‘I knew as soon as I walked in the door … this wasn’t going to be the place I thought it was going to be … These people had no love, no understanding. Nothing.’
When Tamara was made a ward of the state in New South Wales in the late 1960s, she was 10 years old. Her mother had experienced issues with her mental health and all her children were taken into care.
‘She never hurt us, it’s just that she didn’t have the ability to look after us at the time.’
Tamara was initially excited by the idea of going to a children’s home.
‘Looking back when I was a child, I was excited because it was said that we were going to a place where there’d be lots of children and food and all sorts of things. So, as a child, I was rather looking forward to it.’
But she was subjected to harsh treatment by staff and quickly realised that this was the culture of the home.
‘If you wet the bed they would drag you out of a night time and put you in a cold shower and you thought you were blessed if you weren’t one of the ones that wet the bed.’
All the children had to carry out hard physical labour.
‘We all had jobs. My jobs got harder because I’d be punished for silly little things.’
The house mother who ran the dormitory began to groom and sexually coerce and abuse Tamara.
‘At the time I didn’t realise what was happening … she used to say that she had bad legs and bad back and all the rest of it [and] give me privileges if I would rub her. And then my life got [easier] … I was allowed to stay up and watch [adult television] … At the time I didn’t realise I was getting privileges … Life got a bit easier just because I … made her feel good I suppose.
‘I had no idea. I just thought it was innocent.’
Tamara was also sexually abused by other girls in the home at night.
‘I used to be touched in the dark … I just laid there. I didn’t say no. I didn’t do anything. It’s a horrible thing to say, but you get to that stage where you think it’s okay. And you think it feels good … and as a child you sort of look forward to it happening.
‘You sort of think it’s okay and you look forward to it … and we thought it was love.’
Tamara was in the home for four years and the sexual abuse continued throughout her stay, stopping a few months before she left the home.
Throughout the four years, her mother had been trying to get her children released from state care, but as a single mother she found the requirements of the courts impossible to fulfill.
‘The court stipulated that when Mum started to get better … “You need to be married, you need to provide accommodation for these children”. Because she was a single mother she couldn’t get a Housing Commission home anyway, so Mum went out and got married to get us out of the children’s home, which was a disaster.’
The man was violent and an alcoholic but the children were placed back with their mother. Tamara was 15 years old and decided that she couldn’t stay in that environment. She left home but kept attending school to complete her School Certificate.
‘School was my security. I had my friends … I knew my place there … Not all the kids had that.’
She was determined to work and move on from her childhood experiences. Since then she has had two marriages.
‘I am a survivor. I am lucky to have learnt things along the way and had opportunities [but] the first two marriages were an absolute disaster … I grew up believing that [abuse] was love and ended up being sexually abused in my relationship ...
‘It wasn’t till I was 39, I thought this just can’t go on no more.’
Tamara was hypervigilant about the potential for sexual abuse when she was raising her children.
‘I didn’t trust anybody around my children. I used to put talcum powder on the floor to see if my husband at the time would go into their room … I put talcum powder to make sure that nobody would go into their room at night time. And then my mind would be at ease … I was very, very suspicious.’
She found, though that as her children grew older, her hypervigilance impacted upon their behaviour.
‘You want to protect them from life. Because I didn’t let them have sleepovers … it triggered off other behaviours … they’d run away and they’d stay out …
‘I always told the girls that if ever you’re in a position that you cannot get out of and somebody is harming you, then sexually or physically make yourself repulsive to that perpetrator. I would say, “You vomit, vomit all over him, use your bowels put that all over you, stick your fingers down your throat – just make yourself so repulsive that they don’t want to do that [abuse you]”.’
Tamara has been in a long and supportive relationship and has recently told her husband and children that she was abused in the home. Telling her story to the Commissioner was the first time she has ever told anybody details of the abuse.
‘Building up to this, coming here today, that’s probably been the worst three weeks I’ve had for a long, long time … but it will help other kids to say to them, to get them to know what to say and to say, “It’s not okay”.’
She believes that children need to be empowered to be able to speak up for themselves and to understand protective behaviours around adults and other children.
‘To teach kids in the schools about … that gut feeling [and] if somebody sits next to you or they touch you, to be able to say, “Don’t touch me” … If you’ve got the empowerment to say, “Get your hands off me, I don’t like the way you’re touching me” … that helps.’