‘Sometimes you just have to survive. You’ve got no choice. I want to be there for my son.’
Sandra and her siblings were removed from their mother’s care in the mid-1960s in Queensland. Sandra was two years old when she was made a ward of the state. The siblings were placed in a Catholic-run orphanage where a number of them were permanently adopted out. Sandra stayed in the orphanage until she was about 10 or 11.
‘It was a horrible place really … a lot of hitting, tied up to the bed … [made to] sleep in urine sheets.’ She went on foster care placements but they never lasted. ‘People would take me out of the home and then – it says all through the records – that I suffered emotional disturbances and I was always sent back.’
Sandra knows that from a very young age she was drugged in the home and she has many scars and badly healed injuries for which she has no explanation. She has obtained her welfare records through freedom of information.
‘I don’t like reading it because it always says how emotionally disturbed [I was] all the time … I suffer quite bad problems and I often wondered why … A lot that hurts me is not knowing my physical damages and why I ended up like I am.’
When she was about seven or eight, a man who she now thinks was a priest sexually abused her a number of times in the confessional. ‘I never saw the man in the rest of the place, only in the church area, and at confession times.’
Around the age of 12 Sandra was taken to Western Australia to live with her ‘natural’ family. Soon though, she was again made a ward of the state and placed in a foster home in a remote town.
‘There was abuse in that home too … by men that used to go there and by men she [foster mother] sent me off on truck drives with.’
Sandra told a welfare officer about the abuse and occasionally she would stay overnight in the officer’s or the local policeman’s house. But they always sent her back to the foster mother.
Sandra was only able to leave the abusive situation when she was sent away to boarding school. She was finally released from the state’s care when she was 18.
Sandra married young, ‘probably for security reasons’, but the relationship didn’t last very long and this became a pattern across her life. ‘I found it hard to actually stick to certain things and have long-term relationships.’
Sandra didn’t report her abuse to any of the agencies until one of her siblings began a civil claim against the Queensland government some years ago.
‘[Just] not wanting to go to anybody … You get people judging you … or they don’t believe you for one, or they think you’re making stuff up.’
Since then Sandra has made a civil claim against the Western Australian government as well and has received redress and letters of apology from all three institutions. She’s also made an initial statement to police about the foster mother.
The long-term effect of her childhood is severe trauma. Sandra isolates herself from people. She is very fragile and often has problems with her memory. She has been on her own for much of her adult life, raising two children.
‘It’s been a really long, hard life. Because when you don’t have family around or anybody to support [you] there was no support network there and so when I left I was pretty much on my own. Had to do it on my own … I’m quite a withdrawn person. I spend a lot of time at home.’
Sandra knows she won’t find out all the details of what happened to her in the orphanage. ‘I get lost in all this … I still haven’t found out a lot of things.’
A couple of years ago, a friend took her back to the orphanage. ‘They were all very old and it was funny, they treated me exactly like they treated me then … two cookies and a cordial in a cup.’
Sandra told the Commissioner that her mother grew up in a children’s home, too. ‘It just kept going on down the track.’ As a parent, Sandra was very protective, ‘maybe too much’.
As she’s grown older, she feels despondent about the lack of feeling she experiences with her siblings. The loss of her parents and her childhood occasionally overwhelm her.
‘What torments me a lot is my mother and father fought to get us back all the time. My father passed away last year … and all his kids basically hated him because we blamed him for everything growing up and it wasn’t his fault.'
‘When I met my natural family, they said we were quite loved and wanted … They could never understand why the authorities took [the] kids off mum while dad was [away].’