From the age of three, Stella was shunted around a variety of placements in regional Queensland. She has no memory of living with her own family at all. Her father was abusive, the welfare department told her, and so every time he tracked her down, Stella was moved somewhere else.
She was four when she was taken to a Salvation Army home in the mid-1960s. It happened at night so that her father wouldn’t find out. Her very first meal was porridge which she couldn’t keep down. She was yelled at and slapped across the face by the matron. ‘My punishment was to scrub the bathroom with a toothbrush ... I was served my breakfast for lunch and for dinner with my vomit in amongst it.’ Food was used as a constant punishment.
There was a Salvation Army major at the home who came in to Stella’s room at night and threatened her so she’d keep quiet. He then dragged her down to the basement and forced her to perform oral sex on him.
‘He kept raving religious rants that God had sent me to him.’ The abuse that first night seemed to go on for hours. He continued to abuse Stella, raping her and leaving her in intense pain. ‘This became my daily life.’
Other staff must have known what was going on, Stella said. ‘They absolutely had to.’ The major’s cruelty extended to exploiting her terror of thunderstorms. He chained her to the clothesline all night during storms. ‘I was paralysed with fear, cold beyond eventually feeling anything.’
For the next two years Stella saw nothing outside the gates of the home. ‘I had no idea shops existed, lollies, ice cream, music … Inside you’re literally screaming … can you not just take me out alone somewhere?’
When she was six, Stella was taken to a home run by the Sisters of Nazareth. Here she was flogged for bedwetting and made to hand-wash her clothes. She was put into a dark room, stripped and tied to a post. Sometimes she was locked in the room for days. The staff forced things into her private parts to the point where she would pass out.
At eight, Stella was taken to a Baptist home, where she was sexually abused by the church preacher. Then she lived in a home run by the Church of Christ, managed by an older couple, where she was sexually abused multiple times by the husband.
‘You reach a point where you don’t remember any of the other children in there because you’re so consumed with your own pain. And you’re not encouraged to speak anyway.’ Another girl who was abused there later took her own life.
Stella experienced sexual abuse in just about every home she was in. ‘The worst part is, it would have taken me until probably 18 for me to realise I’ve just got an awful life.’
She lived in one foster home where she wasn‘t sexually abused, but was then fostered with the Joyce family. And that was just ‘devastating’.
A welfare worker came to see Stella at the Joyces. But the visit was pre-arranged, so ‘everything was looking pretty and the threats were in place’.
Stella’s memory of schooling is limited. ‘I know that I did go to Year 10 but I certainly didn’t pass it.’ She doesn’t remember any of her teachers, although it was a teacher who realised that something was wrong at her foster home. Welfare services were called to the high school for a meeting with Stella and the Joyces. But there were consequences.
‘The punishment that I copped when I got back home was just unbelievable.’ Stella ran away. She ended up in hospital, following a diagnosis of anorexia. She’s had a range of mental health diagnoses, ‘from multiple personality to bipolar’, and has been in and out of hospital throughout her life.
She has her own children now and has times, ‘when this stuff paralyses me’, when she blanks out and can’t remember things. But she’s very proud of how well her children have turned out.
Her work and her children have been her only connection to the world. Otherwise she prefers to keep herself isolated.
Stella is amicably separated from her husband, who knew she’d been abused but not the full extent of it. She joined a support group for a while but doesn’t feel any great need to tell people her story. ‘I’ve reached an age where I can hate the world, I can be bitter, or I can just make the most of what I’ve got.’
Years after the events, Stella’s attempt to tell the police about the abuse turned out to be too difficult. She became suicidal and ended up back in hospital, getting more and more medicated. She was advised by her counsellor not to pursue it further.
Writing has helped Stella enormously. ‘I wouldn’t be here … if it wasn’t for my ability to write.’
‘The system is just so broken’, Stella told the Commissioner. ‘Go in and check, take the children out, speak to the children. Have psychologists in there. They should be able to pick up on that silent body language that something’s not okay.’
‘We still have so many kids that are massively at risk, horrendously at risk … I wish I could build homes myself and have ... grandparent role models that are safe people.’