When Oola was a little girl, she walked into a shop, picked out a pretty dress and a pair of shoes, put them in a suitcase, and walked out. The staff caught her and called the police who took her back to her foster home where her foster father flogged her for trying to run away.
Oola was born out of wedlock in southern Queensland in the mid-1960s. Her mother was Aboriginal, and her white relatives wanted nothing to do with her. So, before her first birthday, Oola was made a ward of the state and placed with foster parents, John and Kerry, who were relatives of her mother.
John and Kerry were violent alcoholics and physically and emotionally abusive. Regularly flogged with a belt and buckle, Oola and her foster siblings would run away and rarely attend school. ‘We were always homeless a lot’, she said. ‘We used to sleep under trees, under houses, under beds, to hide from John because he was so violent.’
John’s wife was also bashed and she, in turn, would subject Oola to ‘torture’. Kerry would deprive her of food, or violently scrape food out of her mouth if she was caught secretly eating. She would force Oola to lie at her feet, and keep her awake by slapping her in the face. When searching for nits, she would press Oola’s face into her breast and belly as if trying to smother her. When Oola told visitors about the violence, Kerry used a broomstick to bash her on the back. Oola, who had to have surgery in her mid-teens, later tried unsuccessfully to have Kerry charged for this assault.
Oola believes that the torture and beatings affected her worse than the sexual abuse perpetrated by a number of male visitors and relatives who came to the house. She was sexually abused up until her early teens, and the last perpetrator was charged with carnal knowledge.
Oola and her foster siblings were removed from John and Kerry’s care while Oola was still in primary school. They were placed in a number of other care arrangements, including a government-run children’s home, run by negligent house parents, where Oola discovered Disney movies and developed a lifelong love of their magic. Four or five years later, when she was returned to the care of John and Kerry, she started to walk the streets late at night, and look at people with eyes that said, ‘Please take me away, someone please take me away’.
When she eventually obtained her care files, Oola was shocked to learn how much the authorities knew about her foster parents' violent behaviour.
She read a case worker’s report which said that, when she was a toddler, she had ‘cuts and bruises on her face, a broken arm, and finger formation on her neck consistent with strangulation’, and was sickened by the fact that she had been put into the care of people whose violence was known to police and Family and Community Services [FACS].
When she saw the name of a man who had sexually abused her on a form about her ‘illegitimate’ birth, she became violently ill and had to be taken to hospital. Still dealing with the possibility that her real father might be a child molester, Oola said, ‘I actually feel sick. I don’t want it to be him’.
The abuse Oola experienced disrupted her education and cancelled her dream of becoming a police officer who could work to fix wrongs. She pushed people away, used speed and marijuana and got herself into ‘a lot of bad situations’, including one in which an ex-drug dealer stalked and planned to kill her.
She carries physical and emotional scars, including a somatic memory of the perpetrators. ‘I still feel that on my chest every now and then’, she said. ‘I can feel that pressure … It’s too much for me sometimes, and I have to tell my husband to get off.’
Oola pursued legal and public avenues to have her story told and, after an investigation found that FACS had failed in its care of her, she commemorated that breakthrough by getting a tattoo. The demeaning compensation case that followed, and harassment of her family, made her ashamed enough to ‘want to cut it out’. However, she is pursuing a second compensation claim, and has since crowned her first tattoo with other illustrated commemorations.
Today, Oola has been married to an understanding man for almost two decades, enjoys her supportive workplace and is part of a church community. Despite her loveless childhood, she felt a ‘great immense feeling of love’ when she first gave birth. She ‘just loved being a mum’, and was ‘overprotective’ and not backwards about warning people not to touch her kids. It would ‘hurt my heart’ if anything happened to them, she said.
One day, Oola would like to take her children to Disneyland. But she has told them, ‘That’ll be the first and only time that I will say to youse, “See ya later”. I’m just going to run off and I’m going to be a kid again’.