Looking back now, Melissa can see that her mother ‘did her best’. But with a violent partner to manage and a tribe of kids to feed she just couldn’t cope. When Melissa started staying out late and getting into trouble, her mother put her into care.
It was the 1970s in Tasmania and Melissa was 15 years old. She spent the next few months hopping in and out of institutions. The Catholic home for wayward girls was pleasant enough. Melissa’s time at an adult prison was an eye-opener but not dangerous because the older women took her under their wings and protected her. It was only when Melissa got to the government-run ‘training centre’ for girls that things started to go horribly wrong.
The centre was managed by a man named Nathan Keller. He lived on site with his wife who was also a staff member. Keller preyed on Melissa and the other girls, groping and fondling them whenever he could sneak an opportunity.
Melissa was a feisty girl who wasn’t afraid to fight back. She recalled one time when Keller took her and a few other girls to the drive-in to see a movie. On the way back:
‘He sat me in the middle in the front. He just got my hand and he put it on himself. I just squeezed it like I was trying to wring its friggen neck. So he pulled over to the side of the road and he said, “I think it’s Lydia’s turn to sit in the front”. He couldn’t say, “She’s just squeezed me whatevers. She’s going to give me a squeaky voice in a minute”.’
Melissa is convinced that Keller’s wife, Maureen, knew what he was doing but kept silent because she didn’t want to ‘upset the apple cart’.
‘She was very cruel to us’, Melissa said. ‘The only reason that you would be cruel to the girls like that is if you were jealous of them girls. Nathan’s attention was on us young girls so therefore she took it out on us.’
Other staff members also knew about Keller’s abuse and, unlike Maureen, they tried to help. The gardener reported Keller’s behaviour to the newspapers many times but nothing came of it. One woman took Melissa aside and said, ‘I know he’s sexually abusing you but I can’t do anything about it because I’ll lose my job but on the other hand if he actually carries all the way through with it and has actual sex with you, then yes I’ll put it on the line’.
The woman told Melissa that if Keller ever went ‘all the way’, Melissa should pretend that she’d fallen down some stairs. The woman could then contact a doctor. ‘Because then I suppose’, Melissa said, ‘she could pass the buck onto the doctor and she could say that the doctor’s discovered it’.
But Keller was careful never to go ‘all the way’ so the plan never eventuated. Melissa and the other girls quickly realised that if anything was to be done they had to do it themselves. One day she and a few friends absconded, went to the local newspaper and reported Keller’s misdeeds.
The newspapers carried the story but nothing came of it except another beating from Keller. Undeterred, Melissa and a small group of girls broke out of the centre again and walked through a nearby town in their uniforms, hoping to get caught.
The cops picked them up, just as planned, and again Melissa and the girls reported Keller’s behaviour. The police seemed unsympathetic, and Melissa and the girls returned to the centre thinking that nothing was going to be done.
Then, shortly after Melissa was released from her six week stay in solitary confinement, a team of people from the Welfare Department arrived at the centre to investigate Keller’s behaviour.
The girls all gave statements detailing the abuses they’d suffered. The evidence was damning. It was the breakthrough they’d been longing for. Then Keller launched his counter attack and scuttled the whole thing.
‘Nineteen or 20 of us wrote a statement, and 18 pulled out. He intimidated 18 of them enough that they retracted their statements and said that they only wrote what they wrote because this other girl and I wanted them to write it.’
Keller won. Some months after that, at age 17, Melissa left the centre for good. She married young and had several children. Years later she decided to take legal action against Keller but by then it was too late.
‘I did some research and found out Nathan Keller was dead anyway. I thought, “Bugger”. Because he died getting away with it.’
Melissa is annoyed that Keller escaped justice but she doesn’t let these feelings get the better of her.
‘I don’t get upset about this sort of stuff anymore. He is not worth a tear. Nothing. If you don’t have to think about him, then don’t. But if you do have to think about him and if it’s going to help somebody else or it’s going to stop this happening again to other people, man I’d talk about him till the cows come home. It wouldn’t bother me.’