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Shelagh's story

‘People you’re supposed to trust are the ones that do the wrong to you.’

Shelagh came from a large family, with a mother who abused alcohol and siblings who were all born to different fathers.

‘I used to get hit at home ... We had no electricity and no running water ... And we had no food, and we had to go to the dump and go into there to try and get food.’

Between the ages of four and nine, Shelagh was sexually abused by relatives and acquaintances of her mother. There was also an incident with a teacher at her primary school that was only stopped when one of her brothers came in and saved her.

In the mid-1950s, Shelagh and her siblings were finally removed from the family home and made wards of the state. She and her younger sister, Mary, were then sent to a Protestant children’s home in New South Wales.

‘I was dragged through the gate. Because we went to court, and we weren’t even told what was happening. And I was separated from my brothers, and another sister that was adopted, and I was dragged through. And when this matron, Harris, we got to her, when they separated Mary and I because we were in two different houses, I was screaming and she told me to stop crying – “We don’t have crybabies” …

‘When I went to the home I thought, when I settled in, I thought I was in a better place. But I don’t think I was.

‘There were no love or attention. We were just told “Get to bed” at bedtime and “Get up” at get up time …

‘I had six girls in my room, and we had to do chores before school and after school. And if you didn’t do it right they made you come back and do it properly, or give you a hit.’

Shelagh said she’d been living in the children’s home for about three years when Matron Harris was replaced by Matron Grenville.

One day soon after, Shelagh was doing some chores in the home that housed the younger girls. ‘And Matron Grenville had her husband there, and I was cleaning the bath and something went up my leg and I screamed. Next minute I was in this man’s arms and he was trying to kiss me and touch me and … Matron come eventually and she … pulled him off me and told him to go to his room, and told me to go home and say nothing.’

Even if she hadn’t been so frightened of being punished, there was no one at the children’s home Shelagh could tell, and no one from child welfare ever visited.

She left the home in her mid-teens and went to live with a foster mother. ‘I was a slave … She said I was going to turn out just like my mother.’

When a welfare officer did come, her foster mother made sure Shelagh never had the chance to speak to him alone.

She stayed there for a couple of years, until she could no longer stand the treatment, and then moved in with an elderly lady. ‘She’s the only one that ever, ever cared about me.’

In her late teens Shelagh married. She and her husband have been together ever since, and have children and grandchildren.

Shelagh said she’d never thought about seeking compensation because she didn’t know she could. She’s also never made a statement to police.

‘Just to survive I’ve had to block all the sexual abuse out, to survive and not turn out like her, my mother.’

In 2009, Shelagh was invited to attend the federal government’s apology to the Forgotten Australians and former child migrants who were abused in out-of-home care. ‘That’s when it brought everything back. I was sitting in the car and I was just crying.’

Shelagh’s psychiatrist, who accompanied her to her session with the Royal Commission, described the effect of that day as ‘quite catastrophic’.

Since then Shelagh has experienced nightmares, anxiety and depression. She’d always been a hypervigilant mother, and that continued when she became a grandmother.

‘I just don’t trust, I still don’t trust.’

For almost 50 years, Shelagh has been loved and supported by her husband, her children and grandchildren. When asked if there was anything else that had kept her strong she said, ‘Just me’.

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