At age two and a half, Nerida was taken from her alcoholic mother and put into the care of foster parents Shaun and Tracey Gibson. The Gibsons were already caring for their own children and grandchildren at the time, all of whom were much older than Nerida.
‘Just a nasty bunch of people’, Nerida said about them. ‘I was just put into a house full of bitter women, women that ended up with men that – in those days you didn’t divorce, you just clung to them. And they just tore each other apart and everyone else around them.’
Nerida lived with the Gibsons at their home in regional New South Wales from the late 1960s into the mid-1980s. She was never sexually abused by the Gibsons, but their behaviour facilitated the abuse she received from others.
The first incident occurred when Nerida was six years old. Tracey Gibson had gotten sick of having her around all the time and so started sending her off to a nearby house where Nerida’s adult foster sister, Charlotte, was working.
On an average day, Charlotte would wander off on an errand, leaving Nerida in the care of Jim, an elderly man who lived at the house. ‘He started grooming’, Nerida said, ‘and then the physical side of it started’.
One night Charlotte ‘walked in on it’ and put a stop to the abuse. A few days later Tracey hauled her out the front of the house.
‘And she abused me and called me all the names under the sun and accused me of leading this man on and “How dare you let him touch you like that? How dare you lead him on? If you ever say anything to anyone, everyone in town is going to think you’re nothing but a dirty slut”. And she pretty much shut me down.’
A few days after that, Tracey sent her back to Jim’s place.
‘They kept leaving me over there. It was either Mum have me around the house or leave me in that situation, so she much preferred to send me back over. He used to stress me out. He’d start talking dirty and saying horrible things to me and several times there I’d lash out and sort of hit him or punch him or whatever and that’s when Charlotte started taking the belt to me, because I was being disrespectful to my elders.’
Years later, Nerida discovered that Charlotte had also been abused by Jim.
Jim died when Nerida was young. She encountered two more abusers after that. One was a doctor who performed an internal exam on her when she was seven years old. The other was her uncle.
‘I can always remember going into his dirty, stinking unit … I can always remember going in but I could never remember coming out.’
This is the only memory that Nerida has of what her uncle did to her. She suspects he abused her because that’s what his partner told her, many years later.
‘She said to me “Did Darren ever touch you?” And I just went “God no. No, of course not. No”. Anyhow, I said “Why? Why do you ask this?” And she actually said to me, “He gets drunk quite often and talks about the stuff he used to do with you”. And that’s when my mouth just dropped open and I just went, “Why do I not remember?” … I know something happened but the mind’s blocked it out.’
Nerida left the Gibsons’ care when she was 16. Being suddenly out on her own was a shock.
‘I threw meself around a lot. You come out of a situation like that, you’re not prepared to deal with the world. Plus growing up in a small town, reputations are broken pretty easy … Small towns don’t forget and don’t let you forget.’
She started a relationship and ended up having two kids. ‘Their father, I managed to stay with him for 14 years, but it was 14 years of hell. His parents obviously heard or just decided that I was rubbish from the word go, and it was 14 years of either trying to put me in the ground or put me in a mental asylum, basically. I was bullied constantly by them, undermined, and in the end they took my kids.’
When Nerida lost custody of her children her life fell apart. She lost her job and started drinking too much. All of this exacerbated the post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety that had developed out of her childhood experiences.
It’s only recently, with a job offer and some help from two support services, that she has been able to get back on track. For a long time she was baffled by why the courts allowed her partner and in-laws to take her kids away. Recently she attended a meeting about the Stolen Generations. She believes she found an answer there; one that has angered and energised her.
‘It was common knowledge down there amongst all those women that if you were a foster child, straight up because you come out of the foster system, if there’s ever a battle in regards to your children, you’re automatically going to lose.
‘Now I never knew that … I grew up hearing that I was a second-class citizen. I was told every day of my life that I was second class, I was second class. And I did not believe it right up until six months ago when I was at that meeting and it became clear to me that just because I was a foster child I was deemed unworthy …
‘It was pretty soul destroying. That’s pretty much what they set out to do. I’m still upright, I’m still trying to prove them wrong but it’s been a hard slog.’