Lisa Michelle's story

For much of her early childhood, Lisa was physically abused by her mother who had a mental illness. In the mid-1960s, at 11 years of age Lisa was finally handed over to the care of the New South Wales state.

For the next three years she was shunted between Catholic-run children’s homes and state-run psychiatric facilities. At many of these institutions she suffered physical and sexual abuse. Lisa reported the abuse many times but no one ever helped her – in fact they did the opposite.

‘Every person,’ Lisa said, ‘from family, from relatives, to professionals that I went and asked for help not only didn’t give me the help, they put me in a worse situation … How can a child be protected if the adults and the professionals choose to ignore their abuse?’

The first institution that Lisa went to was a Catholic-run orphanage. There she was well-treated and happy to be free of her mother. Then at age 12 – for reasons that Lisa has never been able to fathom – she was taken from the home and made an inpatient at the same psychiatric hospital where her mother was staying.

Lisa’s mother continued her abuse within the confines of the hospital. She ended up ‘throttling’ Lisa to the point where Lisa believed she was going to die. Luckily, a cleaner intervened.

The authorities responded to the incident by committing Lisa to a different psychiatric institution. Lisa’s records state that she was sent there because of her ‘violent behaviour’ – but other than this comment there are no records of Lisa ever behaving violently.

Over the next few months Lisa was moved through various wings of her new psychiatric facility until finally ending up in an adult ward surrounded by ‘murderers, schizophrenics, severe epileptics and very violent people’. Soon one of the adult female patients started taking an interest in her.

‘It was never innocent, it was always creepy. But it was just, sort of, touching. You know, stroking, telling me what a beautiful person I was and things like that … And then piece by piece it just started escalating. And then she started to constantly threaten my sister. She’d tell me that she was going to kill Emily. That she knew where Emily was and she was going to kill Emily. It was to get me to allow her to do more each time.’

Despite the woman’s threats, Lisa reported her to one of the psychiatrists, a man named Dr Phillips. He believed her and consoled her and told her that he was going to get her out of the ward and into the home of a ‘nice foster family’.

Lisa was never sent to the foster family. Instead, she was transferred several days later to a state-run processing centre. As soon as she arrived she was told to change into a hospital gown. Two women then led her into a medical examination room where a doctor used his fingers to conduct an ‘internal examination’.

‘Nobody did anything else. It wasn’t like they took your blood pressure or they looked at your eyes or they asked you to open your mouth to look at your tonsils. There was none of that. It was, “Get up in the chair, bring you knees up and open your legs”.’

Lisa tried to fight the doctor off. More people entered the room and Lisa was forcibly held down until the procedure was done. ‘I screamed and I fought and I fought. I fought so hard, I remember it. And then it was all over. All the hands just stopped. They all just got off me.’

Everyone left the room except one woman. She smacked Lisa across the face. ‘She told me that dirty little whores like me spread disease. And I fell off the chair, I rolled off the chair and I laid on that floor bawling my eyes out. And eventually – nobody came – and I just picked up the gown and put it back on and walked back out.’

Sometime later Lisa found herself in another state-run girls’ home. This home had a practice of inflicting regular strip searches on the girls. The policy was for staff to stand outside the cubicle and watch as the children stripped and turned around. One staff member ignored this policy. When dealing with Lisa, she liked to step inside the cubicle where she could pinch Lisa’s nipples and touch her vagina.

‘And as she’d do that she’d just look at me and she’d say, “You like that, don’t you Lisa?” Anyway, I didn’t tell anybody about that. I’d learned not to tell people anything around about that time.’

Meanwhile, one of Lisa’s fellow-inmates started following her around, trying to kiss her. Lisa tried to laugh it off but the girl wouldn’t relent. One day Lisa found herself alone in the shower room with this girl and some of her friends. They weren’t supposed to be in there but the staff member who had abused Lisa in the cubicle had let them in. The girls held Lisa down and, as the staff member watched, they digitally raped her. This happened several more times.

Lisa reported the incidents to the principal. And when her old psychiatrist, Dr Phillips, came for a visit, she reported it to him too. Both adults said there was nothing they could do, and both gave Lisa the same useless advice: keep your head down and try to stay out of trouble.

Eventually the intervention Lisa sought came, though not in the form she expected. ‘My mother’s death was my salvation … the authorities, the people who were responsible didn’t make any intervention; her death did.’

Her mother now gone, Lisa was sent home at age 14 to care for her younger siblings. She spent the remainder of her childhood working to support them. She never returned to school, which she had barely attended up to that point in any case.

That ‘huge loss of potential’ is what Lisa regrets the most. She said it gives her some solace to know that her own children got a good education and have gone on to succeed in life, but the feeling is bittersweet. ‘I’m really happy about that but I’m sad for the young girl that I was because I think I could have been something unbelievable.’

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