bed like her sisters, but instead made to sleep on a verandah without a blanket or pillow. ‘I felt like I was a farm dog, sleeping outside by the door’. During the day she would hide towels to use for warmth at night.
She was usually the only child out there, and was very frightened in the dark. Most of the time, she barely slept. A baby who was once placed outside with her died, and she used to sleep in the child’s cot after that. ‘The life lesson I learnt in this institution was that I was of no value as a human being.’
When Lara was 10, she was sent to another home near the beach, run by a Christian charity. The manager, Simon Belmont, repeatedly raped the children. He would come into the dormitories at night, and take a child away to assault them.
Lara would freeze when she heard the door open. ‘I never knew when he would come to take me to have sex during my time there.’
Belmont also raped Lara in a shed at the back of the property. When his wife was away, he would pick a handful of girls to take to a wealthy house where other men waited. When they went there they got to dress up in party dresses which they were never allowed to take back to the home.
The girls would be provided with alcohol, and drugged, then were raped by these men. ‘After being drugged I recollect waking up in this house and wandering around. I opened a door and some men were standing around a bed with another child laying there. There were lights and cameras, and I believe child porn movies were being made.’
Lara assumes Belmont was selling her and the other girls to these men. ‘I believe he was sentenced to prison sometime during the 80s for some of the rapes on other girls.’
There are still huge gaps in Lara’s memory of this time, and she fears that she may have appeared in pornographic films. ‘The life lesson I took away from this institution is l asked for it, and I am a slut.’
She hasn’t discussed this place with her sisters, who were also there, as she has lost contact with them.
At the time she spoke to the Commissioner, Lara has made several statutory declarations about the abuse, to assist with her application for compensation. She is very frustrated by changes to New South Wales legislation, and how these changes may lessen the amount of financial compensation she is entitled to.
The process has taken several years so far, and required her to give graphic detail of the abuse, as well as a psychological assessment. There is a condition that stipulates that she cannot seek ongoing treatment from the same psychologist who provided this report.
‘If I choose to seek assistance from a psychologist, I have to tell my story again. You know, it's just, "We're just going to keep victimising and we're going to victimise you again and we're going to make you tell it all again".’
Lara attributes her survival to her stubbornness, though ‘I teeter. I teeter on the edge a lot’. She has studied, and spent many years working with at-risk adolescents around the country. This work was satisfying, but ‘I found it exhausting in the end’.
Being able to speak with the Royal Commission about her experiences has been significant for her. ‘I just really respect the Commission and people that have put their hands up to listen ... You know, human ears should never hear what we have to say.’