It was the late 1980s in South Australia and Lyla was just two years old. Her mother, unable to properly care for her, started sending her off for short breaks of respite care. Some of these breaks came under the umbrella of formal foster care while others were private deals that Lyla’s mother arranged on the side. As Lyla put it: ‘she just kind of palmed me off to anybody that would take me’.
The situation continued for the next 10 years or so. Throughout this time Lyla was rarely sent to the same placement twice. She now believes that this was a deliberate attempt on her mother’s part to keep Lyla from realising that her life ‘wasn’t a normal life for a child’. Lyla’s mother feared that if her daughter ‘wised up’ she’d expose Lyla as a neglectful mother – or perhaps something worse.
‘I’m now talking with police and my counsellors and I’ve had a couple of people that I’ve spoken to about my childhood and about the amount of times that I’ve been abused and all that sort of stuff, and they go, “Do you think it could have been a child ring type thing?” And I’ve said, “You know what, I wouldn’t put it past my mother”. It just happened way too many times. I mean, I’ve got eight reported police cases of sexual abuse off completely different people. And they’re only the ones that were reported.’
Even if Lyla’s mother wasn’t involved in a paedophile ring, she knew that Lyla was being sexually abused by her foster carers. One of Lyla’s few return-placements was with foster parents Jane and Ian Hughes. Ian Hughes sexually abused her on several occasions, starting when Lyla was eight years old. Lyla told her mother about the abuse and begged not to be sent back. In response, her mother threatened to send Lyla’s younger sister instead. So Lyla went, and was abused again.
Lyla’s mother wasn’t the only one who knew about the abuse. Recently Lyla obtained her records and discovered that the welfare department knew what was going on and yet never intervened.
‘I started reading through it and I was getting so angry because I was like, these people knew. They could see. It’s been documented over and over and over … How could you not see it? How could you not – even within the first few pages you can see that. That’s what devastated me, to think that this could have been prevented. This could have been stopped.’
What makes the situation even more appalling, Lyla said, is that all the time she was living with her mother, being shunted in and out of respite placements, her father was fighting with the department to get custody of her and her sister. Lyla has since seen the many letters he wrote. They reveal that even if he couldn’t get full custody he would have gladly taken her for holidays and weekends. Which means there was no need for Lyla to go into respite care at all.
The foster-placements abuse ended when Lyla was in her mid-teens, but she still wasn’t safe. By that stage she was being sexually abused at home by her stepfather.
The abuse had a profound impact on Lyla’s mental health. She made the first of several suicide attempts when she was eight years old. She received little education and suffered horrific nightmares. At 16 she decided she’d had enough. With the help of a compassionate foster carer she moved out of home for good.
Since then Lyla has managed to complete several higher education qualifications in the field of community services. She’s hoping to push on with her studies so that she can become ‘an ambassador for people who’ve been through what I went through’.
In the meantime, she has more urgent things to deal with. Lyla is concerned about the safety of her sister’s kids, who are regularly left in the care of Lyla’s mum and abusive stepfather. Lyla has started legal action to try and get them out.
‘I need to protect these children because nobody was there for me.’