Rhona was born in country Victoria, into what she described as a ‘reasonably decent family’. When she was three her mother walked out, leaving Rhona and her younger brother with their father. Soon after, her father broke down and turned to alcohol. Rhona believes he blamed the children for his wife leaving.
As they grew up their father’s drinking worsened. He attempted to dry out several times, went to counselling and received support from his friends and employer, but nothing helped.
Rhona said that her father tried to look after his children but ‘his mental state just went from bad to worse’.
‘We were punished for a mother who didn’t want us. Me particularly.’
When Rhona was 12 her father went into psychiatric care and the children were taken away by police. She remembers sitting in front of a judge in a court room where, under the legal system of the 1950s, they were charged with ‘neglect’ and made wards of the state.
‘We weren’t guilty of anything, we were just children trying to cope with what was going on in our lives.’
They were separated and put into children’s homes, where her brother was forced to spend long periods of time in a padlocked room. ‘He never got over it. He said, “What did I do wrong?”’
After a couple of years Rhona and her brother were reunited and placed together in a home outside Melbourne. ‘We hid the shame, we didn’t tell our friends. They thought we were just living with an aunt and uncle.’
Rhona and her brother had come from a family where they felt unwanted to a home where they were treated the same way. There was physical and emotional abuse, and they were often cold and hungry while the couple who ran the place lived quite well.
‘The state ward thing is, you’re the property of the state, you don’t have anyone so you’re vulnerable.’
Their father would visit them when he could but he was still undergoing treatment and in a bad way.
From the beginning of her teens, Rhona was sexually abused by the man who ran the home. He’d come into the bedroom and bathroom and grope her under her clothes, often threatening to do even worse things.
Rhona’s brother knew about the abuse and tried to protect her, but he was intimidated by the man into keeping quiet.
Rhona doesn’t remember anyone from Welfare ever coming to the home. ‘We were heartbroken. We couldn’t get over what went on. We had no support. My father had a lot of support for his psychological problems.’
‘We were just children.’
On one visit Rhona’s father told her, ‘If anyone ever touched you, I will shoot them’. She recalled being very frightened because he did own a gun and was still fragile. ‘We couldn’t afford to have our father do something so stupid.’
‘My father was a mentally ill man. I know what was suffered, but he wasn’t a monster. He was a good man except for the drink.’
So Rhona and her brother kept quiet about the sexual abuse. ‘It was impossible to say anything.’
After about two years, when ‘more decent’ people came in to run the home, the abuse finally stopped. Rhona remembered a sense of peace. ‘I could get on with being a teenager, getting on with school and looking forward to a better life.’
Rhona stayed at the home till she was 18. Then, with 100 dollars from her father, ‘one cat, one dress and one suitcase, I left’. She walked to the station, got on a train, ‘and that’s how I started my life’.
Since then Rhona has gotten married and had a satisfying career. But her brother struggled. She believes he never got over the break-up of the family, and he died too young.
Rhona never told anyone about the abuse she suffered. But after hearing about the Royal Commission in the media she realised, ‘I have to do something about this. I’m being called to do something. I have to. And then I can put that behind me’.
After so many years of being fearful of authority, Rhona found the strength to speak up. And she’ll never forget what happened to her and her brother.
‘The shame was put on our shoulders for most of our lives, because “your mother didn’t want you”.’
‘To be treated as worthless, undeserving. Not valued, not respected and valued as a human being, as a person. Being treated like a criminal.’
‘We were guilty before we even started life. We were guilty of what? Nothing.’
Rhona has no interest in redress or compensation, she just wants to help protect children, particularly state wards. ‘I was luckier. I had some connection where a lot of these children are not connected, they’re disconnected, disconnected completely. They’re on their own.’
Rhona said she’s finding her voice. ‘I was told once that righteousness prevails. And I want to see justice served.’