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Petra Ella's story

‘I’d been a street kid, I’d been in and out of resi units and things like that. They kept trying to send me home but my mother was incredibly abusive. She was using drugs and alcohol and she’d even tried to sell my virginity.’

In the mid-1980s, when Petra was in her early teens, she kept running away from home. Often picked up by police, when she was about 15 she was sent to a residential youth service run by the Victorian Government.

After she’d been there a few weeks, Petra was told that a police officer was coming to interview her. She ‘thought it was odd’ and when he arrived he took her in the police car and drove her around asking questions about whether she had a boyfriend.

Over the next few weeks it became a regular occurrence for the officer to take Petra for drives. He began kissing and touching her and tried to get her to have sex with him, but she refused. The behaviour stopped when another officer saw her in the car one day and took the constable aside. Petra heard them arguing and she never saw the officer again.

Workers at the youth service had difficulty finding accommodation for Petra because she was either too old or too young for what was available. They began insisting she get a job ‘because that was the only way, otherwise I’d have to go back to being a street kid’.

After Petra got a job in a fast food outlet, the youth workers put an advertisement in a newspaper that said they had a young girl in need of ‘accommodation and guidance’.

‘I believe they may have changed it after the first ad because they were getting hundreds of phone calls from single men’, Petra said. A social worker then found a couple, Joe and Rebecca Collins, who after ‘a five minute interview’, agreed to Petra coming to live in their house in Melbourne.

‘They basically told me, “We can’t find you anywhere else. It’s this or the streets”.’

Social workers visited the house a few times but refused to see Petra alone, even though she requested it. Within a few weeks of being there, Petra was given alcohol by Joe one night and awoke to him lying on top of her.

As soon as she could she went back to the youth service and told the social worker what had happened and that she wanted to get out. The worker spoke to Joe who told her that he hadn’t done anything and that Petra was at fault because she ‘was dressing provocatively’ and ‘trying to break up his marriage’.

The worker believed him and told Petra to ‘go back there and behave yourself’.

‘What I took from that is that I had no choice.’

Back in the house, Petra was raped by Joe. Over a period of months the sexual abuse ‘was happening almost daily’. Both Joe and Rebecca used drugs, including heroin and other prescription medication and illicit substances.

‘By that stage I well and truly had nowhere to go’, Petra said. ‘Had no friends or family, because he’d managed to alienate me from everybody around me, completely isolate me.’

After some time, Petra’s sister was placed in the house and Joe told Petra that as long as she complied with his demands ‘which became more and more disgusting’, he wouldn’t touch her sister.

At 18, Petra left. She begged her sister to come and live with her but she refused. Two weeks after Petra left the house, Joe raped her sister, who ran away and began living on the streets.

Joe pursued Petra, breaking into and spray painting her home. After he killed her cat, Petra called the police and disclosed to the officer that Joe had also sexually abused her. The officer told her that if charges were brought against Joe for killing the cat there’d be ‘a thousand dollar fine, if that’. He suggested she ‘run and get as far away as humanly possible’.

Petra’s young adult years were marked by relationships that were abusive. ‘I became a heroin addict and tried to prostitute over a couple of years before I straightened up.’

In the late 1990s, Petra applied to the Department of Human Services for her welfare file. After a long battle she received a thin manila folder with the notes largely redacted. She enlisted the services of a law firm to bring a civil case against the department. But the lawyers told her ‘they hadn’t come across a case like this’ where the government ‘wanted to fight’ so much, and that she might lose her house if she was unsuccessful, so Petra withdrew her claim.

From the mid-2000s, Petra’s life ‘turned around’. She had helpful counselling with a psychiatrist and afterwards with a psychologist. She started making up for opportunities and life skills she hadn’t had as a teenager, buying a house, working and volunteering at the same time as raising her own children. Studying for a diploma had changed her thinking about the abuse. As a child she’d ‘really truly believed that I deserved it and that this was the best I could expect’, and only later realised ‘how completely wrong it all was. It isn’t my fault and it never was’.

It had helped Petra too to meet a woman who’d also experienced abuse in her life and they became good friends.

‘Even though we weren’t talking about the abuse, we talked about how it changed our lives and how it shaped us and how we could overcome it, and I guess she helped encourage me to be stronger.’

Petra believed there’d been many points in her life where proper support would have made a difference. She recommended social workers have better training in the ‘cycle of abuse and specifically how to open up a conversation when someone comes to them with a disclosure, especially a child’.

Practical assistance and a ‘helping hand up to help kids that have been in care to get into property ownership’ would also change things for people.

‘I really believe that with the care system that there needs to be more done. There needs to be less moving kids around and less about shuffling kids from here, there and everywhere. There needs to be safe places.’

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