Tammy doesn’t know many things about her early years. She thinks she was around four years old when placed in the Red Cross children’s home in regional New South Wales, but doesn’t know why, or how long she spent there.
Tammy finds it hard to think of anything good about this time. ‘I just thought that there was something wrong with me, because all I could remember was the badness.’
Her memories of this ‘badness’ are vivid almost six decades later. The home was scary for a small child, with enormous gates and rows of beds like a hospital. As soon as Tammy arrived at the home, the matron took her doll away.
A couple of her sisters already lived at the home, and she met them for the first time. (They don’t talk about the home these days. Whenever Tammy mentions it, her sisters freeze, and it’s like they were never there.)
Bath times were a highlight at first, a chance to be playful and blow bubbles. The girls were never allowed to sit down in the bath, only stand.
‘I think because this is me looking back on things, that’s when the abuse started, it started in the bath. And if you were a good girl, you could have special bath times, I mean a lot more fun, a lot more bubbles.
‘And then it just progressed up to hands being inserted in your vagina and in your bottom, by the people [women] working there.’
Tammy soiled herself the first time this abuse happened. ‘I was called a dirty, dirty bad girl, and taken out of the bath, and I was screaming. I know I was screaming. And after that, this is going to sound weird, I felt like I was screaming here, but I wasn’t, I was screaming inside myself.’
She would close her eyes whenever it was time for a bath. The workers told her she ‘had to be cleaned thoroughly inside and out’. The scrubbing would be really harsh. Tammy couldn’t sit down afterwards, and began bedwetting.
When she wet the bed, the women would wrap the damp sheets around her neck and lock her in a room for a week. She would have to have her meals and go to the toilet in this room, and only left it when it was time for another bath.
‘In my head I kept saying to myself, be a good girl, be a good girl, don’t move. And I don’t know how long I went through that. Then I tried to run away.’ She got as far as the local train station, and was taken back to the home by the police.
As punishment, she was stripped down in the hallway and beaten. This happened to other girls too, ‘and you’d have to bend over, and the person with the big white thing on, she would take her boot off ... and she would whack you up and down, up and down, until you couldn’t sit down’.
She was scared to tell her sisters about the sexual abuse because the women warned her that if she said anything she’d be put out the back of the home, which often got very cold and frosty. There ‘you’d have to scoop the ice up with your hands and put it in a wheelbarrow, and that was your punishment if you said anything’.
There was another ‘pretty bad’ incident, one she can’t quite recall in detail. Police were called, and she remembers running away screaming. The Red Cross have lost her records, and so she hasn’t been able to find out anything more. It is very hard not knowing what happened to her that day.
Although Tammy is Aboriginal, she doesn’t think this was why she was treated badly at the home. She used to hear the other kids there screaming and screaming, and witnessed bad things happening to them too.
After Tammy left the home she returned to live with her family. She became introverted, had anxiety attacks, couldn’t concentrate at school, and was scared of adults and the police.
When she was eight years of age she was molested by a man, a friend of her father, who she later found out was a prolific paedophile. She didn’t tell her mother about this as she didn’t want to worry her.
A few years later Tammy was raped for the first time, and ‘so many times’ again after that. She began using drugs to cope with her experiences, and spent time in jail. She didn’t care much if she died. Tammy never reported these assaults to police because ‘who’s going to believe a junky?’
She couldn’t tell anyone about the sexual abuse in her childhood for a long time, even during counselling. ‘Every time I’d go to talk about it, I could feel this surge coming up in my guts, where I wanted to vomit and faint and talk at the same time.’
Tammy has since turned her life around – going through rehab, having a family, finishing university, and working in health care. However, she recognises not everyone makes it through these kinds of childhood experiences.
‘The reason why I came here is not so much about me, but there’s so many kids out there, so many kids who are put in care. What I went through for the next years, for me to be able to change, not many of us get through that.’
‘Not many of us are surviving, or living, or healing, whatever you want to call it. A lot of us die, spiritually or physically, along the way.’