Suzette's story

‘I remember getting the cane there; not the cane, it was like a whip, and it had a big knob of little things on it hey, and you had to lean over a table, and like I come from a mission and going to a posh white girls’ school, I didn’t fit in you know and I didn’t know what they were talking about in the school and that. I remember getting flogged a couple of times there but I didn’t really understand much of the things.’

In the early 1960s, Suzette was sent to a home for Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory. She’d previously lived on a mission and had spent a brief time in a school, both overseen by Catholic priests and nuns.

At some point Suzette was moved from one section of the home to another, but she didn’t like it.

‘In the kindergarten it was hot, love. It just was a tin shack and they had them windows you pushed out, and it had bars on so we couldn’t escape. And we just lay on the cold floor if it got too hot.

‘And when we moved into the new home, I hated the new home. The old home was a lot better, we were a lot safer. I really hated the new home. I really hated it.

‘In the new home like you had the missionaries come into your room, and one missionary when he came to my room first … he grabbed me and shook me by the foot, and I just curled up with my knees like that, and the girl in the next bed … she said, “Leave her alone, she only a little kid yet”.

‘She used to go – I knew even before that there were times when she left the room when he came to the door, but I didn’t know what was going on. And sometimes she’d come back and cry, just sobbing into herself so I’d get out of bed and I’d get into bed with her because we didn’t know – that was our way of comforting each other.

‘But if we was still asleep and they come to wake us up we got flogged and called all the dirty names. We often comfort each other doing that and we never knew.’

Suzette recalled ‘there was never a time when you wasn’t doing something wrong’ in the home. She ran away five times but was always brought back by police ‘and flogged to the bone’.

Another punishment was to go without food or be given only milk and biscuits. ‘You couldn’t bite them they were so hard, even when you soaked them in the milk.’

It was common knowledge that girls exchanged sex for ‘cigarettes and grog’ with one of the welfare workers, Tom Sanders, but none of the other staff did anything to stop it.

Suzette thinks she was about 13 when she left the home. She had her first child a few years later and a charge of ‘unlawful carnal knowledge’ against the father of her baby was talked about by police but eventually not brought. She thought Sanders might have been involved in the decision, though it didn’t make sense to her that police investigated a situation where the sex had been consensual, yet what was happening in the home was never questioned.

Sanders had also been involved in the removal of Suzette’s second child. He’d coerced her into signing papers which she thought were for her son’s temporary admission to hospital but turned out to be adoption consent forms.

As a child and into adulthood, Suzette often coped with difficulties by dissociating. ‘I can put myself in another place. I done that as a child. I can just turn off. I can still do it now.’

At one stage she’d been in a violent relationship, and one of the reasons she stayed was because she remembered the response of a worker on the mission to another woman who’d been beaten by her husband. The worker had told the woman, ‘You made your bed, you lay in it’.

‘That was always in my mind. My husband was a traditional man and I lived in his community so I still didn’t know my rights even as a woman, you know, because it was no different being with him than being in the mission.’

Suzette had been prescribed anti-depressants but saw them ‘as a Band-Aid’, and preferred to smoke marijuana.

She didn’t think an apology from the managers of the organisation that ran the home would do anything for her, but she’d suggested to one of them that they ‘sell up’.

‘Sell up every single item they own. Sell up, give it all to the victims and tell them God will provide for them, because that’s what they told us. God will provide for us. I said, “They’re God’s followers, let God provide for them”. I don’t want an apology off them, love.’

One of her great regrets was that she’d been ‘very cruel’ to her children.

‘I used to flog them, love, like not slap them or smack them, you know. I used to flog them and when I got older, I think I had all my children before I realised that’s not what you do you know, and I thought you flogged your child into obedience.

‘And knowing how bad it was, I feel like stabbing myself and making myself pain because I done the same to my kids. I don’t know, I just thought I wanted them to be good kids and grow up good and that. Like, I held them as babies and I used to kiss them and cuddle them but when they got a certain age, I never touch my kids and like I don’t know how to comfort my children even now. Like when I’m upset sometimes they blame things that happened to me [in the past] and I’m the parent. I should be explaining them things and helping my children, but really my children more than anything have taught me about life and all that.’

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