Stephanie’s parents divorced in the early 1970s, after her father was jailed for a violent assault on her mother. She and her older sister Fiona have little memory of their father. Stephanie told the Commissioner, ‘I remember going and seeing him in prison when I was young … I don’t remember him much at all’.
Their mother was also violent, and was once jailed for assaulting one of her children. ‘We used to get a lot of beltings off my mum … Mainly I remember things got worse … after my brother died.’ When Fiona was about seven one of their brothers was killed in a car accident, which led to their mother having one of her frequent breakdowns.
Fiona began running away from home. ‘I think I was about eight, eight and a half when Mum took me [to court] as uncontrollable. So that was the first time …’ Fiona was put into care many times, until she was released from the system at the age of 16. She recalls spending a year in a children’s home run by the Sisters of Mercy in Victoria. ‘I was a horrible person … mainly hard to get along with. The tough one. The, you know, one that would rebel to everything.’
After ‘my mum put my brother in hospital’, the children were all put into kinship foster care with their mother’s brother, Fred Seymour, and his wife. ‘It was a bit … he was always domineering and … we were all scared of him. … Even my mother was scared of him.’
Fiona remembers the harsh punishment her brother received for wetting the bed. Fred ‘used to throw him in cold baths and showers. It was disgusting’. She told the Commissioner that when she was 16, he ‘smacked me in the mouth and broke my teeth’.
Even before the siblings were placed into the Seymours’ care, Fred had started to sexually abuse the children during their frequent family visits. Stephanie believes that she was about seven when the abuse began, and it continued until she was 13.
When the sisters gained access to their files, they saw that even before they were placed with him, Fred had been flagged for flirting with his nieces. Stephanie read a note that one of the caseworkers had written about ‘my uncle being a little too friendly with me’. Despite these warning signs, no one checked on the children after they were placed with Fred.
When the siblings went to live at the Seymours’ house, the abuse became more frequent. Fiona told the Commissioner, ‘He’d take us into the shed. Close it up, of course. Sexual[ly] penetrate us’. Stephanie recalled that their uncle would also take them, one at a time, in his truck when he went to work. He would also abuse them in his caravan.
Fiona told the Commissioner that when he was abusing her, Fred feigned affection, ‘and of course I was always looking for that … I just accepted it and yeah, any affection was better than nothing and I think I just got used to … you know, it was something that just happened all the time’.
Stephanie told the Commissioner that Fred was ‘real nasty. So all of us … we lost my brother to suicide … and my instinct was that he was also interfering with the boys as well’. As adults the women learned that Fred abused all the children in the house, including his own.
‘Because I was always the trouble one in the family, he, you know … no one would believe me, so I didn’t say anything’. While Fiona knew that Fred was abusing Stephanie, they never spoke about it.
Fred’s wife, Michelle, ‘was good, or I thought she was. I really don’t know whether she knew what was going on, but she would try and protect us. She was the one that I liked to be around’.
At school, Stephanie felt like she didn’t fit in. ‘People looked at me differently. And I think moving around a lot, too, you know … I thought it was that. I didn’t make friends. I didn’t socialise properly. So yeah … you’re a bit more in yourself … but I just put it round to moving around … But as you get older, it’s all of that. It’s all not having confidence, or not having, you know, being liked … growing up different’.
Stephanie told the Commissioner that as a child she was ‘scared … ashamed … always a quiet kid. Always just doing everything to make everybody happy. Like, not rocking the boat because I was always a pleaser, always did everything I was told to do and I didn’t want any hassles. I was always trying to fix everything’.
By her late teens, Fiona had ‘overdosed. I’d had kids. Moved around a lot. Married when I was 18. Separated. Had some more babies. Married again’. But now she’s been with her current husband for nearly 30 years, and she has a good relationship with her children. ‘I don’t feel that I’ve been a good mum, but they do.’ Fiona told the Commissioner that she was very over-protective as a mother, and sometimes can’t understand why her children like her.
Stephanie believes that the abuse has had a negative impact on her relationships. ‘I just didn’t think I was good enough … I had two failed relationships, and I had a boyfriend … and we were talking … and he said “You need help”... I just didn’t think it was causing problems, but if you’re in a relationship it does cause problems, because you don’t love yourself, or you don’t understand what’s going on.’
In addition to the loss of two of their siblings, and years of being sexually and physically abused by their uncle, Stephanie and Fiona were also sexually abused by their mother’s boyfriend. With the help of the support service, Open Space, Stephanie has been speaking to a counsellor, and is finding it helpful. The counsellor is ‘helping me to see that I can move on’.
Fiona has seen a counsellor sporadically, but told the Commissioner, ‘I don’t feel worthy of it. I feel that I deserved it, because I was such a terrible person’. When she does speak to a counsellor, she doesn’t always talk much about the sexual abuse.
Stephanie told the Commissioner, ‘He took away your first boyfriend, your first kiss, your first date, your first connection … your first special love, you know … all those first … all that special stuff … It’s supposed to be, you know, the one that’s [a] special connection … that’s not there. He ruined it’.
The sisters are unsure why Fred admitted to their mother that he had abused them, but Fiona thinks that he didn’t believe that she would report him to the police. When she did report him, he initially denied the abuse, but pleaded guilty before it went to court, and spent time in jail.
Stephanie told the Commissioner, ‘You don’t feel whole … When you’re supposed to trust your uncle and you can’t. Sometimes it’s not your uncle. It could be your brother … could be your dad … could be … That’s why I come here … to protect our kids. I’ve got grandkids and I don’t want anything to happen to the new kids, you know’.