‘If I had married my boyfriend, I wouldn’t have ended up there. I know I wouldn’t have.’
Serena was born into a very large Catholic family that lived in regional New South Wales in the early 1950s. Her father was ‘a softie’, and her mother was ‘strict’ and ‘dealt out punishment’ often. Family life was crowded and somewhat restrictive but Serena was ‘okay’. She attended primary school and moved on to high school with ease.
Serena was 16 years old when she fell in love. She told her parents that she was going to marry her boyfriend and move away with him. Her parents disapproved because her boyfriend wasn’t Catholic, but she continued to ask for their permission. This caused several arguments where Serena constantly ran away from home and was returned each time.
Serena’s parents then decided that she should be removed from the family home. In court, she was deemed to be ‘in moral danger’ and was moved to a girls’ home in the 1970s.
Upon her arrival, Serena was given an internal vaginal examination by ‘Doctor Fingers’. She was told that ‘all the other girls at [home] had gonorrhea’, and the examination was compulsory. She said she knew very little about sex and ‘other stuff’, but found the examination traumatising. After two weeks there, Serena was moved to another girls’ home.
This girls’ home was unpleasant. Serena was made to scrub the floors and staircases instead of receiving an education. She was subject to physical abuse if she didn’t complete her daily tasks perfectly. Serena said some of the residents were ‘mean’ and would sometimes attack the younger girls. There was ‘no privacy’ in the bathrooms. Serena also recalled not being allowed to talk to staff members, and if girls talked back to workers, they were punished.
Serena met Superintendent Doug Greene at the time of her arrival. She said he looked her ‘up and down’ before grabbing her breasts and massaging them. Serena pushed his hand away and he slapped her across the face. After that moment, Serena kept her ‘head down and eyes down’ and became ‘very obedient’. She was determined not to get ‘bashed again’.
Serena was sexually abused several times by Greene during the one year she lived at the institution. Whenever she was called into Greene’s office, she was forced to perform oral sex on him. Serena said she was Greene’s ‘pet’ and always obeyed him out of the fear that he would hit her.
On one occasion after dinner, Serena was given a tablet that made her feel ‘foggy’. She and several other girls were taken to a room in a different part of the institution. Serena recalls seeing at least three men in the room. She was raped anally and vaginally by these men and couldn’t stop them. Serena recalled them wearing condoms during the rape and to this day she is ‘highly allergic’ to them. She still doesn’t know who the men were or what they looked like.
Serena confided in her family’s pastor who visited her at the home. She told him about Doug Greene and the night she was raped. Serena heard that her pastor told Serena’s social worker, Mr White, who wrote a letter of complaint to Doug Greene. She believes the letter was the reason she was released from the institution early.
When Serena was 17 years old, she returned to the family home. She told her parents what happened at the institution and her father cried. Serena’s mother, however, told her never to speak of it again, and so she ‘buried’ the abuse for years. She said that in doing so, the relationship with her mother became severely strained and has never healed.
‘I wanted to go the police when I got out but Mum wouldn’t let me. She was ashamed. It was shame to the family that I’d been in there. She didn’t want me to divulge that information to anyone else. She told me, “That’s what happens there, what did you expect? Bad girls go there, bad things happen to them”.’
Serena feels she ‘doesn’t deserve to be loved’ and for a long time believed that sex and love were the same thing. She said she was glad that she was ‘married off’ quickly to a family friend when she was 18. She’s been married twice, and both relationships had broken down. She has never been able to trust men and this has affected her relationships with her sons. Serena couldn’t bond with them because ‘they were males’ and now she has no contact with them.
Serena said she’d been ‘counselled into the ground’ for over 14 years. She has post-traumatic stress disorder and has attempted suicide twice. She sees a psychotherapist weekly and has developed a strong relationship with her. She likes swimming in the ocean every day because it soothes her.
Her private session with the Royal Commission was the first time Serena had told anyone details of the abuse she experienced. She is interested in reporting it to the police and would like to take civil action against the institution.
‘I’d like to have my life back – that’s what compensation would be for me.’