Tanya, Sarah and Rachel grew up in a large family in Victoria in the 1960s. Both parents had drinking problems and their five youngest daughters were placed in a reception centre for a short while before being returned to their mother’s care. After their parents separated and their mother began drinking heavily again, Tanya, Sarah, Rachel, Fiona and Viv were made wards of the state and placed in a family group home. They were aged between two and 10 when they went there.
Tanya told the Commissioner she struggles to visualise her early childhood. ‘What did I look like when I was little? … We don’t know. We’ve never seen photos.’
‘We were … put away through neglect. Because we had a mother that couldn’t cope … She hit the drink. It was through neglect.’ The women thought that as wards of the state, they should have been protected. ‘And we weren’t.’
The girls lived with cottage parents Ron and Gail Forster for five years, and Ron sexually abused all five of them. ‘Any opportunity he had, he would attack us. We didn’t know who was going to be next.’ The girls all struggled through school. ‘I used to fall asleep because he used to pick you up out of bed and wake you up and place you on the floor … He did it a lot … maybe because it was a dark area.’
The three sisters told the Commissioner that Forster would go into their rooms after Gail had gone to bed, or take them into his bedroom if she had gone out. If he heard Gail coming back he would sneak out the back door and make the girls pretend that they had been playing outside. Fiona, one of the younger sisters, has a fear of the dark because Forster used to make her stand outside until it was safe for her to come back inside. She was only two at the time.
Forster would take the girls to work with him when he drove around to shops, fixing their machinery. They would sit next to him as he drove and ‘I’d have to unzip him while he was driving and he’d put a newspaper over it … even in the car’.
The abuse occurred daily. ‘He used to point to which one he wanted.’ Forster would threaten them and say, ‘If you tell anyone I’m going to kill you’. Sarah told the Commissioner, ‘That’s the worst thing. When you’re little and it’s “Our little secret. Don’t tell anyone else” … so you don’t say anything’.
‘We couldn’t even have a shower … He’d pick the lock and … you’d open the curtain and he’d be standing there waiting for you … But you couldn’t say anything.’ Because of the layout of the house, if Gail was in the kitchen, she couldn’t have seen what was going on. The women are unsure if Gail was aware of the abuse at the time.
When Forster took the girls to the beach he would take them into the deep water one at a time. ‘We’d go swimming and there’d be the next girl. You’d go swimming and there’d be the next one. Now, I thought it was strange. I think of it now. Why didn’t anyone pick that up? A man with five girls. Didn’t anyone see anything?’
Rachel remembers Forster taking her to school one day and telling her that if she was pregnant, ‘You’ll have to lie’. He told her she should say that one of the kids at school was to blame.
The sisters didn’t realise that Forster was doing the same things to all of them. It was only on one of the fortnightly visits to their father that they began talking and ‘it just come out. And we go, “That’s happening to me” … and then we tried to stay in groups … not be alone … because if you were alone, you were a target’.
Even though the sisters had regular meetings with welfare officers, they were too frightened to say anything. ‘We used to just pretend we were happy.’
Tanya, Sarah and Rachel decided to come to the Royal Commission as a group, to provide support for each other. Fiona and Viv both suffer from anxiety and declined to attend, but Viv provided a written statement for them to give to the Commissioner.
In her written statement Viv wrote, ‘I used to talk to a girl at school … She used to tell me it was wrong and I should say something, and I said that we would be in big trouble ‘cause he used to threaten us. If I say anything, nobody would believe me’. The school friend told Viv to tell her mother, ‘and I told her mum and that’s when her mother told the priest … The priest … called the police’.
The girls were taken to the police station, put in separate rooms and were held for between six and eight hours. Rachel told the Commissioner, ‘To be questioned … because we were wards of the state, it was like we were bad … They were pretty brutal how they asked what happened … I got the feeling that they thought we were lying … It’s like they interrogated us’.
After they had made their statements, the girls were taken away for internal vaginal examinations. ‘I think all our stories were the same, so we couldn’t have been lying’, and Forster was charged.
Tanya said, ‘I remember not telling all the truth’. Forster managed to gain access to the girls before they were questioned by the police. ‘I remember Ron Forster coming up to me and saying “Don’t you dare” say about me having to suck his dick … And I never mentioned it to the police.’
The girls didn’t want to attend Forster’s trial and ‘we were planning to escape … so we didn’t have to go to this court case to face him’. Forster was sentenced to a short term at a prison farm for the sexual abuse of the five girls. On his release, Gail took him back.
After they had made their statements to the police the girls were taken straight back to the home, where they lived with different cottage parents, but in the same cottage. They received no support or counselling, and no one ever spoke to them again about the abuse.
The sexual abuse they suffered has had a negative impact on the lives of all the sisters. Tanya, Sarah and Rachel told the Commissioner that they have all had problems with drugs and alcohol and they have all been in long-term abusive relationships over the years. They all experienced periods of homelessness after they were discharged from state care.
Tanya was confused about her sexual orientation for a long time. ‘I did the drugs to cope with being with the person. I didn’t want to be gay. And I didn’t like men, so it was just a way of coping.’
The women have all suffered financial hardship throughout their adult lives. Sarah said, ‘We’ve all gone without to feed our kids … It’s been a struggle’. She hasn’t been able to celebrate her birthday with Rachel for 20 years, because she has never been able to take time off work to make the trip.
‘If ever I meet another nice person I’m not going to tell them about my past because they throw it back at you’, Tanya said. Rachel added, ‘The stigma was being a ward of the state that you were bastard children more or less. That we were worthless, we were nothing … All our life we’ve always been shit’.
The women all felt nervous coming to the Royal Commission. ‘But now, it feels like a weight’s sort of been lifted. There’s a bit of relief.’