‘I was 11 years old, for God’s sake. There was not one adult who said to me, “What are you doing? Why are you running away?”’
Rea’s father was a very dangerous man. He was responsible for her mother’s death when Rea was eight in the early 1960s. Rea and her siblings were left in their father’s care. He sexually assaulted and physically abused them. By age 10, Rea began running away from home and stealing to survive. She was eventually placed in a government-run residence for girls in Adelaide.
Rea was in the home for about a year. She was sexually abused by an older female resident on multiple occasions. ‘I would go into her room and she would give me lollies and she would force herself on me sexually.’ Rea believes other girls knew about the abuse and may have ‘procured’ her for the abuser. They would be waiting to send her on her way when she was pushed from the older girl’s room.
Rea began to have fits of rage and spent a lot of time in solitary confinement because of this. She does not recall any welfare visits or support whilst in the institution.
Because of the sexual abuse at the home, Rea again began running away and hitchhiked to Melbourne with a friend when she was 12. She spent a period of time in an aunt’s care before she once again ran away, and lived on the streets. By the age of 14 she had been apprehended and was placed in a girls’ home, this one run by the Victorian government.
At this home, Rea was sexually abused on multiple occasions by two perpetrators. The first was an older female resident who befriended her and after getting her trust repeatedly sexually abused her. ‘I didn’t tell anyone. I don’t know why. I thought that was just what friends did.’
The second perpetrator was a male teacher, who raped her. Rea said that she was too scared and intimidated to report the abuse at the time. ‘This thing happens where – the shock – you just go blank. You go numb and you blank it out and you hope to God it won’t happen again. If I just sit real quiet and say nothing it’s almost like it didn’t happen. It won’t be real.’
Rea spent 12 months in the Victorian home. She left at 15 and got a job. She then moved into Salvation Army accommodation and worked in a number of different jobs.
‘I believe that through my father’s abuse he created a victim in me’, Rea told the Commissioner. ‘There’s the vulnerability, to just not know what the boundaries are, to not know that it’s okay to say “No” to … It took me a long time to overcome being a victim.’
Rea has had to learn to cope with the effects of her childhood abuse. Rea experiences flashbacks, can be anxious at times, and carries ‘an inner sadness’ despite being an optimistic person. As a young woman she had difficulty trusting anyone, especially other women.
‘One of the drives that I had, and I had this from a very young age, was, “I’m not going to let this bastard beat me. I’m not going to let these events determine who I am as a person”.’
Rea found an inner strength in herself and has lived an extraordinary life. She decided to return to school, eventually completing Year 12. She then put herself through TAFE. She spent her 20s doing more university studies and helped start a business. She had children of her own.
Rea sought intensive trauma therapy in the 1970s and believes that helped her cope. ‘Not necessarily mainstream, seeing a psychologist or seeing a counsellor. I didn’t trust the system.’ She has had a number of careers. She now works to help others who have suffered trauma.
‘I don’t think we were protected by a system that didn’t really know what was going on.’ Rea has strong words of advice for the Royal Commission. She believes encouraging children to speak up about abuse is the wrong approach.
‘The onus for telling is not on the victim. … If the adults who are around and supposed to be caring are observant enough to pick up on the non-verbal cues about what abuse is and what it does to a child. It terrifies a child. So if you can observe a child who is behaving in a terrified way you can pretty much know that there’s abuse going on.’
Rea told the Commissioner, ‘It’s non-verbal. To expect a child who’s been abused to be able to verbalise what that abuse is, is an unrealistic expectation. … We have to be more mindful and more aware. More observant. We have to ask the right questions.’