Olivia and her older brother Donny were placed in foster care in Western Australia in the early 1980s. They were very young when they were taken in by Leo and Nancy Hurst, who had four teenage children of their own, and stayed with them for over six years.
They were raised believing Leo and Nancy were their true parents. Their different surnames were explained away by the family, as were the occasional visits of welfare officers.
When Olivia was about eight their caseworker insisted she and Donny be allowed to compile a book that explained where they came from. ‘It was one of those times that we were actually told that we were fostered and then it was, “Hang on, maybe what we’ve been living isn’t normal”.’
‘Both my brother and myself had physical, sexual and emotional abuse from different members of the family’, Olivia told the Commissioner.
She and Donny were sexually abused by one of the Hurst’s daughters. ‘She would take me in her room and I would have to hop under the covers. I’d have to play with her, or use oral. With my brother I’d see him go under the covers, so I knew what was happening.’
Her foster father abused her too. ‘With Leo I’d remember waking up at night and he’d be in the room touching me and pushing himself against me. And then whenever he was alone with us as we started to get older, we’d be playing in the lounge room – he’d pick me up, chuck me over his shoulders, take me up to my room and then rub himself all over me.’
‘When I would yell to Donny, “Come get me, help me, help me, help me”, it was, “Shut up or I will get him”.’
The children were frequently beaten by their foster parents, which made them too afraid to talk about what was happening. Olivia never tried to speak to Nancy about what Leo was doing. ‘I was too frightened to speak to her about anything. She was, a lot of the time, the instigator of punishment.’
At first the Hursts were always present when social workers visited Olivia and Donny. ‘We were never allowed to talk with someone to say what we wanted to say.’
But as they grew older, one-on-one visits began. ‘Both my brother and I, we strongly believe that we stated, “Look, things aren’t right. We don’t think they’re right. Things are happening that we don’t feel should be happening”.’
In later years Olivia requested copies of her welfare file. ‘All through my documents it says, “We need to provide extra support for the Hursts in this situation. It’s not ideal, we need to do something about it”. That went on for six years, but nothing was done.’
Olivia and Donny occasionally spent weekends with their real grandparents. They tried to tell them about the physical abuse, but were too ashamed to mention the sexual assaults. Their grandparents began to complain to welfare about the beatings, and eventually the siblings went to live with them.
Olivia threw herself into school. ‘I took on education as a way to cope. I needed to focus on something and that was it. I couldn’t make friends, I couldn’t interact with people.’
She stuck very close to her brother, feeling safer with him. It wasn’t until she became involved in a church in her early 20s that she made good friends.
As she began to think about God she learned to address her past. ‘And then finally accepting that it happened, that it is a part of me.’
Olivia married and had children of her own, but struggled with low self-esteem and a terrible fear that she will be a failure as a mother. She is frightened of the anger inside her and what might happen if her children play up and trigger that anger. She is scared, too, of her foster parents’ influence on her, and that she might ‘turn out like that’. Despite these fears, Olivia speaks of her children with affection.
Olivia went through Redress WA and was paid some compensation, which she considers inadequate. ‘I got a written apology. It was very impersonal, it was like, “Oh well, you’re just another number … it happened, we acknowledge it happened”.’
She and Donny were also put in touch with a psychologist. ‘I felt kind of guilty bringing it all up again. It’s in the past, why bother, sort of thing? The counsellor was really good. She taught me to understand that it wasn’t my fault, wasn’t something that should be just left, that it needed to be dealt with.’
Olivia hopes the Royal Commission can help change the foster care system. She recommends ‘That kids in care get time to build a trust with an adult who is outside of the environment that they’re in … We never saw any of the social workers who came, never on our own.’
‘Listen to the kids. Don’t just say, “Oh yeah, we’ll look at it” and then nothing happens.’