As an Aboriginal woman who has worked with disadvantaged children and been the victim of child abuse herself, Maureen had some unique insights to offer the Commissioner.
She was removed from her white mother and Aboriginal father at around 16 months old and adopted by a white family who lived in Sydney. Maureen got along well with her new brothers and sister and described her adopted mother as a ‘beautiful woman’. But her adopted father was ‘physically, sexually and emotionally abusive’.
To escape the abuse, Maureen ran away from home when she was 11 or 12 years old. She spent time living on the streets of Sydney and was in and out of various children’s homes where she suffered physical and sexual assaults.
She remembered one incident in particular. ‘I’d had a fight with another girl … so they took me down to this room with a little window in it. It was really dark in the door – a big heavy door and a mattress on the floor with buttons on it, something like that. … I was taken into that room and I was there for a number of days – I don’t know how long, it seemed like forever as a kid. And someone came into that cell and they sexually abused me and they dragged me out and hosed me.’
Maureen said she didn’t know who the person was but was sure it was one of the female officers who worked at the girls’ home.
The abuse affected Maureen’s ability to form healthy relationships. She told the Commissioner that after leaving the home she ‘got pregnant straight away to the boy that I met through his sister. He was violently abusive, an alcoholic. I had two children through him. He tried to kill me. I left him, got into another abusive relationship – marriage. And I had two kids to him. And then I left him and then I got into another abusive relationship’.
Then a number of things happened that helped Maureen turn her life around. She discovered her Indigenous heritage and that she had a biological sister. Maureen met with her sister and began to build a relationship. A short time later she told her sister about the abuse. It was the first time she had talked about it with anyone.
Maureen also got help from a woman who worked at the refuge where she lived. ‘She put a lot of faith in me and talked to me a lot and counselled me a lot … She just seemed to believe in me and that gave me a bit of faith that I could believe in myself.’
Maureen started counselling, enrolled at university and eventually completed two degrees. A career in counselling and child services followed.
Through her experiences, Maureen has formed strong views about how Aboriginal children in need of care should be treated.
‘Aboriginal kids need to be with Aboriginal families. Aboriginal kids need to be close with kin and community as per child placement principles. And every day I go to work and every day I see that those placement principles aren’t adhered to, and that we struggle every day, working with the department to get white people to understand where we’re coming from.’
Maureen is particularly concerned that government departments are more focused on protecting themselves than protecting children and often assume that a child is at risk without investigating what that risk might be.
‘They’re not even willing to let us do a risk assessment or safety planning because they’re too busy managing the risk to their own job.’
Despite the challenges, Maureen continues to work hard to improve the child-placement system. Her hope, she told the Commissioner, is that ‘no other child in care goes through what we all went through. And I know that’s impossible. I know that as a reality. As a younger woman, first in uni, I thought “I’m going to change this whole system”. Obviously I’m realising now I can’t. But I don’t want this to happen to other kids. I don’t want this to happen to my grandkids’.