After their mother died Nelly and her sister were adopted by the Clearys, a non-Aboriginal couple who lived in Perth, quite some distance from the girls’ extended family. Home life with the Clearys was ‘okay’, but as the only Aboriginal children in school Nelly and Elsie were often called names.
‘We were the only ones. That’s why I reckon you know half the time, was this a project? You know, I feel like it was a project. I’m not going to say my white parents done that, but we never had “coloured” in our house. We weren’t allowed to use a different coloured name or whatever, it wasn’t in our home.’
During the mid-1970s, when they were in their early teens, Nelly and Elsie often wagged school and when they did they were put into a juvenile justice facility.
‘They had people chase you down or get the police and then put you into [the facility]. Nah, I never did nothing wrong. And then that leaded us to trouble’, Nelly said.
On each occasion they were admitted to the facility the girls were made to undergo a vaginal examination, which Nelly described as ‘horrific’.
‘I wasn’t a prostitute out on the street. I was, you know, a young girl wagging school, not to that style. Innocent.’
Elsie used to ‘play up’ in a bid not to have the examination, but she was always forced to have it.
The longest time Nelly was in the facility was two months and her last incarceration was when she was about 17.
At 18 and no longer a ward of the state, Nelly ‘went back home’ to her family of origin. ‘I went back and I never came back, only up and down visiting’. She ‘never had a swab test anymore in my life’.
Nelly and Elsie had spoken to each other about the examinations, and then in the mid-2010s Nelly talked about them with people in a support organisation. She’d not told her children or grandchildren, nor had she made any official complaint or report to the government of Western Australia which ran the facility.
After being unwell for some time, Elsie passed on and at that time, Nelly was referred to a counsellor.
‘I did go and see people but then I thought, you can’t beat the bush way. I got cultural issues out bush and well and truly alive. I believe in that. It fixes me. I can go out there to bush, I got bush people.’
When Elsie died Nelly cut down on her heavy drinking and did some training as a health worker.
It had always been hard being with her family of origin after so long away. One of her recommendations was to keep families together.
‘Don’t let them split up even if the mother’s passed on. You got to keep family with family, but it’s got to be like the sister, the next sister. Yes. Nobody else, just keep them with the sister running all the way. The mother from mothers, that’s all you do, not fathers and all that, just keep the mother’s line all along.’