Shirley knew little about her large biological family until she reunited with her brothers and sisters in her 20s. It was impossible by then to make up for the years of lost connection with her Aboriginal family and culture.
As a baby in the early 1970s Shirley had been removed from her mother’s care and placed with a foster family. For 12 years, she lived with Betty and Jim Langer in rural New South Wales. The household was also comprised of: Sharon, a foster child eight years older than Shirley; Tim, the couple’s biological son; and Kevin, a son from Betty’s first marriage.
When she was five years old, Shirley was sexually abused by Kevin, who was then aged about 17. The event was witnessed, and Kevin was ‘kicked out of the house’.
Two years later, Jim Langer began sexually abusing Shirley. The home was configured so that the two girls’ rooms were joined, and Jim sexually abused both her and Sharon.
Shirley was sure Betty knew about the abuse because of things she’d said indirectly about her husband, and because when Shirley later obtained her Department of Community Services (DOCS) files, they documented multiple visits to the office by Betty to make complaints about Jim. On each occasion Betty left before being questioned.
‘The only time I ever remember [DOCS] workers talking to me by myself was when my mum died and they came and told me at the school’, Shirley said.
‘Betty and Jim never allowed anything to do with me, they had to be present. I was not allowed to be by myself. They made it clear to DOCS that I was a very unstable child, that I was scared of anything to do with Indigenous.
‘Apparently after my mum died, my grandmother had come to find me and she had put in placement trying to get us back, with me at that time, and they lied and … said I’d been bashed by Indigenous people and I was scared, and that was the reason why it wasn’t healthy for me to see anyone to do with Indigenous. Obviously, that was my family so that was their little loophole.’
When Shirley was 13 she got drunk one day, and told a friend that Jim had been sexually abusing her for eight years. The friend told her mother, who immediately went to DOCS and the police. By then, Betty and Jim had separated and Jim had been living with Sharon, who had children to him.
Jim was charged, found guilty of ‘child molestation’, and incarcerated. Shirley didn’t know what sentence he received, but he was out of jail after four months. She thought the police were good, but was disappointed that only one charge was brought, despite statements by both her and Sharon. ‘I would have liked to see him convicted for what he actually did.’ She felt she hadn’t had enough time to tell her story properly in court because ‘they wanted to hear all the big details and a lot of other stuff got left behind’.
Shirley described the impact of the sexual abuse as devastating, particularly in her teens and twenties. She was angry all the time and very violent, didn’t have friends, and only lasted till Year 9 at school because her life ‘never really stabilised’.
One early positive influence Shirley identified was being placed into the care of an Aboriginal family at the age of 16. In subsequent decades, she’d worked through counselling, study and employment programs to get her life to a point she described as being ‘comfortable with simple things’.
She now has a loving partner and three children with whom she has a good relationship. ‘Kids had a lot to do with changing my ways. I don’t want to be yelling at my kids.’ She’s told her children ‘surface stuff’ about her early life but didn’t want to go into detail. ‘I don’t want to trouble them and have them being sad over their mother’s life.’
Shirley thinks there are still concerns about safety for children raised in foster care, particularly those in geographically isolated locations. She only ever went on one camp as a child and it had been organised by the school. There was a place for DOCS she believed in making sure children in foster care had the opportunity to be with others in similar situations. ‘What could have helped us is other children, who could have mentored us, like a buddy system.’
She believes DOCS also needed to cut the red tape so that a child could contact their family of origin without having to go through so many barriers. ‘That one little thing becomes such a big thing because then you’ve got the foster carers explaining it and then you know the children are feeling that effect straightaway: negative. “Oh it’s me, it’s all me”. That one little thing.’