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Leeann's story

‘We were considered dumb arses. You know, you’re just little black things, you don’t need [an education] because all you’re going to do is get married and have kids or whatever, so you don’t need an education … I got sent to [another home] because I was deemed to be a child that had no learning skills, had no disciplinary recognition and so I needed to go away to the training centre to be retrained to follow instructions.

‘That was really hard, ‘cause me at that time, I was a real chatterbox, and locking me up in a cell by myself is the worst thing you could ever do, ‘cause I’d just sing to myself to keep myself amused just so I could hear another sound.’

As a teenager in the late 1950s, Leeann was sent to a New South Wales government girls’ home for several years. At the time of her admission and on several occasions afterwards she was subjected to invasive vaginal examinations by a visiting doctor.

‘As soon as you arrive at [the] girls’ home, you’re in like a waiting room thing where you have to strip off what they call your street clothes and then you’d put on a gown, and of course while you’re in there you’re talking and there’s lots of girls to go backwards and forwards to [the home] and they were saying, “Oh, we hope Doctor Fingers is not on”. ‘Cause me being young and innocent, I’m thinking, who’s Doctor Fingers? And they go, “Oh, that’s the doctor that tends to take a long time doing internal examinations”. And it happened to be that he was on.’

After her arrival, Leeann was placed in solitary confinement for a week. After she was released, the doctor asked her how the home was, and she replied that she didn’t know because she hadn’t ‘seen the outside of a cell yet’. She was then given another week in solitary confinement ‘for daring to talk about being left in the cell’.

While she was in the home Leeann heard staff preying on other girls.

‘Even in our dormitories we could hear them screaming when they were being sexually abused. There was nothing we could do about it except comfort them the next day … And even when you reported it to matron you were put in solitary confinement for 24 hours.’

One day when she was about 15, Leeann ‘did a little runner’ and ended up being taken in by a woman in Kings Cross who knew she was escaping from care. Leeann stayed with the woman for a short time but when she went out one day she was seen by police officers who picked her up and returned her to the girls’ home.

At 17, Leeann left the home, ‘fell in love with a boy’ and within a year had given birth to a baby daughter. She returned to Queensland where her family lived as attempts were made by various government services to take her baby into care. Despite the pressure, Leeann refused to relinquish her. When ‘welfare got involved’ and said that her ‘daughter was in moral danger’, a businessman Leeann knew came to her defence and she was able to keep her daughter.

‘The first white man that’s ever stood up for a black girl’, Leeann said. ‘Normally back in them days – Bjelke Peanuts days in Queensland – it was pretty horrific with the police. I mean I don’t know how many times I got picked up just for walking down the street by the Black Maria [police van] ‘cause they needed to make up their numbers. Yeah so, and that was really giving me a big heart lift that this man went to that length.’

Leeann married but later difficulties in the relationship led to her husband taking their children away and she didn’t see them for some years. She now has regular contact with them as well as her grandchildren.

Leeann told the Commissioner that she’d seen counsellors over the years but had never really thought much of them. She studied counselling herself and attained a degree, working in community services and for a time in juvenile jails. Young men there told her she was ‘the only one that explained life at the grass roots level’ and that she ‘never put on airs and graces’.

‘I said to the young ones, “All right, you might have the technical knowledge but I’ve got the life skills knowledge. Now if we can marry them together we going to ace this”.’

Leeann’s work had brought her into contact with families whose children were in foster and kinship care. She thought some people would be good as carers but they were reticent to apply because of criminal records they had dating back years. Leeann recommended that after the age of 30, ‘that stuff is expunged so they’re able to be carers’.

‘Sure, a lot of Aboriginal people drink. A lot of Aboriginal people do drugs. But what the general society doesn’t see is they’re parents first. Nine times out of 10 they will ensure those children are fed and put to bed before they start drinking or sometimes they might have a lapse day you know, but you can’t tar every family with the same brush.’

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