Leonie and her two siblings were put into care in the mid-1950s. Leonie told the Commissioner, ‘We were taken to the court in Sydney and we were left there. My mother was suffering from malnutrition. My father had abandoned her, and she just left us there’.
Six-year-old Leonie was then sent to a state-run girls’ home where she spent her days doing hard manual labour and caring for her little brother, Archie. Eventually Leonie’s sister was sent to one foster home while Leonie and Archie went to another.
After some time, Leonie’s new foster mother got upset with the fact that Leonie was pretty much acting as a mother to Archie. One day, without warning, she sent Leonie back to the home. Leonie said, ‘After school she had a chaperone come and pick me up and I never even got to see my brother’. Years would pass before she got to see him again.
Leonie was then sent to another state-run home. On her first day the girls subjected her to an ‘initiation’. Leonie said, ‘They took me down to the backyard when I first got there and filled my vagina up with leaves’.
Leonie soon began to notice that it was common practice at the home for some of the older girls to sexually abuse the younger ones. She managed to avoid being sexually abused herself because one of the older girls stepped in to protect her.
At about age 10, she left the home and went to live with foster parents Beth and Len Stewart. Leonie worked hard for the Stewarts, cooking and cleaning and caring for their young baby. ‘My foster mother, Beth, fell in love with me. She said, “I’m never going to let you go. I love you”.’
Leonie told the Commissioner that it wasn’t an ideal situation but the Stewarts were pleasant enough and there were occasional treats to enjoy. Len Stewart would bring chocolate bars home every Friday night to share with Leonie and the rest of the family. Later in the evening, he and Leonie would stay up alone together and watch old movies, which Leonie really liked. Then one day it all changed.
‘He sort of started this routine where he would undo his shirt, lay back. Then he’d undo his pants … Then he’d say, “I’ve got an itch, Leonie, can you come and scratch my itch”.’
Over time the abuse escalated to the point where Len would get Leonie to touch his penis. He also started doing other things like barging into the bathroom when she was in the bath or grabbing her at random moments. She recalled one occasion in the laundry room:
‘He grabbed my head and darted his tongue down my throat, so that started. And it was slimy and it tasted disgusting and I was gagging. So he started doing this to me and I didn’t like it and I thought, “Why would he do this to me?”’
Leonie did her best to avoid Len but every Friday night he always managed to catch her alone. She felt like she had to do something so one day she confided in her friend at school. Around this time it was standard practice for a welfare worker to visit Leonie at school every now and then to check on her. Leonie’s friend advised her to talk to the worker, but to be very careful about how much she revealed.
‘She said, “When the officer comes to the school you have to say you’re not happy: I don’t like it here, I hate it here, I want to get out of here. And he’ll ask why. You don’t have to tell him. If you were to tell him, he’s going to look at you as a liar. You have no worth, you don’t mean anything to anybody”.’
Leonie followed her friend’s advice and told the welfare worker that she wanted to get out. When he asked why, she told him there was no special reason; she just wanted to leave. He agreed to organise a new placement. That day Leonie came home from school and found Beth waiting for her.
‘She went rampant, raving, “What the hell did you tell him?” She said, “Why aren’t you happy? What is wrong with you? I am so upset that you put this tale across. We did everything for you that we could do for you. You’re one of us. I would even love to adopt you”.’
Leonie left the foster home that day. She looked back as she was leaving and saw Beth in tears. ‘And then I broke down and cried. And I thought, all this happens because of one person. And I couldn’t tell her. Even today I’ve never told her.’
Leonie spent the next few years at another state-run girls’ home until her mother tracked her down. She then went to live with her mother and new stepfather. In time she reconnected with her sister and brother as well.
In her early 20s, Leonie found herself in a relationship with a ‘cruel man’ but eventually she managed to escape from the situation with her kids. She built a successful career and later married the man who is still her husband today. Early in the relationship she told him about her past and he was completely supportive.
‘We’re the best of friends. We fly everywhere, we travel everywhere. We’ve been together now 31 years.’