Growing up in regional Victoria during the 1960s Michelle said that she ‘didn’t really go to school, because I would prefer to go out to the paddock and work, and provide food for the family ... I just loved looking after my family, the younger brothers and sisters. I loved it.’
As a result she ‘didn’t have much schooling’, and got into trouble with authorities. ‘The police used to fine my dad for me not going to school, and we explained the situation to try and get me out of school, but no. And then one day the police came and said that I was exposed to moral danger and truancy.’
Michelle was 12 when she was sent to a Melbourne youth training centre. In her first few months there she was held down by other girls and tattooed on her chest and arms against her will. Later on she was told she needed to have these tattoos removed and was sent to hospital for skin grafts, which became infected and left scarring (which still brings her shame today).
Labelled a ‘lesbian’ by staff, she was given anti-psychotic medication, and kept in solitary confinement for over a year. ‘There was no schooling for me. I was always isolated from other girls ... Highly medicated. I was allowed out two minutes a day to shower and toilet while being supervised. I had no contact with anyone.
‘I was like a zombie. And to this day, being in that confined room – because it was concrete walls, a little slit for a window, and a bed – to this day I can’t stand closed doors.’
After being released from solitary she was put to work in the home. ‘They still kept me away from other girls ... My job was to scrub the toilets, bathroom, passage, on my knees all day with a toothbrush. Just scrub, scrub, scrub, scrub. And the staff would stand there and watch you.’
If Michelle had visitors, or had been home on day leave, she would be inspected for contraband. ‘We had forced internals, not only forced but the staff used to hold us down as we were examined as young girls. And that’s not a very nice experience ... We had to take all our clothes off – we were naked young girls don’t forget – we had to do star jumps. And if that wasn’t enough, we used to have fingers inserted into us.’
Michelle was also emotionally abused by staff who told her she was a ‘criminal in the making’ and a ‘psychopath’. She stayed in detention for three and a half years, then was returned to the care of her parents but did not speak about the abuse. ‘I didn’t want to trouble Mum and Dad because we still had little ones to look after.’
In her late teens Michelle married and had children. During this marriage she suffered depression, self-harmed, and attempted suicide. She and her husband divorced, and she remarried in her 30s. Her second husband encouraged her to seek treatment from a psychiatrist. She did so, and was prescribed medication. After a while she decided she wanted to cope on her own, and stopped taking this prescription.
Michelle has never had any counselling specifically about the abuse, and at times has had trouble dealing with the impacts. She has experienced problems with sexual intimacy, and difficulties with undergoing medical procedures such as pap tests. Neither of her husbands knew that she was sexually abused, just that she had had a bad time living in the detention facility.
Having been called a lesbian affected her parenting greatly in that she was hesitant to show her daughters any physical affection. ‘I could hold them but from a distance. I was scared that I’d be locked up again and thought lesbian, lesbian. That’s hard to live with.’ This was in contrast with her relationship to her son, who she was able to kiss and cuddle freely.
It is only in the last few years that Michelle has been begun talking about the abuse, after engaging with a support service which helped her access her files. It was hard to read these records, but doing so helped her understand her experiences.
‘I didn’t want to read them, but my son was there and he said, “No Mum, we’ll go through it together”. And that’s the first time he knew what had happened to me in my past. And now my daughters know.’ This has helped her daughters ‘understand me better. And now they approach me if they want a cuddle in a different way’.
Recently Michelle has engaged legal representation in regards to claiming compensation from the government, but does not think there is any point in reporting the abuse to police. She has reconnected with women she knows from her time in the centre, and has found speaking with them helpful. ‘We knew what happened to each other, but we try not to talk about that, just … happier things.’