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Lillian's story

Staff from Barnardos lied to Lillian, telling her that she and her sister had been put into care because their mother was a prostitute. ‘They said terrible things’, Lillian recalled. ‘They really tried to turn us against her.’ In fact, Lillian had been put into care because her mother was struggling with postnatal depression. Later, when Lillian’s mum tried to get her kids back, her application was refused.

Lillian and her sister Rachel wound up spending most of their childhood in care. They started in a large group home in Sydney in the early 1960s and then moved to a smaller home nearby when Lillian was eight and Rachel a little older. This home was run by house parents Jim and Nancy Forsyth. Jim Forsyth sexually abused Lillian many times over the next few years. She vividly remembers one of the last times he touched her.

‘I must have been close to 11 by then. He had me on his lap and his hands were all over me and in my dress, all sorts of things, and he’s kissing me and all sorts of things. And he tried to drag me down the hall … and we got to the outside door and I must have really freaked, because it was dark out there and I knew the bush was there and I knew everyone was upstairs.

‘Don’t know if I screamed or what but I remember I struggled and got away and I got all the way back upstairs and I must have just jumped straight in my bed because I remember just lying there and, of course, looking over the covers expecting him to come any time.’

A few days after this incident, Lillian sought comfort from Mrs Allen, the social worker who sometimes visited. ‘I know I was cuddled up to her. I felt really small … She immediately noticed something. I know I was very withdrawn, I was very scared, I don’t know if I said to her, “I’m scared of Mr Forsyth”. It was something like that. Can’t remember what I said. Anyway, she immediately took me to the police station.’

Lillian can’t remember what happened at the station, but she’s sure that she must have disclosed some of Mr Forsyth’s abuse, because she didn’t go back to the home that night. Instead she was put in a different home where she stayed for six weeks. It was a confusing time. Lillian was separated from her sister, didn’t understand what was going on and felt like she was being punished.

At the end of the six weeks Lillian was sent back to the Forsyths. By this stage, Mr Forsyth knew he was being investigated. ‘He threatened to kill me, and said, “I’ll run you down on your way to school. I’ll find you wherever you are”. And just kept calling out “Liar, liar, liar”.’ A short while late, Mr Forsyth and his wife and children were removed from the home.

‘I do remember … they were coming down the stairs and leaving. I thought they were saying to me “Liar, liar, it’s all your fault” and that sort of thing, but Rachel also thought they were saying it to her.’

At the time, neither Lillian nor Rachel knew that the other had also been abused by Forsyth. The truth came out when Lillian was in her mid-teens. ‘We were at my father’s one day and somehow we got talking about – that Rachel thought that this Mr Forsyth and the family were sacked because of her. And then I said “What do you mean because of you? They all left because of me”.’

After that first conversation, the sisters barely spoke about the abuse. They watched each other falling into the same kind of dysfunctional relationships but never explicitly connected these behaviours back to their time with Mr Forsyth. Lillian deliberately ‘blanked out’ many of her bad memories. Then, in the late 2000s, it all came out.

‘We asked for our files from Barnados, because Rachel was having a series of breakdowns. Didn’t interest me at all. I thought, “I had a great childhood. I don’t need to look at that”. But she was seeing a counsellor at the time and wanted to know why she was having the breakdowns. So I remember she gave me my file. I had a look through, and I was in absolute shock after reading it.’

The file said nothing about the abuse. After finally deciding to face her past, Lillian had discovered that none of its horrors had been recorded. She was ‘so angry’ she rang Barnardos and threatened to take legal action. ‘They said “Oh no, don’t do that”. And they invited me down to talk. I said “Well it’s my sister as well, it’s not just me”.’

So Lillian and Rachel met with a senior member of Barnardos. ‘I remember right from walking in she was very cold and defensive and lacked any compassion at all.’ The woman offered a ‘sarcastic’ apology, excused the poor records on grounds that there’d been ‘lots of changes’ and told the sisters that they didn’t deserve any compensation because by the time they’d arrived at the Forsyth’s home they were already ‘damaged goods’.

Lillian went out and hired a solicitor to sue Barnardos. The solicitor was confident of getting a large settlement amount until he sat down to negotiate and saw the team of elite lawyers the charity group had hired. The senior member was there too. She laughed and offered $11,000, saying ‘this is the best offer you’ll ever get. No one ever wins with Barnardos’.

By then Lillian’s health was suffering and she knew she couldn’t handle a long court battle so she took the deal. The whole experience, she said, was a painful disappointment. ‘I totally felt worthless and not believed and couldn’t believe that they could get away with all of this.’

Lillian later approached victims of crime for compensation and received the maximum payout and ‘unlimited counselling’. Lillian has been seeing a counsellor twice a week for some time now and the experience has been ‘absolutely fantastic’. She would like to see Rachel get a similar compensation package. Unfortunately, she said, Rachel is too fragile right now to undertake the process.

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