One of the hard things about being in a girls’ home, Nettie told the Commissioner, was that the girls weren’t allowed to comfort each other. ‘No one to talk to, no one to turn to. You couldn’t even talk about it or you’d get in strife again.’
Nettie grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s in Aboriginal settlements in the central west of New South Wales. When she was eight, her father died suddenly. A year or two later, Nettie’s mother was hospitalised for some time. A welfare officer appeared at the settlement to collect Nettie and her siblings and put them in care. After a short stint in a home in Sydney, she went back to live with her mother.
In her early teens Nettie grew rebellious, drinking in public and getting in trouble with the police. She was charged with being ‘uncontrollable’, placed in a girls’ shelter in Sydney and then in a girls’ home in western Sydney. Nettie lived there for nine months. Sexual and physical abuse was frequent and brutal.
‘The lot's been done where I was. Mad things.’ Body inspections – where the girls had to stand naked and get touched by the officers before they showered – were common. Nettie was raped by at least three male officers while she was in the ‘dungeon room’, in the shower room and out of view between two office buildings. If she refused to have sex with the officers, she was bashed.
She was exploited as cheap labour, working in the kitchens, sometimes in the middle of the night, and scrubbing the walkway. She was also punished by two male officers for refusing to wash up. They held her down in the shower room while a female officer penetrated her with a broom handle.
Nettie thinks there were more incidents of sexual abuse but she can’t remember them. ‘Mostly I remember just a few bad things. A lot of dark spots.’ She’s been back to the home as an adult but her memory about it is foggy. ‘The only place still in my head is that dungeon and the shower room. That’s where I had a lot of trouble.’
Nettie wanted to talk to the Commission to get some peace of mind, but old pain has been stirred up and she has had trouble sleeping. Trying to remember things has also been distressing. There are years in her life that she can’t account for. ‘Since I’ve started this, I’ve got worse because I’m trying to think but there’s nothing there.’
She did return to her home town after she left the home but there are three or four years of complete blank in between. ‘I lay in bed now and I just try to put the pieces together ... It’s like a jigsaw puzzle.’
Nettie was told that her files from her years in care were destroyed in a fire. She did manage to get herself a birth certificate though. ‘That’s what started me wondering who I am and where do I come from. And why I was in these places.’
She has been married twice and has children to both husbands. The Department of Community Services (DOCS) has put several of Nettie’s kids in care – and more recently, to her great unhappiness, her grandkids – so she’s very wary of government departments that might otherwise be able to help her.
Nettie now suffers from stress and depression. She uses alcohol to try and forget things ‘but it makes things worse’.
She believes that people who work in DOCS often lie and that only the people who are right for these jobs should be employed there.
‘You said you’d like people to help people’, she told the Commissioner, ‘and that’s why I’m here. I know it actually does happen and people don’t believe it happens … It happened to me. It happened to my kids.’
Years ago, when the facts started emerging about the girls’ home in western Sydney, Nettie realised that she hadn’t deserved the sexual abuse. But for a long time there’d been no one to tell.
‘Everything was a secret … No use saying anything. Nobody believed you. That was stuck in my head and it’s still stuck in there. I can only tell my side of the story.’
‘We thought we were in there because we were bad girls. But they made bad girls out of us.’