In Leesa’s welfare file her father is described as a ‘sexual deviant’. He would sexually assault her mother in front of Leesa and her siblings, or get into bed with the children if her mother rejected his advances. It took the police and welfare department more than two years to act, despite knowing about his sexual abuse of the children.
In the late 1970s, when Leesa was five, she and some of her sisters were taken into state care. At first they stayed at a reception centre in regional Victoria. ‘I remember my father visiting and being left with him. I do not understand why we were allowed to be in his company unsupervised, when there was a court order that said this was undesirable.’
They were then sent to a government-run home. The first cottage parent they lived with, who Leesa called Aunty Belinda, was very kind and showed a lot of love. When Leesa was in Year 7, Aunty Belinda left and they were placed with a couple who called her ‘trash from the gutter’. Later on Leesa re-established contact with Aunty Belinda, and was close to her until she passed away.
A man from Welfare came to visit Leesa and ask about the second placement. ‘He came into my bedroom and spoke to me. I was at the top of the bed and he was lounging across my bed. I felt very uncomfortable and wondered why someone in his position would be laying across my bed.’ She remembers the man ‘fiddling with the sheets, and moving his hands up, and I was cringing’.
They were then moved to another couple, Mike and Melanie Barry. The Barrys had several children of their own, including Adam, who was a couple of years older than Leesa. The couple treated her like a second-class citizen, giving her poor quality meals and fewer privileges than the rest of the family.
Leesa was 13 when Adam came into her room one night. ‘I was asleep and he woke me. He was very drunk ... He wanted me to give him a head job. He already had his dick out and kept saying, “Come on, come on Leesa”, and trying to put my hand on his dick. I said, “Please go or I’ll scream”, and he said, “All right, don’t scream”. Adam left my bedroom, closing the door behind him. It seemed like this lasted forever but it must have been three or four minutes.’
Adam did not try to do anything else, but Leesa remained anxious that he would come into her room again at night. She didn’t feel she could tell Mike or Melanie about what had happened for fear they would blame her and it would cause more trouble. She wonders if they had heard the incident from their room.
‘It was after this incident that the Barrys started to humiliate me in public’, including constantly informing people she was a state ward. ‘I had trouble finding friends due to the Barrys, as people did not know or understand that I did not do anything wrong, but my parents were not fit to look after me.’
During her time in care, Leesa had numerous caseworkers – all young, inexperienced, and short-term. ‘The social workers weren’t working for us. They were telling the Barrys what we said. As they were the only outlet we had, we had no one ... The social workers said it was part of the protocol, reporting grievances so they could help make things better. It made things worse; we’d get told off.’
For all her life Leesa has felt worthless, and the stigma of having been a state ward has haunted her. ‘When I told my first partner, he asked me what I had done and I found it hard to convince him that I was taken away because my parents had done something wrong, not me.’
Several of her relationships were abusive. ‘I have been humiliated, intimidated and sexually abused in my relationships and have been hurt by insensitive remarks that made me feel worthless. For most of my adult life I have felt like a little girl trapped in a woman’s body.’
In the mid-2000s, Leesa applied for her records, receiving them in the mail. ‘The first few times I read these documents I did not feel much but when I re-read them after contacting the Royal Commission, it hit me like a bombshell and I cried my eyes out.’
Leesa has attempted suicide, and has recently been diagnosed with a medical disorder that doctors think may be related to trauma in her childhood.
‘I did not want to believe it was true – the Barrys gave me a life sentence, I do not want a second one, a medical condition that comes from trauma.’
Sharing her story with the Commissioner has helped Leesa start moving on from the abuse. ‘I’ve lived a life of silence for over 35 years, since that incident, and what it did to my life afterwards, I needed and waited and waited for something like this to happen so I didn’t have to live with that secret anymore. I didn’t want to live with it – it was destroying my life.’
When she first heard that the Royal Commission was investigating institutional child sexual abuse, ‘I thought my Christmases had come at once ... I needed an outlet, I needed someone that was going to be believe me, that what happened all those years ago did have an effect on my life’.