Lillian Sarah's story

‘I was a victim of child sexual abuse, suffering neglect and also physical abuse as a child … I’m not allowed to be angry. In the institution you’re not allowed to be angry … Just now I am beginning to be angry about what happened to me.’

Lillian grew up in an ‘impoverished family’ with an alcoholic father and a mother who had difficulty caring for her children. Lillian experienced extensive physical and sexual abuse from her relatives. By 14 years of age, she was running away from home.

‘When I got old enough to work it out that something wasn’t right in my family, and that I was really miserable and unhappy, I started to run away. And each time I did run away I didn’t really have anywhere to go so I gave myself up to the police … I would be charged with neglect and exposure to moral danger and put through the courts and into a juvenile detention facility.’

In the early 1970s, Lillian was given a five month sentence in a New South Wales state-run girls’ home. On her arrival she had to undergo a pelvic examination. The doctor asked Lillian whether she had a boyfriend.

‘This was a shock to me … I remember telling [the doctor] that I didn’t have a boyfriend and hadn’t had a boyfriend. And when he was examining me he said to me, “I think there are some liars here” … he wasn’t believing me.

‘It was replicating the abuses I was getting at home. It was being done to me without my consent and it was kind of like being raped.’

Lillian soon learnt the rules of the home and kept within them.

‘Because I was sentenced and I just submitted to that system and I wasn’t thinking until later on in my life how tough it was.’

She felt ‘really uncomfortable’ the entire time she was at the home.

‘There were no doors on the toilets … marched everywhere and when you went to bed at night you weren’t allowed to have anything on under your nightie …

‘I was totally dominated [both] as a child and in the institutions. Watched all the time, dominated and controlled … not allowed to feel anything … there was that constant threat of being sent to [another institution] … I just felt vulnerable all of the time …

‘The superintendents were men and I just felt that they could come and look at you whenever they wanted to.’

As well, two other female inmates threatened to rape her.

‘I did try to commit suicide there. I thought I could do it by drinking Brasso … I was punished for that.’

But Lillian’s attempt on her life was also an ‘act of rebellion … [and] gave me a sense of feeling powerful’.

After her sentence was completed she went back to her mother’s home and, at the age of 17, married ‘as a ticket out of home’. She soon had children of her own.

‘I had a really difficult time … I just couldn’t cope with being a mother … and after my second child was born … I was diagnosed with clinical depression and hospitalised.’

The marriage broke down and the children went to live with their father. She is still with her second partner and has several children from the relationship.

‘I did struggle the whole time with motherhood. I think all of those things in the early years of my life … I think that they impacted my life, long term. There’s a lot of confusion in my mind. I have and do suffer trauma.’

It wasn’t until one of her own children was sexually abused that Lillian began to realise the extent of her own abuse.

‘In my family, you don’t tell the authorities what is happening to you … it’s like a big secret and I think with [the institution] too … it’s just another secret that I had to carry … who would believe me?’

Lillian has experienced periods of mental distress and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociative disorder. She has sought compensation from the government but is going to pursue more specific compensation in relation to the institution.

‘I just submitted to it. I thought it was just something [I] had to do … I used to think there was lots of things I could have done … and why didn’t I?

‘When I say “Why didn’t I?” it puts the onus on me and the guilt feeling, feeling guilty as though you had voluntarily participated in that activity … I didn’t resist. I just let it happen … because I was being punished. Whatever they wanted to do with you, you deserved that … I was a bad girl. [The institution] was the bottom of the barrel … I didn’t give them any trouble.’

Lillian keeps to herself these days. ‘I have my family but I pretty much keep to myself. My self-esteem is not very high.’

She is also plagued with flashbacks. ‘The memories don’t stop.’


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