‘I’ve been fortunate. I feel that, you know I feel sad that [staff in the home] have let me down so badly, you know. All right, I know and understand now – I didn’t understand then – there were so many children and there was probably only so much that they could do to look after so many, but in hindsight saying that, they employed wrong people to look after us children.’
When Peg was two years old in the late 1940s, her mother gave her away to a woman she’d met on the street who said she was looking to adopt a child. The woman changed Peg’s name and date of birth and took her to live in a house in suburban Melbourne. Over the next eight or so years the woman, who was ‘really vicious’, constantly changed addresses ‘so people couldn’t catch up with her’.
From as far back as she remembered, Peg was sexually abused by Damien, a boy nine years older than she who lived with the woman. Peg was told Damien was her brother. He was there at the time of her arrival and remained after Peg was found to be ‘in moral danger’ and finally taken from the woman. Peg was made a ward of the state at about the age of 12.
Taken to a Presbyterian Church children’s home, Peg was put to work in the laundry and given the job of looking after babies. When she was 14, she was sleeping in the babies’ area one night when the home’s caretaker came in and raped her.
‘I never liked him from the word go’, Peg said. ‘There was something that was very unsettling and uneasy about him and it was even worse after I was sexually abused by him. He would follow me around at a distance. He’d be watching your every move to see where you’re going, who you’re talking to, what you’re doing. Not good.
‘He said to me, “If you know what’s good for you, you won’t open your mouth”.’
Children at the home were constantly threatened with being sent to a nearby juvenile justice centre and Peg feared if she told anyone about the assault that’s where she’d end up so she told no one.
Peg told the Commissioner that she was sexually assaulted on two other occasions during the time she was a state ward. When the home closed for holiday periods, she was sent to stay on a farm and the adult son of the couple who owned the property raped Peg in his car. The assault was witnessed by the eldest daughter of the family who dragged Peg out of the car, told her to pack her bags and then drove her back to the home. Peg felt as though she was to blame for the assault. She didn’t tell staff about what had happened but did let them know she didn’t ever want to go back to the farm. She was however, sent back on another occasion, and again she was raped by the same man.
Peg remembered two married couples who she credits with helping her survive the events of her childhood. One husband and wife team were in charge of a cottage in the home where Peg stayed for a while and they were loving and kind. Their request to adopt her was refused and eventually they left the home. Another couple Peg spent some time with were also good to her but they were elderly and when the woman died, Peg didn’t return to their home.
Part of her reason for coming to speak to the Royal Commission, Peg said, was to remember Lorraine, a friend who’d also been in the home. Lorraine and her brother, Peter, had spent varying lengths of time at the home of some local people who took them during holiday periods and Peg remembered Peter ‘coming back really red-faced and teared, upset, stressed out’.
One day Lorraine was in some distress and kept repeating the last name of the people she and Peter stayed with. She told Peg to remember the name. Not long afterwards, Lorraine took her own life. Staff of the home ‘kept it all hushed’ Peg said, and none of the children were allowed to go to Lorraine’s funeral. Peg said it remained part of her life purpose to know the background behind Lorraine’s death.
Throughout the years, Peg tried to talk to people about her experiences of childhood, but no one seemed interested. They thought it was too much, she said, and she was met with denial and ‘flat out refusal’ that the things she described had occurred. At one stage she met with a female psychologist but was given the impression that the woman thought she was ‘making it up’.
Then one day a friend sent her a brochure for a support service set up for Forgotten Australians.
‘God bless her, I love her, because she opened up a new door’, Peg said. ‘And I met all these people that have come out from all directions and have led me down these corridors of help … We don’t have to tell our story, we don’t have to bare our souls because we’ve all walked down that same road, you know. We’re all united. We’re all good friends.’
Peg participated in the Senate Inquiry into Forgotten Australians as well as the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Non-Government Organisations. She also reported the abuse to Victoria Police but had never sought compensation nor taken legal action against the state government or the Presbyterian Church.
‘It’s like having a trunk inside you and it’s all locked down and the lid is closed you know and when you’ve got all these terrific people saying, “We can help you. We can help you” and you hear that long enough, you think, yes …
‘You’ve set my soul free today. Thank you. My wings can fly now. Do you know, in retrospect I feel blessed because I’ll tell you why – the good Lord upstairs, he’s given me not only the strength but he’s kept my mental capacity into one being, so that I can relay what needs to be. So that I’m grateful for.’