When Rowena and her four sisters were made wards of the state they were placed in a group home in Melbourne. The home was brand new and comfortable, and the carers, Steve and Peg Miller, were nice.
‘It was lovely compared to where we’d been’, Rowena said.
Rowena was eight when she arrived at the home in the early 1970s. Not long after she got there, Steve started taking her into his bedroom and doing ‘horrible things’.
She vividly remembered the first time it happened. Miller stood her in front of the mirror and pulled her pants down. Then he stood behind her and put his penis between her legs. ‘He made me look’, Rowena recalled. ‘You had nowhere to go. That made me feel sick.’
The abuse happened frequently over the next five years. Miller would grab her from her room or the backyard and take her into his room. He would also molest her in the shower, and in his car.
‘The minute you were grabbed … he would make you do things’, Rowena said.
As she got older, she resisted more. At church on Sundays she was learning the Ten Commandments. She knew it was wrong to steal, to lie – and to commit adultery. Eventually, she identified what Miller was doing to her as adultery, and became very ‘fighty’. But the more she resisted, the more he made her do.
‘When he said, “Suck on this”, I used to look at him and go, “I’m going to bite it”. He’d go “You do that and I’ll kill you”. That’s what I was living with’, Rowena said. ‘I didn’t want to die, I wasn’t ready to die.’
The threats meant she didn’t tell Peg Miller what was happening, despite plenty of opportunity. As she saw it, keeping the abuse secret was the safer of the options open to her: ‘Am I going to die, or am I just going to go along with this, and live?’ she asked herself.
One day when she refused to open her bedroom door to Miller he pushed his way in and sexually assaulted her sister Laurel, who shared the room with Rowena. That was when Rowena realised she wasn’t the only one Miller had been abusing.
‘We never knew that it was happening to each other’, she told the Commissioner. ‘Nobody ever talked.’
The girls finally shared with one another what Miller had been doing. Then Rowena told a friend, who told her mother. The mother told the pastor at the church they attended, and the pastor reported Miller to police. The police visited the group home and separately questioned the girls.
Rowena can’t remember the details of what then happened, but the Millers left, and were replaced by other carers. Eventually Miller was charged, convicted and jailed. Rowena and her sisters were not called on to give evidence, and there was no follow-up care for them. ‘We never ever had counselling. No one ever came to us and said, “Are you all right?”’
Rowena became very close to one couple who came after the Millers. They told her they were never informed about the abuse, and that it wasn’t documented in the girls’ records. ‘They knew nothing that had happened to us’, Rowena said.
Rowena and her sisters are still trying to locate documentation that will explain the events of that time, from police and government agencies.
Rowena later moved in with an older sister, and was raped on multiple occasions by her brother-in-law. She was 15 by then. She didn’t report the assaults to police, and doesn’t wish to. ‘It would make me sick’, she said. She has never sought counselling either. ‘I’m scared it’s going to break me’, she told the Commissioner.
She came to the Royal Commission with one of her sisters. They agreed that relationships within their family were badly damaged as a result of the abuse. As children, all the siblings spent weekends with their father, and got along so well. ‘That was our time together’, she said. But the abuse split the family up. ‘We don’t talk, we don’t communicate … We’re not a close family.’
Rowena also feels her own personal loss deeply. A lot of people don’t like her, she explained. They find her too determined or too opinionated. ‘It just hurts to think, what would my life have been like? What kind of person would I be? Would I have been a better person?’
There is one moment she recalled as especially painful. ‘This is the bit that hurts’, she said.
After Steve Miller had been charged by police, Rowena went to church with a relative and found Miller at the service. ‘Everybody talked to him, everybody shook his hand, everybody thought he was really nice. I got ignored. Everybody was looking down at me.’
Miller had asked God for forgiveness. The idea that ‘I can do some really bad things and God’s going to forgive me’ seemed all wrong to Rowena. However, everybody there forgave Miller, even the pastor. It left her feeling angry and betrayed.
‘No more church for me', she said. 'No more God for me.’