‘My mother was an addict and a prostitute who brought clients home, so I witnessed drug taking and sex at a very young age … My father was also an addict who spent most of his time in jail, but when he was out I saw the horrendous violence he did to my mum. I saw her being beaten and raped frequently …
‘Every day I’d go to the methadone clinic and the psych ward with Mum … I was left at kindergartens and forgotten – and then she’d turn up in an ambulance, having overdosed, and I’d be bundled into the ambulance with her. I’d also be carted away with her on the many occasions that she was arrested for fraud …
‘When I was four, Mum was charged with neglect, and I was taken to a children’s home in Sydney. On the first day I was slapped, dragged down the hall by my hair and locked in a dark, smelly cupboard.
‘Because I wet the bed every night, I was put in a freezing cold bath and locked away for hours.
‘I was hit with a belt, and kicked and bitten by the man and the woman who ran the place. My nipples were squeezed, my vagina and anus penetrated. I was made to kiss and lick his penis on a daily basis.
‘Still in the care of DOCS [the Department of Community Services], I was dropped off at a babysitter where I was sexually abused. It was only for a few months – Mum kept trying to get me out and eventually they just let me leave with her – but it was horrible. Everybody there was being abused. I still have nightmares about it.’
Strella wouldn’t admit these horrors for many years – ‘I was too frightened’, she said. ‘After she got me back, Mum took me to a community health centre, and someone there asked her if I had been abused. But I always denied it.
‘So from day one, the hospitals and other institutions knew, they were aware of dysfunction in the family – like the time I was taken to hospital aged eight after a trip to Bali and I was bleeding from a vaginal infection … But nothing was done.’
In the late 70s her mother made a successful recovery from addiction, but Strella started looking for a cliff to jump off. ‘When my mother got clean, she took me back and I was sent to a school in Sydney’s inner west – where I was regularly caned because at the age of six I wanted to have sex with boys.’
They moved out of Sydney to a town where ‘I started decorating churches with pictures of penises; I wrote “Get fucked” all over the walls’.
At nine she moved interstate to a special-needs school, ‘but eventually I was asked to leave for expressing myself in a sexual manner’.
Back in Sydney at age 11, Strella acquired an 18-year-old boyfriend. ‘He used to beat me, force sexual acts on me, and offer me money and speed … My mother couldn’t handle me anymore, so I ran away to a refuge. The guy on the night shift used to come to my room and ask for sex.’
By the time she was 12, Strella was injecting drugs and soon after started working on the streets of Kings Cross. ‘At 13, I was cruising down to the medical centre, picking up condoms and syringes … They put me on methadone when I was 14. I lied about my age: all you needed to prove was that you were a drug addict and a sex worker.’
In her late teens, Strella began the first of many prison stays.
Now in her early 40s and just beginning another substantial sentence, she prepared a long, thoughtful submission that she read to the Royal Commission. In it, she reflected on her childhood: ‘For abuse to happen in so many places with so many people, you can’t help but think that you’re inviting it. The repeated incidents suggested to me that this is what was supposed to happen. And that’s kind of not right’.
Even worse was what she sees as the failure of authorities to rescue a child in danger. ‘The hospital failed when they sent me packing with my mum just after I was born. The psychiatrist failed to step in when my mother was incapable of walking, let alone picking up her methadone. The kindergarten and child-minding centres failed me by putting me in the ambulance with my mother. DOCS failed their duty of care to keep me safe from harm. They sent me to a home where every abuse you can think of happened.
‘The hospital failed me by ignoring the obvious signs of physical and sexual abuse … Everywhere we went there were suspicions but nobody intervened. No one ever said, “No, you’re not taking your daughter out of here”.
‘People who are aware need to come forward.’