Serina was given up into care when she was still a ‘crawler’. Her mother was an alcoholic, and her father worked away as a jackaroo, so they couldn’t look after her. Although she is Aboriginal she was placed with white foster parents, Joyce and Fred, in regional Western Australia.
At some point two young adult brothers, William and George, came to live with the family. Serina believes Joyce had an affair with George, resulting in a child.
Fred, who she remembers fondly, died in the late 1970s, when she was eight years old. Following his death, the family dynamic changed radically. Joyce married George about a year later, and he soon began sexually abusing Serina.
He would force her to remove her underwear, and beat her with a curtain rod. Joyce would watch this. ‘I now think that she was getting aroused by that. It was like a turn-on, like well my man’s dishing out this punishment. He’s the head of the household.’ George also made sexually suggestive comments to her, making her uncomfortable.
The pair subjected Serina to physical and emotional abuse too. Joyce would call her a ‘slut’ and a ‘cow’, and wouldn’t let her see her biological father. On at least three occasions Serina was beaten over the head with a shoe until she bled. They also killed the children’s pets.
This abuse continued even when the family moved interstate, until Serina was finally old enough to leave the family. She had a welfare worker, Dianne, who was ‘absolutely useless’. When Dianne visited, ‘Joyce made sure we were sitting in an area where she could see as well, and hear, so my voice was not heard. Never’.
Serina was too frightened to tell her about the abuse. ‘I mean, here is this Indigenous lady, role model, should have been, that I could have looked up to. But she just wasn’t there in a cultural safety way or anything.
‘What another blow for me, you know, I’m looking for some help ... I’m drowning, and nobody’s chucking me a rope or a buoy.’
This meant she didn’t tell anyone about the abuse she was experiencing at the time. ‘It was hard. There wasn’t any corners to turn around. There wasn’t anybody.’
Serina’s Aboriginal heritage caused her to be taunted by other students in primary school, and given a racist nickname. This was confusing as she hadn’t ever had any contact with her own Aboriginal community, and did not identify as ‘black’.
Her teachers at high school knew she had problems, but did not offer assistance. ‘I don’t think they knew what to do ... They were faced with a kid who’s got a lot of problems, who is fighting kids back that are picking on her.’ She had some support from her peers. ‘I had some Indigenous friends, that loved me for me, and they’re friends even to this day.’
When she was 16, Serina was re-introduced to her biological family. ‘It was just so wrong, so wrong. It’s like putting a tadpole in the ocean ... I got bashed around. It’s a wonder that I’m alive, because all my siblings are dead.’
Her relatives all abused alcohol, and as a result of this contact she too became an alcoholic. ‘I just wanted to forget about it, because I started drinking, masking it all, the pain. I was ashamed, that’s how I was made to feel, ashamed.’ She became homeless for a while, and developed cirrhosis of the liver.
Serina’s own children all spent time in state care as a result of her alcoholism. The eldest children were placed with Joyce and George for a while, and were also abused by them. ‘This lady in particular, foster mother, has abused not only me, but also my children. Two generations.’
Some years ago Serina made an application to a redress scheme, but her letter ‘didn’t touch all the points, how can you?’ She received around $14,000, which she felt was recognition, but was not offered other support.
There was no apology issued, and she is not sure one would make much difference. ‘It’s hard to say. Words can’t cover anything. It would be nice, but would it mean anything to me? Probably not. ‘Cause they’re just words.’
A few years ago Serina got married, and she has now stopped abusing alcohol. Even when undergoing treatment for her alcohol-related health problems, she did not talk about the abuse. It is hard to find people she knows will understand.
‘It’s too much, for anybody who doesn’t know anything about what I’m talking about. I mean, they can’t get their head around it, and you give up in the end. You just don’t want to, you keep it to yourself.’
Serina told the Commissioner she did not feel like her real self, but ‘it’s all masks ... I’m not my true self, I can’t be. And if you asked me who am I, I can’t answer that, honestly’.
She feels counselling ‘would be good for me, but it’d be like opening all my emotions again, and I’m trying to be so strong ... And I just want the pain to stop. And I just want these people to realise that, they could have done something’.
She could never even tell her own father what had happened to her, as she didn’t want to hurt him. ‘When my dear old dad put me in somebody else’s care, to look after me ... He had no idea of what was going to happen. I couldn’t tell him. He was too loving, and too kind.’
Serina said that her kids got her through it all, even when she was drinking – ‘despite the fact that I wasn’t there for them ... No amount of mothering now, and loving, and spending time together can heal that’. She has since apologised to them for not being around to protect them. One of Serina’s daughters supported her when she met with the Commission, and commented that she was engaged with a psychiatrist herself.
Serina has now been able to regain care of her youngest child, and as part of this, is participated in parenting courses. ‘One of the greatest things is that I went to court, and I won him back. I actually stopped the 18 years of him being a foster kiddy. I stopped it. We had so many hoops to jump through, so many boxes to tick.’