Nola lived in a Salvation Army children’s home in regional Victoria for more than a decade, arriving there as a baby in the early 1960s. At about 13, she moved with her older sister Jennie to a Salvation Army youth hostel. She and Jennie were very close, and when Jennie left the hostel for a boarding house in Melbourne, Nola went too, aged about 15.
By then Nola had been raped and suffered other sexual abuse many times. It began with an older girl at the home, who would come into the dorm at night, touch her vagina and digitally penetrate her. This went on for some years, beginning when Nola was about five, until the older girl left the home.
There were a succession of abusers after that. For a while Nola lived in cottage-type accommodation, where she was frequently raped by two older boys. One of them would come and wake her up at night. ‘It was just an automatic response. I’d get up, I go, I do what I’m told to do.’ She didn’t tell anyone what was happening.
Other older boys waylaid her on the way home from school and raped her, taking turns. This first happened when she was about 11, and continued into her early years of high school. She didn’t report these assaults either.
‘The way we were raised in the home, you didn’t talk to anyone about anything, because there was no point, for one, because you wouldn’t be listened to and nothing would be done – and we just saw the adults as people you avoided …
‘It used to come out in my sleep. I used to sleepwalk, I’d yell, I’d scream – I used to unlock all the doors and walk all around the perimeter of the house … And I still do. I still do, to this day.’
Her difficulties sleeping meant she was constantly tired, and that affected her performance at school. As well, she and others from the home were stigmatised.
‘I struggled. Struggled throughout school. Couldn’t concentrate at all – I think I spent most of school life and high school as, well, looking out the window. I just could not concentrate. And also just felt really – ostracised, I guess, by the teachers as well as the other children. Because we were just called the home kids. I heard teachers say – “Don’t bother about teaching them, they’re just home kids”.
‘I just couldn’t learn.’
When Nola was 12 or 13, she, her sister Jennie and another girl ran away from the home. They planned it carefully and set off late at night when everyone was asleep. After hours of walking a van pulled up and the two men inside offered them a ride. The girls got in – ‘Of course we just did what we’re told, ‘cause we’re all brought up that way’. The men then raped the girls throughout the night, and in the morning dropped them off to find their way back to the home.
Not long after, the girls discovered the two attackers were, in fact, police officers. It was a realisation that sealed Nola’s mistrust of authority, at that time and throughout the years since. It meant that she didn’t ever seek assistance from police, despite needing it at times, and has never reported to them any of the abuse she experienced.
The help that made a difference came from a family Nola spent holidays with, from when she was about six till when she left the home. She remembers the first time she stayed with them, sitting on the father’s knee: ‘I cuddled into him all night; this was the first time I had ever had or felt any affection from anyone that didn’t abuse me’.
When Nola left to go to Melbourne, she was told by the matron ‘that was it; that was the end of the relationship’, and the family were not given her contact details. Nola later contacted them herself, and remains in touch today.
She also found support from the family of a partner she had in her late teens. He was a ‘very controlling, abusive person’, she told the Commissioner. ‘But the thing with him was he had a big family. So I sort of took to this family as my family. And then I wanted to make something of my life; I think it was due to them.’
Nola now works in foster care, and has also fostered a child herself. To her mind, the system still looks too much like the one she grew up in.
‘It just seems to me that nothing has changed since we were children. Really. I mean, there’s been a little bit of change.’
She would like to see more support given to parents to help children stay within their families. In situations where that’s not possible, she believes permanent care is the better solution.
‘I just think short-term foster care does not work for children at all. I think permanent care is better for that consistency … At least that gives the child a chance to rebuild another life with the family, have a belonging, because that’s what it’s all about, is knowing that someone’s there that will love you, and that you belong.’
She told the Commissioner it’s still difficult for kids in foster care to come forward and disclose abuse. ‘They won’t, because they feel guilty, they feel responsible, they feel shame – a lot of them won’t.’
But one way to help is by ensuring they have mentors. She thinks back to the family she spent her holidays with: ‘If I didn’t have them in my life, I think I’d be a lot different.’