‘My baby brother was killed by my father when I was a little one myself and that’s what started the welfare investigating my mum. I was two, nearly three and then Dad left … Then Mum had the four of us to deal with on her own and she didn’t have any friends or support or anything like that at the time. I assume someone called the police one night ‘cause Mum was being a bit violent with all of us. I think it was the lady across the road, but it doesn’t matter. And then that’s when I was about three and a half, four.’
At the age of five, Nicky was placed with her siblings in a welfare reception centre in Victoria. After about three months Nicky’s brothers and sisters were taken back to live with their mother while Nicky was left there. During her time in the centre, she was punished for bed-wetting by being locked alone in a cell, ‘smacked around the head’, told she was worthless and made to bath in cold water in the middle of the night.
Until the mid-1980s, when she turned 16 and was no longer a ward of the state, Nicky was in and out of numerous foster care arrangements, group homes and a children’s orphanage. She had no recollection of the orphanage until she received her welfare records as an adult and found out she’d been there for 18 months. Throughout her childhood years there were also occasional visits back to her family of origin for short periods of time.
In the first group home, Nicky was cared for by a lovely couple called Essie and David Dwyer. They left when Nicky was eight and a couple she knew only as Max and Joan arrived to look after the children.
One night when Nicky had said good night to the boys as Essie had taught her, Max suddenly started hitting her. ‘About an hour later I remember him coming in and putting his hands all over me’, Nicky said. ‘Calling me “a slut”, “a dirty bitch”. I don’t want to say anymore because I don’t like the words but, “If you want to be doing that I’ll show you how to do it”.’
Max abused Nicky in this way on a number of occasions, mostly when he’d been drinking vodka. He did the same to at least one other girl in the house, Nicky said. He’d also make Nicky take off all her clothes and scrub the kitchen floor with a toothbrush while he watched.
Nicky told the Commissioner that she’s forgotten half the places she was in. In one foster arrangement the father of the household tried to push her off a swing and have an accident because he didn’t want her there. ‘I wasn’t wanted at all by any of them except for one couple. I will put their name in lights: Essie and David Dwyer. They were the ones that taught me how to be a mum today.’
When she left state care at 16, Nicky said she got into a lot of trouble with drugs and alcohol. ‘I even tried Kings Cross. That’s all I thought I was good for, was my body you know.
Something happened with my brother when I was about 13. He tried to have sex with me and I knew it was wrong then, if you get what I mean. It created a fear that all I am good for is for sex. So I didn’t have sex willingly until I was actually 18 years old. It’s drummed into your head that when you’re an 18-year-old, you’re an adult, you can do what you like.’
Nicky disclosed the abuse by her brother to her mother but said her mother ‘completely avoided it’. She’d told her best friend about the other abuse when they were teenagers and ‘off our heads on grog and alcohol’. Although she’d had about seven social workers over the years she hadn’t told any of them about the abuse. ‘I don’t know why.’
Nicky’s next disclosure was to her husband after they’d been together 15 years, but ‘he didn’t care’, she said. At 27, Nicky was receiving treatment for depression and anxiety and during therapy told the psychiatrist that she’d been brought up in foster care, but she didn’t trust the doctor enough to go into any details.
‘I sort of started going downhill in my life when I was about 27’, Nicky said. ‘I first tried to commit suicide, ‘cause I was having flashbacks. My partner and I were trying different ways to improve our personal togetherness and he did things that reminded me. We’re not together anymore. We were together 25 years.’
In early 2015, Nicky started seeing a new therapist who diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder. She trusted this practitioner and was able to ‘talk about everything’. Her new partner was also supportive and not frightened by her ‘night terrors’ where she was trying to get out of an enclosed space. ‘I’ve got a fear of being locked up’, Nicky said. ‘It was like a jail in foster care. I was never allowed to go out and be a child.’
Nicky was aware of the opportunities she’d missed because of her fractured childhood. ‘I know I’d be a better person because I wouldn’t be so fearful of everybody and worried about a man approaching me. I still think today that all I’m good for is you know, to get it on. Not that my partner treats me like that. It’s just hard when you’re outside. My anxiety’s fine when I’m in my own house but as soon as I leave that front door, that’s it.’
Children and grandchildren were the main reasons to keep going, Nicky said. They gave her life meaning and joy. She’d worked hard to be a good mother and was satisfied she’d broken her family’s cycle of abuse. She appreciated the Prime Minister’s apology to the Forgotten Australians and had put the letter she received in a cracked photo frame because ‘they had a crack in their system’.
‘I just wanted to get my story out and make it better for future children ‘cause foster care’s always going to be there.’