‘Our mum said she was coming back for us. She said “I’ll be a little while”. So they put us in the dormitory’, Nancie said. ‘We didn’t know what the hell was going on.’
The dormitory was in a government-run Aboriginal mission in Queensland. There were girls’ and boys’ dormitories and a nursery for babies and very young children. Nancie was about six when she and her siblings arrived there in in the mid-1960s.
There were about 15 girls in the dormitory, and Nancie remembers they tried to look after each other like sisters. On cold nights they’d move all the beds together so they could lie close and share the blankets – there was only one per person. ‘We didn’t even know what pyjamas looked like’, she recalled.
The comfort they got from each other helped them cope with a punishing regime. They wore potato sack dresses, no shoes. They had to get up at 5.30 to mop floors and do other jobs before school. ‘If we didn’t get up, cold water would be chucked on us.’
The girls’ daily life was supervised by Matron Barnett. She was cruel and violent and would beat the girls with rolled-up newspapers. ‘They were thicker than what these papers are today. … We never did nothing wrong but we still copped a flogging.’
When Nancie was six, one of the gardeners, Uncle Pete, took her into the boiler room, removed her pants and molested her. Then he gave her two shillings. ‘I said, “What’s this for?” He said, “This is our little secret”. He said, “You’re not to tell anybody. It’s between us”.’ Bound to secrecy, Nancie later got a flogging because she wouldn’t reveal where the money came from.
That incident was the first of many. The abuse continued until Nancie was 12. She was abused not just by Uncle Pete but by the second gardener, Jerry, as well. She wasn’t the only victim.
‘It happened all the time. [Uncle Pete] took lots of girls into the boiler room. A lot have passed now that never told their story.’
The girls did their best to protect one another but there wasn’t much they could do. Nancie recalled being part of a small group walking past the boiler room one day, looking inside and seeing Uncle Pete raping her cousin Mary.
‘We were so scared, we didn’t know what to do’, she said. ‘We grabbed her and took off from there, went to a shed – we were singing, trying to make us as sisters as we can – but Matron would come and flog us.’
Nancie has no doubt that Matron Barnett was complicit in what was going on. ‘We was just getting constantly raped by the two gardeners’, she said. Barnett would punish girls by locking them up on their own somewhere, effectively handing them over to the men.
‘I couldn’t think for myself back then but now I think they were all in it together’, Nancie said. ‘Everywhere we went you had two eyes lookin’.’
Family members made repeated visits to the mission, asking to take Nancie and her siblings away with them. But the superintendent refused to give permission. He said he could only hand the children over to their mother.
‘We saw [our auntie] coming to collect us, sang out to her when we saw her leave. She said “I’m not allowed to pick you up”.’ At that moment, Nancie felt the only way she’d ever escape the mission would be by committing suicide.
Her mother finally took her children from the mission when Nancie was 12. Nancie lived with an older brother for a while, but ended up in a foster home, being cared for by an Aboriginal couple, the Pattersons. There were other children in the Pattersons’ care, including two older boys. The boys physically and sexually assaulted Nancie and other girls over and over.
Nancie reported the abuse to a healthcare worker, who was seeing all the children in the home. ‘Every kid that was coming toward her was getting raped and bashed’, Nancie said. But no action was taken. And the Pattersons didn’t care. ‘They allowed it to happen.’
Half those girls are dead now, Nancie told the Commissioner, mostly the result of substance abuse. ‘We had front and back done to us … And the thing is, you weren’t allowed to tell.’
Eventually Nancie ran away from the Pattersons. She lived on the streets for a while, and had a baby at 18. She finished her schooling, and became a successful sportswoman. She got her life on track with help from some significant mentors, and these days she’s a mentor herself.
‘Well, I said that I wouldn’t go down that pathway, because I seen it all my life. And the pathway was the alcohol, the drugs, the prostitution’, she said. Instead, she decided to help children and young people, starting in a local neighbourhood. ‘Even if they just lived there, on that street, I would sit there and watch them kids, so nobody else – no man, no woman – could ever touch them.’
Nancie now helps young people in the criminal justice system, and is studying for a law degree. She ran a group home for a while, looking after 30 street kids. ‘The kids we looked after never ever went to prison’, she said. It’s her hope that the Royal Commission will advise governments to fund more group homes for kids, in safe places, away from cities.
Nancie received a compensation payment through a Queensland Government redress scheme, but didn’t disclose her abuse. She finally disclosed it for the first time as a 50-year-old. She doesn’t intend to report it, as her abusers have all died.
But she’s thinking about seeking further compensation. Not because it will heal her pain – ‘I’ll have that for the rest of my life, till I die’, she said. Instead, she’d like some money to help the ‘little people’. She wants to ‘go and take ‘em somewhere where I know that they’re safe, and we can build them a home’.