Leila was made a ward of the state in the late 1960, at the age of four. She spent the next few years in government children’s homes in Victoria, where she was physically abused by staff and touched inappropriately by other children.
But these incidents, Leila said, were minor compared to what she suffered in her mid-teens. By 14 Leila was back living with her mother and attending a state high school in suburban Melbourne. One day a gang of kids attacked her in the locker room.
‘They locked the gates and jumped all over me, fondling me. And I reported it to – I went to the principal’s office, reported the incident. And they got away with it. They got two weeks’ suspension. No police were called. No counselling. And I left school after that.’
Leila’s family were poor, so as soon as Leila dropped out of school her mother insisted that she get a job. Leila found a position at a local business. Two or three weeks later the boss asked her to go upstairs to pick up her pay. There he ‘ambushed’ Leila and raped her.
‘And I was a virgin at the time. And I was just absolutely devastated and degraded and ran all the way home, which was about four K. And just cried and ran into the shower. And cried. And I couldn’t believe it, and I didn’t know what to do.
‘So I told Mum the following morning “Listen Mum, I can’t work [there] anymore”. And she just looked at me sternly in the garden and said to me “Well, you’ve got to pay me rent. And I don’t care. I need your rent otherwise you go back to school”. So I went back … and it happened again and again.’
Desperate, Leila went to her next door neighbour and told her about the rapes. The neighbour then told Leila’s mum. Leila didn’t have to go back to work after that. But nothing else was done and Leila’s boss was not held to account.
Leila went back to the workforce at 15, again at a local business, and again she was sexually abused by her boss. The man’s name was Tim Keneally, and he would fondle Leila and press his groin into her back. This abuse lasted six or seven months.
Leila didn’t understand why these things were happening to her, and while she knew they were wrong, she didn’t know they were criminal. Ironically, it was Tim Keneally who set her straight on that score.
‘He said to me “Leila, I’d love to have sex with you”. But he said “I can’t”. And I said “What are you saying?” And he said “Carnal knowledge”. And that was the first time I knew – “What does carnal knowledge mean?” “You’re under 16”. Bingo. And since that day no one’s ever touched me.’
Leila was never sexually abused again but she still had to struggle every day with the ongoing impacts of what she’d been through. In her late teens and early adult years her strategy was to drink a lot and push the memories out of her mind. For a while it worked. Then when Leila’s first child was born, the memories came back.
‘I’ll never forget the day … I was just rocking in the corner of my bedroom on the floor for hours and hours and hours. It would probably have been about eight hours. That threshold moment, and when that came back that was just devastating … Once it all came back it just got worse and worse.’
Leila now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. On top of that, she doesn’t have ‘any understanding of consensual sexual relationships’, has trouble trusting people, and feels she’s never been able to live up to her full potential.
These impacts might have been easier to handle, Leila said, if she’d had a supportive family around her. But Leila was separated from her mother and siblings when she was first put into care, and as a result the bond they shared was broken and never repaired.
‘I’m a survivor, got set to survive it. And I’ve always been the strong one in the family, because at four and a half I looked to the right, I looked to the left, and saw no one.
‘And that was the way it was for me. From that day on I knew I was on my own. And I’m still on my own. No one cuddles me. I get no cuddles from my sisters and brothers and my mum. Everything is just flat.’
Leila is currently pursuing legal action against her abusers. She’s had good experiences so far with her lawyer and the police.
‘I’m really grateful for that because – obviously closure with the rape and the sexual assault are probably the number one things in my life. I’ve got to be honest with you: until I get some sort of conviction I’ll never be totally happy.
‘But I’m just grateful that I had this opportunity to tell my story. I am a survivor. I suffer a lot of pain and I still suffer, but in a whole I have things that make me not suffer …. like my children and like my house and my garden.’