‘I didn’t have time to cry about myself. I had to help Mum because Mum was a drinker and she had nowhere to really stay and our stepfather would end up in jail or whatever so we just stayed in rooms. All together. Because Mum’s older children were taken off her.’
Shirl’s story is one of an Aboriginal family separated from each other and sent into care. Alcohol abuse plays its part, as do poverty and poor parenting skills. But her story is also one of survival and resilience.
Shirl had periods in and out of a Protestant children’s home in Western Australia, starting in the late 1960s when she was about seven. She has fractured, but said she was probably put in there every time her mother had another child – so at least three times.
On later stays there, she remembers being separated from her younger siblings and placed in different cottages, and them crying out for each other. One of her sisters had a mental illness and Shirl would always go and check on her.
Shirl was often sent out to placements outside of the home. She has some vivid memories: ‘Going to lots of foster families. Always crying. Didn’t like it. The men. The boys always frightened me. And I used to cry a lot. Sometimes they’d just take me back to the home … It was scary … Being isolated, trying to fit into that family, was too much.’
She found it incredibly frightening being sent out to strange families, always on her own.
‘There’s houses that I woke up in that I don’t even know how we got there. We’d be locked in a little room at the back and I’d be just like, “Let us out. Let us out. Where are we? What are we doing here?” It was very confusing. And after a while you don’t remember …
‘You just grow up scared the whole time. I still sleep with the light on. I’m scared of the dark.’
Shirl remembers being sent to one family who had older boys who would come into the room naked and jump on her bed. She has a vivid memory of seeing a man’s penis, and another time of sitting on the floor, naked from the waist down, with her legs apart.
Over the years she blocked a lot out.
‘I don’t know how … maybe just looking after my younger siblings, I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I had to keep going. Not having anywhere to live was hard. And you’d go to school you’d get bullied because you are to them the poorest of the poor… Not having lunch was the thing. Not having uniform to fit in with the other kids. You know, the Abo jokes, the boong jokes, constantly, the gins.’
On her last stay at the home, she witnessed a shooting incident that she said was so horrific, she lives with the memory every day. The incident made the newspapers and her older sister persuaded her mother to bring her home. She never received any counselling about what she’d witnessed.
From that time on, she remained with her mother and helped out with the younger kids. Welfare workers came and checked that the place was clean, and she said her mum kept the girls safe from any sexual abuse, sometimes by locking them in their room when other drinkers were around. But alcohol was a huge problem in the house.
‘It was just horrible. You’d come home from school and there’d just be bodies everywhere, lying around and you’d have to jump over them and they’d be peeing themselves and pooing themselves and watching Mum clean it up. We were always scared. We were always told that welfare will come and take us if we don’t clean up and keep quiet … So Mum would just pound it into your head, “Go to school, do the right thing, you’ll be alright”.’
Shirl left school in Year 11 to find work and help support the family. She then married and had children of her own, although that marriage didn’t last. Shirl took any kind of work she could to get by. Some of her siblings who were sexually abused fell into drink, drugs and domestic violence, but she just knew she had to survive.
Over the years she has found counsellors she can trust, and has relied on the support of good friends and one of her older sisters. She went to university as an adult and is now working full time and loving the financial stability it brings. When Redress WA came up, she decided not to apply.
‘I didn’t like the way they wrote things about family members in those days. It was just the way they spoke about Indigenous people back then but I just couldn’t discuss it. It was too shame and I didn’t want it on that piece of paper, written down.’
She now cares for her ageing mum, her younger sister who has mental health issues, and two nieces who are in care that she brings to her house for weekend visits. She says it’s so important for siblings to be kept together, even if they have to go into residential care.
She says she doesn’t know how she’s survived.
‘You hear so many stories on TV and you hear what these people went through and it’s just so horrific and I sort of think “Oh you survived, you’re okay, don’t worry about it”. Because that’s what Mum would always say, “Their life’s so much worse than ours” …
‘You’ve just got to keep jumping those hurdles because I ain’t going down. Not with my children. I haven’t even got any grandchildren yet.’