‘You accept things much better when you’re young’, Suzanne told the Commissioner, ‘because you’ve been accepting things all along. It’s not what you always wanted but you accept it’.
As a child growing up in state care in the 1930s and 1940s, Suzanne had more than her fair share of hardships to accept. She was very young when she parted from her mother, so young she can’t remember the moment at all. Her first memories come from when she was four years old, living with a foster family in Sydney. One day her foster father started sexually abusing her. Then his wife walked in and ‘caught him at it. She moved us straight away. She took me and her son over to her mother’s place’.
Suzanne spent the rest of her childhood bouncing between a state-run orphanage and five or six different foster homes. She described life at the orphanage as ‘hell’.
‘The food was shocking. You couldn’t move. The bell would go for dinner at night time, you’d sit down. All you got was one piece of bread with treacle, and you daren’t take another piece because that meant another kid would go without. And you had to sit on a straw mat and go to bed – just get up very quietly when the bell rang and go to bed.’
The foster homes were better than the orphanage in some ways but worse in others.
From age nine Suzanne lived with the Folkard family on large property in the bush. ‘They weren’t cruel to us and we had plenty to eat, but it was work … It was all manual labour. It was chooks, it was bees, it was catching the rabbits and skinning them and gutting them before school.’
The hard work didn’t scare Suzanne, but Mr Folkard did. He often sexually abused her foster sister, Rebecca, and one night he tried to get Suzanne too. ‘It was really cold that night and my foster father said, “Come in here with me”. I trusted him, until I realised what his little hands were doing. I said, “Oh, I’ve got to go tell aunty something”. He didn’t know what I was going to tell her. And that was the last time he ever did it.’
Years later, while sick with cancer in hospital, Mr Folkard apologised to Suzanne for what he’d done to her and Rebecca.
Suzanne stayed with the Folkards until she was 16 and then took off into the city. It was a struggle at first. ‘I had no job, I had nowhere to live, I had nothing, just absolutely nothing. I was walking through Leichardt and I was crying actually, I just broke down. And the Italian lady I knew she said, “What’s the matter, Suzanne?” And I told her. She said, “You come home with me”. And she looked after me and I got a job and she gave me the money to get a dress and everything like that, so that put me on my feet.’
Meanwhile, on the domestic front, Suzanne found herself trapped in an abusive relationship with a violent man. Eventually she managed to escape with her son. Later she married a ‘wonderful man’, and now has several kids and grandkids.
A few years ago Suzanne received some money from the victims compensation tribunal, but it was not a large amount and she gave most of it to her grandchildren. She would now like to see the state pay her a decent sum, not as compensation for the harm she endured, but as payment for all the hours of labour she worked as a child.
‘I’d like to see enough to bury me because I don’t think that should be put onto my children. Enough for maybe a holiday … I’d like to be able to live my life now without having to worry so much about how I’m going to manage.’