On Peggy’s wedding night she locked herself in the toilet, terrified.
She told her new husband, Sid, he would have to be patient. This came as no surprise to Sid. When they’d first met, ‘it took me 12 months to let him touch my hands’, Peggy told the Commissioner. Peggy explained it to Sid: she had been ill-treated as a child. ‘I said he’d have to be patient.’ Sid was understanding and supportive and quite prepared to wait.
Peggy had been relinquished at birth in the late 1930s and became a state ward. Until she was 18 years old she lived in a number of orphanages and children’s homes in Victoria. When she was born she was misdiagnosed with an intellectual disability and placed in a special facility until she was 10. Social workers finally realised the error and had her shifted to a home run by the Methodist Church.
In that place she was raped and abused for the next four years. Two of the male teachers who came to the home regularly attacked her. ‘They had racing bikes. Us kids never got bikes. They’d say, “You can have a ride”, and then they’d tell you to put them away in a certain place’. Peggy would be trapped in the shed and raped.
Peggy was also sexually abused by the cleaner’s son and a farmhand at the home named Fred. Fred would order her into a farm shed to find a piece of equipment. ‘You’d get caught and locked in there. They’re stronger than we are. Some things I can’t talk about.’ Peggy pauses for a long time. ‘I hated men.’
Peggy sustained physical injuries from the rapes including tearing and infection, and these were very painful. She was not asked how the injuries had happened when she was eventually treated for them.
Day to day life at the Methodist home was grim. The food was always terrible – bread and dripping, tripe and brains. ‘If you didn’t want the food they used to get us on the ground and shove it down our throats … No matter if you vomited it up they made you eat it.’
The children were never given toys nor shown any love. On Saturdays Peggy and the other children without families were forced to sit and watch, crying, as other kids received visitors.
There were other children’s homes and Peggy had to endure abuse and neglect at all of them. Peggy recalls being taken to priests for confession at a Catholic orphanage she lived in. This was ‘for the priest’s pleasure, if you know what I mean’. But as she grew older Peggy was discovering an inner strength. One day at the orphanage she became so angry with the nuns facilitating the priest’s abuse that she attacked one of the women, ripping off her veil.
Peggy’s life began to change when she turned 18. She heard a church advertising ‘a better life’ on the radio and got in touch with a local pastor. This man was very loving and kind. He found a childless farming couple who were happy to take Peggy in. She spent time with them and another couple, who treated her as one of their own. ‘I still had trouble trusting people … I admit I was a bit rebellious.’ But the families showed Peggy that life could be good and she began to make plans.
Peggy travelled to New South Wales and enrolled in a college for four years, learning dressmaking and bookkeeping. She joined the college choir and found joy in music. There she also met husband-to-be Sid, whose patience was rewarded with Peggy’s love. Eventually they had three children together and the marriage has endured happily for over half a century.
Peggy has always felt the effects of the abuse she suffered, carrying her physical injuries and a lack of trust in others. But she has turned her suffering into a strong desire to help others. She now spends her time seeking out and helping the disadvantaged, especially the young. She has been formally recognised for this work with a community award.
‘If I can help one person it sort of makes up for what was done to me.’
Peggy urged the Royal Commission to look carefully at the foster care system. She believes potential foster parents need to be carefully vetted, to weed out couples who are doing it just for the money. ‘These foster kids, they get into trouble because they aren’t looked after enough. They should be accepted as their own family, and they’re not.’