When Nicola was about 10 years old her mother died. Her father, unable to cope without his wife, put the kids into a care home in New South Wales run by foster parents Jack and Mary Nolan.
Nicola arrived at the Nolans’ in the mid-1970s. She enjoyed the first few weeks of her stay, roaming the surrounding bushland with all the other Aboriginal kids. Then, bit by bit, she began to see that there was something wrong with the home.
Jack and Mary Nolan kept to a fiercely strict routine but enforced their rules inconsistently and unfairly. Some kids were given special treats for no apparent reason while others were ignored. Welfare officers never came to visit, nor did anyone else.
‘We were silenced’, Nicola said. ‘We were isolated. And that bred the environment for abuse to take place.’
Nicola was particularly vulnerable because she was still processing the loss of her mother. Grief had transformed her into a quiet, obliging child who was soon noticed by a young man named Stuart.
Stuart was married to one of the Nolans’ older foster-daughters and lived with her in a small house on the property. He began to follow Nicola around, sitting with her while she did her chores. At first Nicola thought he was being nice, then she started to worry.
‘Stuart would get closer and closer to me, like around me. And I didn’t know what that meant.’
One day Stuart’s wife approached Nicola in the yard and asked her to pop down to the little house to fetch some nappies. Nicola, always the obedient child, obliged. Stuart followed her into the house and started moving her towards the bed. Nicola ran and managed to get away.
From then on she tried to avoid Stuart but circumstances conspired against her. At this time, Stuart’s niece Rachel was living with him in the little house. Rachel came to Nicola one day and asked if she would sleep over. Nicola, of course, refused.
‘I told her to go ask some other girls, and she did. She asked everybody else but no one wanted to sleep over. So she came back to me and she got real upset. She said, “Sis, can you sleep over with me? Can you sleep over with me? Please, please, please?” She was crying, real upset. I felt sorry for her so I said, "Yeah, okay then".’
That night Nicola woke to feel someone ‘rubbing me and touching me in ways that I didn’t like. Had nowhere to go. Kept trying to move back and back and back at the wall. Couldn’t go anywhere’.
After that, Stuart tried a few more times to abuse Nicola but she remained constantly vigilant and managed to avoid him. Eventually he gave up and turned his full attention to some of the other girls.
Nicola hid with one of these girls one night. They crouched together, watching Stuart’s shadow moving under the bedroom door. After a long while he moved off and they heard him creeping through the younger girls’ bedroom.
‘After that incident some girls got really scared, agitated. We had a meeting in one of the bedrooms, and it was my idea to go to the police. So I said I would go to the police station with them and I would do the talking.’
Nicola, 13 years old at the time, led a group of girls to the local police station the next day. She stood at the counter with the others behind her and told the officer that people were ‘doing things to us’.
One of the girls mentioned the word ‘rape’. Immediately the officer put down his pen and left the room. He returned a while later and told the girls to take a seat.
Nicola and the girls waited at the station for a long time. Then their foster father, Jack, walked in.
‘We got the fright of our lives. I nearly died. None of us said anything to Jack. He talked with the policeman there for a while, and we could hear him saying things like, “These girls, they make up stories. They want to destroy people’s reputations”.’
That was the beginning and end of the police investigation. The girls were sent back to the home where Stuart carried on his abuse as if nothing had happened. Defeated, Nicola shut the whole thing out of her mind. ‘I didn’t want to know this. I didn’t want to think about what he was doing.’
She kept the abuse to herself from that moment until her mid-20s when she mentioned it to her husband. Out of a sense of loyalty to her foster parents, she didn’t mention it to anyone else.
Around this time, Nicola ‘lost the plot’. She went to her GP for help and he referred her to Family Support Services who helped her to get back on her feet. From there Nicola grabbed hold of every opportunity she could get to work and learn.
‘My understanding has grown and made me aware of myself and how some of my behaviours were wrong. They’re behaviours that I have survived with but are not good behaviours, so I set about dealing with those.
‘I put myself in church-centred programs around sexual abuse … One course in particular was so helpful, it took me through why I behave the way I behave and how to correct those behaviours within myself.’
Nicola came to realise that her loyalty to her foster parents was misplaced. ‘It hit me how much I was lying to myself, and they weren’t really my parents.’ She distanced herself from them and thought again about reporting Stuart to police. But threats from some of the Nolans’ other foster kids made her fear for her safety, and the safety of her siblings, so she decided to drop the idea.
Free from her abuser and her foster parents, Nicola went on to build a career in the community services and education sector. Recently she completed a university degree. Her education, and professional and personal experience have given her powerful insight into the state of child welfare today.
‘Today, community services are so under-resourced. There are still children falling through the gaps … The stolen generation hasn’t ended, they’ve just gotten good at taking our kids.’