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Susan Leigh's story

Susan began stealing when she was eight, and described herself as ‘a kleptomaniac’. Two of her brothers were picking on her at the time, ‘and that’s the reason why I did things like that. I just wanted to get away from ‘em … They treated me really bad … I can still picture it …’

No one is quite sure why Susan was sent to a psychiatric hospital in south-eastern Australia in the late 1960s. She was eight years old when she first went there.

The hospital was a mixed-sex institution housing adults and children, and Susan remained there on and off for 10 years. While she was there she was subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse from members of staff, and an older male patient.

The female dormitory housed about 10 women and girls, but there were three single rooms, and Susan slept in one of these. The other two rooms were occupied by girls the same age.

The three girls were repeatedly raped by a male nurse on night duty. There was only ever one nurse rostered on duty at night.

‘He used to go, her one night, then me, then back to the other one … You’d see him walking down. There was a window in the door.’

The three girls talked about the sexual abuse between themselves, but ‘didn’t talk about it to anyone else’. They were too scared to report the nurse because he threatened to give them a needle, ‘to put [us] to sleep permanently’.

When Susan was about 16 an older male patient often took her for walks to town, and the hospital staff were aware of this. One day he asked Susan if she wanted to go for a walk in a nearby park. Once they were there, the man tied Susan up, knocked her out and raped her.

Susan believes the man may have raped her on another occasion when he took her for a walk to a cliff. He ordered her to jump and when she refused, he pushed her, knocking her out and hurting her back. ‘He was drunk at the time and I was scared of him.’

When she woke up her clothes had been ripped off. She managed to drag herself back up and was found by a staff member when she called for help. She spent five days in hospital with a broken ankle.

Susan told the Commissioner that one of the male nurses who worked at the hospital was very nice and, after Susan was sexually abused in the park, noticed that something was wrong. ‘I was too scared to tell him … [He said], “You can talk to me”, and I said, “No, I can’t” … It took him ages to get it out of me, but I told him … I had marks on my throat where he held me down as well.’

The nurse reported the rape to the police and Susan took them to the place where it happened. The police didn’t believe her and thought that she’d made the marks on her throat herself. ‘They reckoned I was uncontrollable. Maybe sometimes I was. How they treated me … I was.’

One of the female nurses was particularly cruel to Susan. ‘She didn’t like me. She had her favourites. She reckoned I was no good … Give me needles to put me to sleep. Locked me in me room. That’s why I wouldn’t forget her. I’ll never forget her, what she did to me.’

When Susan’s mother became terminally ill, Susan had a weekend pass to go and visit her in the hospital but the cruel nurse vetoed it, and Susan did not get to see her mother before she died.

On one occasion when Susan was locked in a ‘white room’ for several weeks, with little food or water, another nurse sneaked her out for showers, and gave her food when she could.

When Susan was 19 she was released from the psychiatric hospital, and in the early 1980s, she met her late husband. Two years after they met, Susan told him about the abuse. ‘When I first told him about it he was in shock.’

It was her husband who persuaded Susan to submit a statement to a redress scheme and apply for compensation. He thought she should apply because of the nightmares and flashbacks that caused her to wake up screaming in the night. After her husband died a year ago, the flashbacks returned.

Susan was awarded a small sum in compensation but she doesn’t believe that the amount reflects the trauma she experienced during her time in the psychiatric hospital.

Getting to the Royal Commission was an ordeal for Susan as she is afraid of flying, but she wanted to come because, ‘I just don’t want it happening to anyone else’.

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