Meryl's story

Meryl’s father died when she was young. She hardly remembers him, ‘but I know he was a woman basher. He gave my mother hell … She brought up her kids the best she could. I’m proud of her’.

As a 12-year-old, in the mid-1960s, Meryl was deemed uncontrollable. She was made a ward of the state and placed in a home. She said she still doesn’t know why or how that came about.

‘I would like to know why I was made a ward of the state and what I did so wrong. I don’t think I ever broke the law.’

Meryl remained in institutional care until she was 21, first in Adelaide, where her family lived, and then in Sydney. She has never recovered from the trauma of her experiences during that time.

‘Those places were horrible … I was treated like an animal and I ended up acting like one. I used to always keep a piece of glass or a razor blade on me, in my gum or toothbrush … I used to smash my fists through windows … In those places they drugged me to the eyeballs, dragged me down halls and locked me in rooms for days and days, and stuck needles in my bum’, she told the Commissioner. ‘I used to cut myself badly, I still have scars to prove it. Everywhere they put me I ran away.’

When she was 14, Meryl was transferred from a girls’ home to a mental health facility. She ran away, and was brought back by police. As punishment, she was placed on her own in a small unfurnished room. Inside the room, a staff member stayed with her as she yelled and screamed and tried to get out.

‘If you keep it up, you’ll cop the consequences’, he told her. ‘I didn’t know what he meant by that other than to cop a hiding’, Meryl said.

Instead, he injected her with a sedative and as it took effect he raped her.

She was sexually assaulted again at a girls’ home in outer Sydney. She’d been sent there after running away from a home in Adelaide and making her way to New South Wales. She’d been picked up by police, placed in a mental hospital for a while and then transferred to the girls’ home. One day she got in a fury and threw a bucket of water over a guard. He took her into one of the isolation cells, slapped and punched her, then forced her to the floor and raped her.

Meryl was frequently punished at the home. ‘My mouth got me into trouble’, she explained. Being raped by the staff member changed her. ‘After this happened I was really scared and I decided to do exactly what they said no matter how bad it was.’

Meryl had learning issues that she didn’t get any help with. She didn’t attend school beyond Year 3. Her lack of skills and the stigma of growing up in institutions made it hard to find employment when her wardship came to an end.

‘I couldn’t get a job. I didn’t have an education. When I applied they wanted to know what you’d been doing. Soon as you tell them where you have been, they say goodbye. So I never had a really good job. Cleaning toilets isn’t a good job. So I never bought my own home. I wanted to so my kids and grandkids would always have a roof over their heads.’

Meryl didn’t tell anyone about being abused till many years afterwards. She didn’t think she would be believed. She finally told one of her by-then adult sons, and her doctor. In 2014 she saw a television program about the Sydney girls’ home she’d been in, and decided to report her sexual abuse to police. They took a statement, but told her that her attacker was probably dead. Since then Meryl has made contact with a support service for survivors of child sex abuse. She has also been referred to a legal service, which is going to help her seek compensation.

‘They’re going to try but it’s probably going to be hard.’

She has mixed feelings about getting a payout. Any money she gets she’ll pass it on to her kids. ‘To me, that’s gotta be dirty money … But, I’ll tell you, I’ll take it. And I won’t spend a red cent on me.’ As for an apology: ‘Sorry’s not good enough. What’s sorry?’

Meryl takes anti-depressants and other medications to help her manage daily life. She used to self-medicate with alcohol but stopped drinking about 10 years ago. At the time her grandchildren were being placed in care, and she wanted to be the one who looked after them. It was a promise she’d made to herself years before, while she was still in the girls’ home.

‘I had plenty of time to think in those days and always said when I got out at 21 if I ever had a family of my own I would never let them go into care or those places – no matter what. No matter what.’

It hasn’t worked out that way. The South Australian welfare department put several of her grandchildren into institutional care, and Meryl’s efforts to get them back have been unsuccessful. She’s been fighting with the department for a long time, she said. She believes they just don’t like her. ‘And I do get angry with them.’

At the moment she is only able to see her grandchildren in supervised visits, a situation she finds very unsatisfactory. ‘I’m not having supervised visits. I don’t want some bighead standing over me and telling me what I’ve got to say.’ But she doesn’t have the resources to dispute the department’s decisions: ‘We haven’t got millions of dollars to go back to court.’

Meryl has been married twice. Her first marriage ended very quickly. Her second has lasted for decades. ‘I don’t know how he has put up with me all these years. I’m not an easy woman to live with – very moody and angry with the world and myself.’

Two of her children came to the Royal Commission with her.

‘When I die, I don’t care what youse do’, she told them. ‘You can put the ashes down the toilet and flush ’em, I don’t care. I just want to be able to go to my grave and know that I did nothing wrong.’

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