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Michelle Therese's story

As a child, Michelle’s home was ‘everywhere and anywhere’. Her mother, who had been schooled at a notorious girls’ home, and who had been ‘terribly abused herself’, was a violent alcoholic who moved from relationship to relationship, from town to town.

Michelle’s father did not believe she was his, and so was never on the scene. Her mother was unable to cope with the care of her three children, and relinquished them into care in 1970. From the age of three and for the next six years, Michelle and her siblings were wards of the state.

While in care, Michelle and her older sister Natalie lived with a foster family in an inner western suburb of Sydney. Her foster father, who was a brother of her biological father, sexually abused her when she was six and seven years old. Natalie, who had arrived in the foster home a year earlier, was also sexually abused.

Michelle has no memory of case workers visiting them while they were in foster care. Nor are visits recorded in the files she obtained from the Department of Community Services (DOCS) five years ago, and found emotionally traumatic to read.

When Michelle was nine, her mother regained custody of her children. However, Michelle continued to endure her mother’s drinking and physical abuse, and narrowly escaped a rape attempt by her older brother Bob.

Michelle attended at least 10 schools until ‘mental problems’ forced her to leave high school in her second year. At the age of 14, ‘tired of getting flogged’, she ran away from home and worked menial jobs.

Michelle was an angry young woman who trusted no one. She had next to no friends and fell into bad relationships.

‘You get used to being treated like crap, so you accept crap’, she said. ‘You think “This is probably the best I’m going to get”.’

Michelle had three children. Her oldest became addicted to ice and had her son taken into care by DOCS. Her youngest was sexually abused by her ex-partner when she was 15 years old. Learning about the abuse seven years after the event deepened Michelle’s lifelong depression. She has attempted suicide on two occasions.

Michelle first spoke about her own abuse 10 years ago. When she told Natalie, it brought back bad memories, and Natalie became very upset and unable to discuss it. Natalie still finds it too painful to talk about.

When Michelle told her mother, her mother was not surprised. ‘That’d be effing right’, she said.

Michelle has never reported the abuse to the police, and believes that she would find the process far too stressful.

Michelle has not received compensation for the sexual abuse she suffered. However, she recently received compensation as a secondary victim of the sexual abuse of her daughter. When Michelle’s experience of being a former ward of the state was taken into account, the compensation amount was reduced by 65 percent. She found this ‘hurtful and gut-wrenching’.

‘I was fuming. It’s not that it was about the money, it was the double kick in the teeth ... The fact is that something that would have been given to me was taken from me because of my years as a state ward, and because of abuse I suffered and the mental problems I was left with ... It was like, “Why take that from me? That’s not my fault”.’

When Michelle married her ‘beautiful husband’ in the mid-2000s, she discovered the correct spelling of her name. Today, she regrets that her limited education has held her back.

‘I can’t work with money ... I can read pretty good, but I can’t spell, and I’m not a very good writer.’

However, with the support of her husband, Michelle is a resilient woman who is determined to break the cycle of institutional care and abuse within her own family. After battling DOCS’ bias against former wards of the state, she eventually won custody of her grandson.

Michelle believes that DOCS case workers lack the training and life experience necessary to properly protect children from being abused. She believes that the system should be overhauled, and that children should be consulted about the decisions that affect them.

‘DOCS have still got a long way to go in order to do the right thing and be fair with families instead of meeting their own agenda’, she said. ‘They’re supposed to be there to keep the family unit together, but they’re not.’

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