Prudence was born in regional Queensland in the mid 1940s. She grew up on a dairy farm, and it was her job to herd the cattle.
When she was eight years old, Prudence lost one of the cows she was moving. She expected to get a hiding for losing the animal. Both her mother and stepfather drank heavily, and often beat her.
So she decided to run away. She was quite far from home when she was picked up by Darren Mansfield, a police officer. Mansfield told Prudence that her parents were looking for her, and that he would take her home.
Before returning her to their care, he put his arms around her, rubbed her leg, and put his hands inside her underwear. ‘He said, you know, he was trying to pacify me. I don’t know that that would pacify a child.’
When she got back ‘I still got the hiding anyway’. A few years later, Mansfield abused her in a similar way, but she never saw him again.
By the time Prudence was 13, her mother had left her stepfather, and they had moved to Victoria. Prudence was fighting with her mum a lot, and working at an all-night café.
‘I used to just do whatever I wanted ... I’d meet all different sorts. I’d just come from the bush, so you can imagine it was all new to me.’ During this time she met a man, Ben Charles, who was a sergeant in the army.
‘He was interfering with me at that stage, but I thought he was being good to me, he was being kind. You know, he’d drive me to the football.’ Prudence reported Charles to police in the late 1950s. They told her they could not locate him, ‘which is not true’.
Prudence’s mother continued to drink heavily, and her new partner did too. One night the police picked Prudence up at the railway yard, with two young men who sexually assaulted her. ‘They were going to charge those boys as well I think ... Nothing ever happened’. She doesn’t think the boys did that much wrong. ‘I could have got into worse trouble, couldn’t I?’
Her mother was too drunk to have even realised she was missing, and Prudence was charged with being a neglected child. She was the subject of several court cases, but her mother was always too intoxicated to attend.
Eventually, Prudence was made a ward of the state, and sent to a training centre in Melbourne for the next four years. When she first arrived, her ‘initiation’ included being sexually assaulted by three older girls, and bashed. Believing the purpose of this abuse to see if she would ‘dob’, she didn’t report it to anyone.
Staff at the centre would drug the children to keep them under control. Prudence was forced to take an antipsychotic three times a day, and as a result felt ‘like a zombie. The girls would wake you up to have something to eat’.
If she really acted out, she was given an injection in her buttocks which knocked her unconscious for 24 hours. When Prudence obtained her care records, there was no mention of these medications, or any other medical treatment she received.
The workers were cruel and violent to the girls. ‘Once they got that seniority thing, they turned into very evil women. Who knows why? You can’t figure out why they were like that.’ One woman would hit the girls hard in the head with a large bunch of keys.
Some of the girls held Prudence down and tattooed her heavily. Every girl in there was tattooed, and she is angry that this practice, which was obvious to staff who strip-searched them regularly, wasn’t stopped. Prudence has always been embarrassed by these tattoos, and often chooses to wear long sleeves, as she knows people will judge her for having them.
After leaving the centre with no further support, she lived on the streets for many years. ‘You didn’t understand the way of the world – the right way of the world – at all.’ The police frequently picked her up for vagrancy, and she spent some time in jail for this.
Prudence interrupted this cycle by moving interstate again. Here, she was able to lead a more settled life, and to maintain long-term employment.
After abusing alcohol for a long time, Prudence has now been sober for 14 years. She believes that the medication she was administered at the centre may have contributed to the chronic health condition she lives with.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s, when she decided to write out her story that Prudence properly spoke about what Mansfield did to her. ‘That’s when I started remembering everything ... When you get older, you’ve got more sense, and you think about things.’ Before this, she would sometimes talk about the abuse when drunk and ‘morbid’, but never when sober.
She did not report Mansfield to police, as she thinks he would probably be deceased. She has never applied for any compensation relating to any of the abuse.
Even though Prudence is very independent, she thinks it would sometimes be good to access advice and guidance from someone else. She has not engaged in counselling, but has some involvement with advocacy organisations.
She has had some trouble with these groups, including a lot of arguing about who exactly was entitled to access them. One place in particular seemed to have a ‘them and us’ mentality, and be primarily concerned with people who grew up in Church-run institutions.
Prudence doesn’t want other kids to suffer like she did. She spoke to the Commissioner about the need for better screening of foster carers, and support for people when they leave care. She is also greatly concerned for refugee children locked up in Australian detention centres.
‘In 30 years’ time there’ll be another inquiry ... And the government, they’ll all be gone, and someone else will get the blame. And some people like you will be saying, it shouldn’t have happened.
‘And they know about it now, so why aren’t they doing something about it now? If the government is letting that happen to human beings now, why would they care about what happens to any of us, or what happened to any of us?’