Lela was eight years old when she immigrated to Australia with her large family in the early 1950s. She struggled at school and with learning English and one day, in her early teens, was locked out of the house by her mother after an argument. Lela went to the local police station and staff from social services were called. She was then was made a ward of the New South Wales state and sent to a girls’ home run by the Sisters of Mercy.
The first nun Lela met in the home was nice, but then she met Sister Benedict. Sister Benedict didn’t allow Lela and other girls to go to school and instead put them to work ‘scrubbing, cleaning, dusting’. Girls weren’t allowed to talk to each other or to other nuns without permission, and Sister Benedict would punish them for any infraction.
‘Punishment I had, and witnessed others have, being dragged by my hair, having chunks of hair cut off – big scissors she carried – called names like “dago” … and flogged with a large hairbrush.’
When she heard her father had died, Lela asked if she could go to his funeral, but Sister Benedict refused and locked her in a room, telling her to ‘say a prayer’.
After two years in the home, Lela was sent to a foster family. She remembers being upset by the behaviour of the family, particularly the father who drank heavily and was often drug-affected. Lela’s foster mother would often take her own children away and leave Lela alone with the father for days at a time.
When Lela accessed her state ward files many years later, she found reference to a doctor’s report from a time she’d taken an overdose of antihistamines. The overdose had been prompted by an incident involving the foster father where he’d stripped naked in front of her and made ‘crude comments’. The report noted that no ‘improper advances’ were made, but the incident frightened and distressed Lela, and soon afterwards she was moved to another foster family.
Lela said that she’s blocked out a lot of her childhood. When she was no longer a ward of the state she had to fend for herself, and without an education she was usually employed in poorly paid work. Her first marriage ‘was a disaster’, but her children were ‘good kids’.
Other than telling the doctor about what her foster father had done, Lela didn’t talk about it again until she disclosed the incident to her second husband. He helped get access to her state ward file and supported her in linking up with a care leavers’ group.
Early in her adult life Lela returned to the home to see Denise, a girl with whom she’d become good friends, but she ‘didn’t get past the front door’. Denise had a disability and had been a particular target of Sister Benedict who encouraged other girls to ridicule and taunt her as well.
Lela told the Commissioner that she recently found Denise. She’s living interstate and the two are making plans to meet up again.
‘We were sad, lonely kids torn away from our family and did no one any harm. We should have been cared for and shown compassion for whatever reason we were unable to stay safe with our family. We had no safety net and would have been terrified to tell anyone.’