‘I can remember one lady in there [government-run home] who probably changed my way of thinking, in so far as she treated me like a person and listened to me.’
Leila was placed in Catholic care as a nine-year-old when her parents divorced, in the mid 1960s. At 16, after being labelled ‘uncontrollable’ and attempting suicide, she was sent for nine months to a New South Wales government home for girls.
‘[It] was very much a shock to my system. I’d never been – the only way you can put it is incarcerated – totally, totally locked away from the world.’
Leila found the home terrifying.
‘The whole thing was totally scary … When you’re first taken … that was scary.’
The home was strict and punishment was brutal. Punishments included scrubbing concrete for days on end and Leila was locked in solitary confinement for two weeks because she swore. Like all the girls who went to the home, Leila was strip searched on arrival.
‘You were strip searched as soon as you went in there … bend over, flare everything. Yeah, that used to happen.’
She worked hard at not being a target for either residents or staff. ‘I used to keep myself busy. I’d work in the kitchen. I’d go to my classes. I just wanted the time to be over and done with very quickly.’
Leila left the home with an education. ‘Without an education you don’t have any choices; at least with an education I had choices. I could learn to go in a different direction.’
Leila was released when she was 17.
‘My family had moved. My father had died. My grandmother had died. I can remember hopping into the taxi outside the home and the taxi driver said “Where to?” I had no idea. Had no idea “where to”.’
Leila met up with a relative and they moved interstate, finding work quickly. She lived within a criminal community though, and life continued to be difficult. She still finds difficulty in piecing her early years together.
‘I have got my [care] records but they are very sparse … The biggest problem for me is sequencing. I’ve tried – the Catholics didn’t keep very good records, and the little bit I have been able to get doesn’t really help … I haven’t got my records from [the home] …’
She has applied for them but nothing has been sent to her as yet. Still, Leila has extracted one reassuring bit of information.
‘To be labelled as uncontrollable [is hard] and to find out that it wasn’t that I was uncontrollable … [that it was a legal device] gave me clarity… I can understand that better than I was just a naughty kid.’
Leila has raised her own child and a number of her extended family’s children too. She now works in social services, with a particular interest in adolescents, and knows that troubled kids can benefit from being around someone like herself, someone who understands what it is like to be in care.
‘I’m just so honest and open with them … I love going to work because I can talk to these kids … And the kids talk to me, they speak. I get a lot more information out of them than what other staff members do.
‘They trust me, they don’t think I’m perfect but they know that I hear, I listen, I see … somebody’s got to be the adult in their life, that’s way I look at it.’
Leila talks to the adolescents she works with about education and resilience.
‘You can’t dwell in the past. You can’t let it define who you are. You have to be more resilient than that.’
She also knows it is a difficult career path she has chosen to walk.
‘I’m not expecting to do miracles, it’s not why I got into it, it’s just I remember that one person in [the home] who spoke to me like I was a human.’