‘Now I look back and think: I had the stuff to be successful in my life, and the opportunities were never given to me. I’m angry. And I think the state government who made themselves my proxy parent betrayed my life.’
After living a nightmare of sexual abuse within her family home for years, Nora was thrown out by her father and left on a street corner to fend for herself. It was the early 1970s in South Australia and she was 12 years old.
She was picked up by police, made a ward of the state and put into care. After a few unsuccessful placements in foster homes she was lodged in a group home for troubled children. Horrified by the brutality of the place, Nora decided that she had to get out. One day some couples arrived to inspect the kids, and Nora saw her chance.
‘You feel like a dog in a pet shop window with the different parents coming by, seeing if they’ll select you and take you home. So what I did – and I had a decent size bust for my age. I squashed it down, put my hair in pony tails and said, “Oh thank you for getting me out of here. Such lovely people. It’s so horrible in here”. So they took me home.’
Nora’s new foster parents, John and Abigail Nash, treated her kindly, so she resolved to hold onto her placement no matter what.
‘I went to school, I helped with the housework, I sat and read bedtime stories to my two new little foster brothers. Like a dog that’s been in the pound, when you get out you know what you’ve got to do to stay out.’
Looking back, she believes that her time with the Nash family formed the major crossroads moment in her life. It was the first time she was able to go to school with clean clothes on her back and a sandwich in her lunch box. It could have been the start of a successful life, free from abuse. But that opportunity was ruined by people who were meant to look after her.
At age 13 she got sick. Her foster mother took her to a doctor who wrongly diagnosed an infection as pregnancy.
‘I assured my foster mother that I hadn’t had sex in a long time. She looked at me in horror and said, “You’ve had sex?” I wasn’t going to tell her it was never consensual. I felt like a piece of dirt.’
Fearing that Nora was a ‘moral danger’ to her other children, Nora’s foster mum put her back into the system. By the time she realised – and regretted – her mistake, the bureaucratic machine was already in motion and Nora had been moved to another placement.
Nora’s new foster parents treated her harshly, once even setting their dog onto her. While planning her escape she remembered a youth worker named Steven Robertson whom she’d met at a camp. He had offered to take her in if she ever needed a place to stay. In hindsight she can see that this offer was part of his grooming process.
She was 13 when she arrived at Robertson’s house. The first night he made her sleep in his bed. The second night he had sex with her. Nora lived with him on and off for the next three years.
The relationship was not a secret. Nora’s social worker knew about it and let it carry on, sometimes even arranging alternative accommodation for Nora on those weekends when Robertson’s family were visiting. At the end of the weekend she sent Nora back, no questions asked.
As well as raping her many times, Robertson kept Nora isolated, robbing her of the opportunity to get a good education and form friendships with her peers.
Nora stopped contact with Robertson when she was 16. Not long after that she fell into a relationship with an abusive man and had several kids with him. Years went by. Then, seeing no other way to escape, Nora tried to kill herself. During her recovery she spoke to a counsellor who helped her develop skills and insight she needed to build a new life.
‘I recognised I really didn’t want to die, I just wanted it to stop and I wanted to find a focus. I wanted to find something to live for.’
Nora went on to complete several university degrees. Eventually she decided that the time was right to take action against Robertson. She spoke to multiple agencies. At every level – police, victims of crime agencies, the state redress scheme – staff and organisations failed her.
The state redress scheme, she said, was particularly disgusting because its failures seemed to be the result not of incompetence but of deliberate strategy. At the outset she was asked whether she owed the government money.
‘“Do you owe us any money before we decide to give you any for the crimes and the harm we’ve caused to you?” I found that abominable and dehumanising. And anybody who’s got a lack of self-worth in their history is going to crawl up and go away, and I honestly believe it was designed to do that.’
Nora is furious. She’s had enough of the government’s evasiveness and she wants them to ‘ante up’.
‘I’m only running at a percentage of what I could have been, and that’s why I’m angry. And I think there needs to be some form of compensation and definitely changes so there’s not somebody sitting here in 20, 30 years repeating my story.’