Sarah-Jane was first placed in foster care in Queensland in the late 1970s, when she was two years old.
She and her brother often had to fend for themselves as their mum struggled with alcohol abuse and mental health problems. ‘I used to go to the supermarket and eat food because I was very undernourished. And I got caught in the shopping centre with a packet of chips. And that’s when they took me away from my mother’s place because she wasn’t looking after us properly.’
In the mid-1980s the two children went to live with a foster couple, Barry and Edith Melner. ‘Edith was very cruel towards me and my brother. She’d grab me by my hair and drag me up the staircase. I was whipped by a fishing rod. I used to have to hold out my hand and she’d whip me.’
Soon after they moved in, Barry Melner began sexually abusing Sarah-Jane. She remembered he touched and groped her many times when Edith wasn’t around. One of their adult sons also abused Sarah-Jane, grabbing her and rubbing up against her.
Her worst memory comes from a day when she was playing in the backyard. ‘Barry called me into the shed and he said he needed a hand with something. I went into the shed and I’m standing there and he picked me up on the bench. All of a sudden he’s doing something and then he came over to me.’
Barry then tried to rape the little girl, and masturbated in front of her when she managed to make him stop.
‘I didn’t say anything to anyone, because I was told if I say anything I’m going to be in a lot of trouble. And because of the way they were treating me already, I refused to say anything in the first place.’
But, on a visit with her mum, it all came out. ‘My mother took me to the cinemas one day, and I was wearing a white dress and I lost my pink ribbon. And I came out and I was hysterical. And my mum couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. She’s going, “Sarah-Jane, what’s going on? Why do you want the pink ribbon?”
‘I was saying, “If I don’t get my pink ribbon, Mum, they’re going to kill me.” And then Mum sat down with me and she goes, “What’s going on, Sarah-Jane?” And that’s when I told my mother that he was … having sex with me.’
Sarah-Jane’s mum took her home and waited. When the police arrived to return her to the Melners, she reported the abuse.
‘I don’t think they really believed me … because my mother had a mental illness herself.
‘They felt that my mother had put me up to say this.’
But something was done. Sarah-Jane remembered the Department of Family Services became involved, and she was examined by a doctor. ‘They did an internal thing on me, to check me, but that was a while later. Because I didn’t say anything … so the examination was done a long time after this incident happened. So obviously there was nothing wrong with me, you know?’
Being so young, Sarah-Jane wasn’t told about everything that happened next. But Barry Melner was charged with child sex offences. ‘I remember my court case was adjourned seven times. There was no evidence, there was no witness, so the case was dropped.
‘When a man takes a little girl into a shed, I mean, where’s the witnesses and everything like that? This is ridiculous, you know?
‘I know that he’s not allowed to foster children anymore. He got that taken away from him. And that’s all I know.’
Sarah-Jane went to live with a new family, where she was properly cared for. But the abuse she’d suffered from the Melners would always affect her.
‘It was very hard for me to deal with my foster fathers after that. I couldn’t bond with them, for the sake of me thinking, they’re going to do something to me, and stuff like that. I always had that thing in my head when I was growing up.
‘I’ve gone through a lot of stuff; I’ve tried killing myself when I was a little girl. I’ve, yeah, taken tablets, tried to overdose myself … I started getting to know my mother again and everything started coming back to me and that’s the time I started doing silly things. Yeah, I just didn’t want to live.’
Sarah-Jane has also had to deal with depression and anxiety, and takes medication for insomnia. ‘I’ve got flashbacks all the time. It won’t leave my head. I’ve lived with it all my life.’
The only person she’s ever told about the abuse is her partner. ‘I refused counselling because I don’t think counselling’s really going to help me out.’
But when she heard about the Royal Commission, Sarah-Jane knew it was time to speak up. ‘I just wanted to express myself, I’ve been wanting to express myself for a very long time. I just reckon they put me down years ago, they blamed my mother, they reckon my mother put me up to it all. And I’ve just believed that, being a government service, why couldn’t they treat me a lot better back in those days?’
Her recommendation to the Commissioner was simple. Children must have a safe place where they can report abuse, and they must be listened to when they do.
For Sarah-Jane, children in the welfare system should have only one experience: ‘To be safe, to be looked after, to be cared for.’