In between the very clear memories that Pearlie has of her time in a juvenile home, there are long periods where she can recall nothing. To her, these are even scarier than the memories.
When she was 13, Pearlie snuck out of her bedroom window to a Blue Light Disco without telling her mother. Her mother called the police. That night the police hauled Pearlie out of bed and handcuffed her. She was placed in a juvenile facility in New South Wales under the care of the director general.
It was a cruel place. Punishments were meted out for no reason. They included being locked in a padded cell. ‘Kids’d … go crazy and they’d be left for maybe 20 hours in their room without a bed, without a desk, without a chair. Education? I don’t know what that was.’
Pearlie is bewildered at how staff could get away with it.
‘We all lived in one unit. No door off the boys’ dorm to the bathroom and no toilet doors or shower doors.’ The male staff would come and watch the girls in the showers. Pearlie also remembers a teacher who used to rub himself up against the furniture.
Pearlie was locked in a cell on her own. She used to ask to share a room but was never allowed. She remembers a staff member coming in at night and taking her to a hall. She can’t recall what happened there.
She was taken regularly by the workers from the home to a private house where she saw a psychologist. He would show her flash cards. During these sessions he’d take off his clothes and expose himself. He’d ask Pearlie to touch him. She has other flashes of memory - being taken by the staff somewhere else, being told to take her clothes off, getting in a shower, a man watching her. She remembers crying in the shower.
One of the teachers abused her as well but it’s the psychologist Pearlie remembers as the main offender.
Pearlie has been mortified to discover from her welfare records that she was placed on the contraceptive pill when she was 13. She strongly suspects that workers or other adults were having sex with her. Her records don’t mention who prescribed it or who administered it. She was also given antibiotics.
‘There’s so much that I just can’t piece together and I hate that. I wish I just knew.’
But Pearlie does remember, all too clearly, a young boy called Benny. He’d be taken somewhere by staff members as well and would be brought back crying, holding some new toy or other. He told her that they’d hurt him. ‘I was a kid, I didn’t understand.’
Pearlie still has a little toy dog of Benny’s. She often wonders what happened to him.
Pearlie regularly rang her welfare worker screaming, ‘come and get me, come and get me!’ The caseworker may have visited occasionally but ‘she never came to the centre and said, “Hey what’s going on? Why is Pearlie ringing me screaming?”’
Pearlie moved back with her parents when she was 15. She tried to have other kids from the home come and stay with her. Benny stayed for a while but had to go back when Pearlie’s mum called the home.
The effect of the child sexual abuse was to make Pearlie feel detached, both from the experiences and from other people. She feels no empathy or compassion. If someone has a problem she tells them to toughen up. ‘Just get over it … you’ll be right.’
Sadly, she can’t quite get that to work for her. She feels like the memory - and the awful mystery of what she can’t remember - is always there.
She has never reported the psychologist but is thinking about it now.
‘This bloke should be where I am, in all honesty. And if he’s done that to me, then who else has he done it to?’
Pearlie doesn’t see her mum but gets on well with her dad. She knows that if she hadn’t had her family, and had to depend on that juvenile facility or her welfare worker, she would have had no chance at all.
Bizarrely, Pearlie’s father thought for years that it was the welfare agency who’d signed her into care. He had no idea it was her mother. He went in a couple of times and asked when his daughter was getting out.
Pearlie’s own kids keep her strong. She’s also done a few TAFE courses as an adult to try and fix her tattered school years. As for compensation, Pearlie says, it doesn’t fix anything but ‘an apology would be great’.
‘I’d like to see no one ever get put in a home … stay with family if possible. This group home situation? It’s unsupervised … Whatever went on, no one’s watching. And they answer to themselves.’