Suzie arrived at the alternative community camp when she was still in primary school. A few months later her parents were transferred to a different camp and Suzie was left in the care of centre leader, Foster, and the woman he lived with, Lila.
When Suzie was in her early teens, Foster climbed into bed with her and another teenage girl and digitally penetrated them both. But, Suzie said, ‘What he got up to in bed with me and Jill, it’s not about that. There’s so much else around that’.
Suzie came to the Royal Commission to speak not about one particular incident but about the culture of the centre and the harm it caused.
When the girls at the centre hit their early teens, Suzie explained, they were given the ‘privilege’ of doing chores in Foster’s hut. Foster used this opportunity, and his revered status, to sexually abuse them. Some girls, like Suzie, were groped and kissed. Others suffered more extreme abuse, such as rape.
The abuse was an open secret.
‘There were people there, and they still are alive today, that must have known that kids were being abused. That’s really why I’m here. They must have known. And Lila, she’s the most obvious one …
‘We used to refer to her as being like our mother, as our sort of group mother, but now I realise – being a mother myself – she wasn’t a mother role at all. She had the power over the children but she didn’t really behave like a mother.’
Some of the adults even saw the abuse as a kind of ‘spiritual privilege’ bestowed on their children. Some of the children ‘fell in love’ with Foster and treated him ‘like a boyfriend’.
Suzie wasn’t one of them. ‘I never let him own me, mentally. So I sort of kept that distance.’ She believes this is part of the reason why she hasn’t fared as badly in life as some of the others.
‘People have actually wondered how I have gotten by. Because I think, in the scheme of all the other kids, I feel I’m a success. We’ve got … lovely children and mostly I could get on with my life.’
Still, she has had her struggles, particularly when she first left the centre in her mid-teens. ‘I was completely clueless about really basic things. I didn’t know how to use a knife and fork, I didn’t know any social norms … I didn’t know who to trust.’
What got Suzie through the tough times was her naturally ‘sunny’ personality and her determination to ‘break the cycle so that my children weren’t affected’.