‘I think what that man did to me deprived me of a normal [life] … I never had the chance to swap lipsticks, I never had the chance to turn a young man inside out … We were abused by old men. And no old man should be the first man in your life.’
Rosanna grew up on an Aboriginal mission on the coast of New South Wales. She had many siblings, and the mission was full of aunts and uncles and cousins who would look out for her. ‘I was a tomboy, getting into trouble all the time’, Rosanna told the Commissioner. ‘I was adventurous and I was safe.’
Rosanna wasn’t safe from the Aborigines Welfare Board. In the late 1950s when she was a teenager she was sent to a girls’ home in the state’s south west. She never saw her mother again. Rosanna was quickly moved to Sydney and given to an eastern suburbs couple to work as a maid.
Bruce Livingstone was a successful businessman who would often get drunk. He and his wife held parties and it wasn’t unusual for a hundred people to attend. But Livingstone was cruel and treated Rosanna as his property. She was quartered in a separate basement area. ‘When he was drinking he used to come in to my room. At first I was so terrified.’ Rosanna knew nothing of sex. Livingstone raped her repeatedly.
‘He used to say, “Don’t bother screaming because no one will hear you”.’
After some weeks a cleaner who came to the house realised that Rosanna was in trouble. She gave Rosanna the address of the Aborigines Welfare Board. One day she managed to travel into the city. ‘I went in there and I spoke to Mr Boyle. I didn’t tell him a lot. I just told him that I didn’t want to stay there and it was bad and he said, “Wait here”. I was there most of the day, then [Mrs Livingstone] came and slapped my face … “for telling lies”, and took me back.’ The sexual abuse continued.
Rosanna became desperate. Months into her ordeal she ran away from the house and jumped on a tram. It took her to the Gap, the cliffside lookout. ‘I was so depressed. I was crawling through the fence and this voice behind me said, “Nothing is as bad as this, can we talk about it?” And I turned around and this man put his hand out.’
Rosanna can’t recall what they talked about, but eventually she got back on the tram and went home. ‘I got saved. I could’ve jumped. I got saved.’
The abuse by Bruce Livingstone ended dramatically after Rosanna had endured a year of rape and other violence. ‘So he came back to the house and he got me upstairs to the bedroom. He just shoved the door and dropped his pants. So I just took off and dived through the window. And I somersaulted.’
The gardener saw her jump and helped Rosanna. ‘I somersaulted into the high geraniums and I hit the ground running and collapsed at the gate. Just a couple of doors away the doctor lived … He examined me and asked a lot of questions.’
‘Then he got on the phone [to Livingstone] and he said, “Send this girl home or I’ll expose you”.’
Rosanna was sent back to the mission. Her mother had died by this time and Rosanna’s siblings were all scattered to various institutions and foster homes. Rosanna was soon sent to work for another family in Sydney. This was a happier time: ‘They were a good family.’
Her year of abuse had damaged Rosanna physically and emotionally. She married young, but ‘I could not relate to marriage … I wouldn’t get dressed in front of him’. Rosanna had children nonetheless; the marriage lasted only five years. She married again and had more kids, but again the relationship was not healthy. Both her husbands drank heavily and were abusive. Both accused her of sleeping with other men because she often refused to sleep with them.
‘Both my husbands said I was weird.’ Rosanna could not explain herself, could not tell either of them about her sexual abuse. ‘I couldn’t tell anyone.’
‘My daughter said, “One day Mum, sit down and tell us what happened”. I said yeah, one day”. How can you tell kids things like that?’
Twenty years ago Rosanna reached a turning point. ‘I could make no sense of my life … I thought, “Well I’ve got no education – I’ll go to TAFE”.’ She learnt to read and write and eventually completed a social welfare course.
Since then she has worked continuously inside the Indigenous community, tackling child exploitation problems. ‘We did it in a cultural way.’ Rosanna has avoided getting the police involved and has had great success.
In looking to the future Rosanna asks everyone to picture themselves as her family was all those years ago.
‘Put yourself in their place … Just imagine your 15-year-old, just imagine someone walking into your place and taking your 15-year-old.’