Marsha’s stepfather got both her older sisters pregnant – first Gemma, when she was 13, then Trudy, also 13 at the time. He physically abused Marsha, and tried to sexually abuse her as well.
When Marsha turned 13, she reported him to welfare authorities in the small New South Wales town where they lived. But prompted by Marsha’s mother, the authorities deemed Marsha an uncontrollable child. They didn’t listen to what Marsha had to say.
‘All the welfare listened to was what my mother said.’
It was the late 1960s. Marsha was made a ward of the state, and placed in a government-run residential home for girls in an outer suburb of Sydney.
She had been running away from home to escape the physical abuse she was experiencing there. As a result, she’d previously spent time in another residential home, run by the Catholic Church. It was a reasonable place, except her Aboriginality meant she was denied an education. ‘You were treated fairly [there] except for the schooling. Aboriginal kids were not taught schooling. I don’t know why.’ She’d been taken out of her high school class and placed back in Year 4.
‘Which really ruined my life’, she said, ‘Because I wanted to be a nurse. With no education, I couldn’t be that.’
Some years ago, Marsha used freedom of information laws to access her full official file. She was greatly distressed by what she read. It was full of errors and inaccuracies, beginning with her date of birth. It turned out her mother had given a date that made Marsha a year older, because otherwise she’d have been too young for the home. The details of her name were wrong. It contained false information about why she’d been sent to the home. The welfare officer had written that it was because Marsha had been caught having sex with teenage boys – in a toilet block that, according to Marsha, didn’t even exist. There was also a note saying she’d stayed in a shelter overnight on her way to the home.
‘To be quite honest, that’s a straight-out lie. I was locked in police station cells for the weekend. There was no shelter. Why did they lie?’
The file described her as of average intelligence and an attention-seeker. But she wasn’t, she told the Commissioner. It’s just she was an easy target.
‘I was not only an Aboriginal girl, I was an Aboriginal girl with a mouth’, she explained. ‘I’ve always been outspoken. If I know that I’m wrong done by, I will stand up and fight with God himself. I got into a lot of trouble for it when I was a kid … And that’s why I‘m so cranky that they make me sound so stupid and so illiterate in these files. Anybody who knows me would know that I was never stupid or illiterate.’
Marsha’s life at the home was characterised by deprivation, hard labour and physical violence. She had to work in the laundry, and eventually ended up in conflict with the woman in charge who was a bully and complained that Marsha was lazy and lax. ‘So I lost my temper. And I ironed her with a hot iron, on her arm.’
As a result of this incident, Marsha was transferred to a second, even stricter home. She had been there only a few days, in an isolation cell, when a male guard came in and raped her. She doesn’t know who it was.
‘We were never allowed to look at their faces. We weren’t allowed to look at their faces when we spoke to them, let alone when they were abusing us. We weren’t allowed to lift our eyes off the ground.’ She was later raped again. Her assailant didn’t have to threaten her not to tell.
‘Didn’t have to. We were petrified as it was. The place was run like a concentration camp.’
Over the next few years Marsha was moved back and forth between the two homes. She finally left when she was 17. By then she had contracted Hepatitis C, the result of a transfusion she received while there. She eventually became a methamphetamine user, involved in ‘cooking’ the drugs as well as injecting them. She was restless, always moving from place to place. She couldn’t maintain intimate relationships. She now lives in Queensland, on a disability pension.
In recent years she became part of a class action taken by a law firm against the home. But her involvement came to an end when the lawyers asked for a fee. Marsha and others had thought the firm would be paid from any settlement. ‘Then all of a sudden they send us a letter saying we have to spend $2,500 within 28 days or they’re archiving our files’, she recalled. ‘Now – where is an Aboriginal family of low income going to pull $2,500 out of the air? Well, I rang them and tried to say there’s no way I can get this money. I was told “Oh well we’re just going to have to archive your file”. That was the end of it.’
The statute of limitations means it’s now too late for Marsha to seek compensation from the government. She thinks that statute should be abolished. ‘My main thing is I want something righted that was wrong. And I want the people that did it wrong, to admit it. That’s my main thing. And if I happen to get a payout for that, fine.’
She doesn’t want much – just enough to buy a camper van.
‘All I’ve ever wanted in my life is to get a camper van. It doesn’t have to be a flash Winnebago … Just a camper van for me and my dog.’
Looking back, she wishes someone had taken the time to show her some love. ‘Instead of “We’ve been told that you do this. We’ve been told that you’re an attention-seeker. We’ve been told that you tell nothing but lies”. A child hears that enough, they get sick of hearing it.’
‘People ask me why I didn’t turn really nasty and vicious because of what happened to me, and I’ll still state – I didn’t believe ‘em. I didn’t believe I was an evil person, I didn’t believe I was a nasty person, and that’s what stopped me. I still don’t believe it.’