Sarah Elizabeth's story

‘How I came to be on the ship … My birthright is Gypsy. I was born Gypsy … My parents were Gypsies … We travelled together. We lived together. We lived off the land etc, etc and they came, the authorities …

‘They took all the children from about 12 downwards, put us into some sort of institution over there … where I was assessed as suitable to be a productive worker and bear children, which it was pretty much what it was about … to increase the white population.’

In the mid 1950s, when Sarah was 10, she was put on a ship in England and sent to Western Australia, where she was placed in a farm school for child migrants.

‘Because of who I was, I was pretty much classed as … trash. I shouldn’t have been there. It wasn’t my right to be included because I came from this basically indigenous background, and that was the story of my life until I was 15.’

Sarah told the Commissioner, ‘A lot of the things that happened, you didn’t know they were wrong. You just accepted them … What needs to be taken into consideration is not just the sexual abuse, but what led up to the sexual abuse … why children didn’t object or say, “This is wrong. I don’t want you to touch me there”, or whatever …

‘You were taught, from the day you got there, that if you said “No” to an adult, it was a hiding … You just did not say “No” to an adult.’ When Sarah told her cottage mother that she didn’t want to go to the vegetable garden to pick vegetables because ‘[The gardener] does things … intimate touching him, things like this’, she was belted for saying so.

The cottage mother told her, ‘“Don’t you ever tell anybody that”, so I never did. And I believe to this day, although I didn’t work it out until I was in my 20s, that I had a termination when I was 13 or 14 …

‘I didn’t have any clue about pregnancy or anything like this … It was one of the teachers … but he was still there years later. He was a primary school teacher. And I was a liar, so why bother telling them? It’s hard to explain just how much brutality there was in that place.’

Sarah told the Commissioner that a number of other girls had the same kind of ‘stomach infection’ within a few months of each other, but nothing was ever done about it.

The teacher who sexually abused Sarah was ‘just so nice to me. He used to give me a beer and cigarettes and tell me I was wonderful and I suppose in a way it was consensual … because I didn’t ever say “No”, because he was nice to me … I would have been 13, not quite 14 … They kicked me out at 15’.

The abuse she experienced at the farm school had a huge impact on Sarah’s adult life. ‘I cannot form a close relationship with anybody, apart from my [grandchildren] … At one stage, [the farm school] sent my brother to live with me … and I took him back … because he put his arms around me and said, “I love you”, and that was like, “Don’t touch me. That means sex. Sex is bad”. So I took him back, and I’ve never been able to find him since.’

Sarah has always found being around other people difficult, but she loves animals and has plans to move to a small property in rural New South Wales to raise goats and sheep, and possibly teach people in need how to grow their own food.

After applying for compensation through a redress scheme, Sarah received a payment and apology.

‘No apology can make up for what happened but it was recognition of the fact that it did happen, it wasn’t in my head. That made me feel so much better. It was very important because it meant that after all this time, somebody actually believed what I was saying … the fact that people actually gave a damn.’

Sarah hasn’t had counselling, and finds it difficult to speak about the abuse she experienced at the farm school.

‘Until now, I find this … I feel ashamed. I still say, “Maybe it was my fault. Maybe I was a bad child. Maybe this. Maybe that” … Even now, sitting talking about it, I feel, “You should be keeping this a secret. You shouldn’t be talking about it” … It’s … embarrassment, shame, “Are they actually going to believe me”, because nobody else ever did.’

At the end of her session at the Royal Commission, Sarah told the Commissioner, ‘I’ve probably gained more from this particular session than anything that’s ever happened in my past …

‘It’s been non-judgemental. You’ve listened to what I’ve said. There’s been no contradictions. You’ve accepted me as I am, warts and all. I think just this little meeting has done more for me than anything else in [over 70] years of life and for that I appreciate it. End of my story’.

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