Nova grew up in an abusive home environment and ran away to escape. She was placed by the Victorian Department of Human Services in a children’s home and attended school in an eastern Melbourne suburb. Nova was happy at the home and in school.
In the late 1970s she turned 14 and Nova was moved to a young persons’ hostel in the next suburb. There were six or seven girls living in the home at any given time. A married couple, Arthur and Pauline Andretti, ran the hostel and had children of their own. Arthur was a social worker who would counsel the children at the hostel.
Arthur began sexually abusing Nova during counselling sessions a few weeks after her arrival. He would regularly sit Nova on his lap then touch and kiss her inappropriately.
‘He had false teeth’, Nova told the Commissioner, ‘and they’d fall out. Plonk. And, you know, he’d stop and put them back in.’
Nova had not had any sex education and didn’t understand what was going on. One day they heard someone opening the door to the counselling room. ‘And he threw me off his lap and jumped up and straightened up and that was actually the point at which I realised, “That’s deceitful, this isn’t right, this is wrong, this shouldn’t be happening”.’ The abuse continued until she ran away at 17.
Shortly after Nova moved to the home another girl who had recently left the Youth Hostel approached her at school. Nova asked her what the home was like. ‘She started shaking her head, screaming, “That man, that man”, and ran away. I had no idea what she was talking about. I was a bit bewildered.’
Nova told Pauline about the cryptic outburst. Pauline revealed the girl had made allegations of sexual abuse against Arthur, but ‘DHS went through all of that and they found she was crazy’. Nova doesn’t think all the other residents in the house knew what was going on, but she believes Arthur was sexually abusing at least a few of the others.
One night Pauline took Nova out for dinner for her birthday and invited Arthur to join them. Arthur declined and Pauline was distracted all night. They returned home early and spotted one of the other girls running out of Arthur’s office with her nightie tucked into her underwear. That night Nova heard Arthur and Pauline arguing.
Nova was visited by her social worker every month or so. She liked her social worker and wanted to tell her about the abuse, but was worried she would be labelled ‘crazy’ like the other girl. She did not speak up.
‘I ran away. I didn’t know how to make it stop.’ Nova believes she learnt to deal with her problems by fleeing them. She didn’t know how to handle her feelings and buried everything. After she ran away Nova became desperate. She met a girl she knew from the hostel who took her in and introduced her to prostitution. ‘The deciding factor was, “Well I can do it with Arthur, I can do it with anyone”. It was no different to me. And a lot of clients were much better and younger looking and more decent.’
Nova feels betrayed by DHS for the hypocrisy of taking her from an abusive home but placing her in an equally dangerous setting. Her two siblings stayed with her parents and have achieved stability and security, while this has been challenging for Nova.
Nova did not seek a copy of her file because she expects Arthur, as her counsellor, would have written many of the notes. She doesn’t want to put herself through reading what he said about her to protect himself. ‘He could have said anything he wanted and I wasn’t there to defend myself.’ Nova realises she would benefit from professional help but ‘counselling’ now has such negative connotations for her she has avoided it all her life.
In the early years of the century Nova reported Arthur to a Sexual Crimes Unit in Melbourne and made a statement. The police officers she dealt with were lovely and very good, but she never heard from them again. ‘It doesn’t matter to me what the result is, because I can’t change anything. I can’t take it back. There’s nothing I can do about it now, except I suppose deal with it properly.’ She has not reported the abuse to the institution or sought compensation.
Nova worked in prostitution until her husband came along and ‘took her away from all that’. They now have a large family and all are doing well. She has been over protective of her children in the past, but thinks she is getting better. She does continue to suffer with anxiety and depression.
Nova has good support from her family, friends and priest, and she has been able to redefine her life as an adult. She said it has been a struggle, but she’s doing well now and has a close and supportive family. They laugh a lot.
Nova would like to see an independent and confidential phone service established, similar to Kids Helpline, which children who are in DHS placements could call to report abuse.