A lot of people in Tegan’s small New South Wales town didn’t know there was an Anglican home for girls there, even though it was perched on top of a hill. But Tegan knew it intimately from the age of five to the age of 14. And decades later, she still avoids going anywhere near it. She told the Commission that it turns her stomach to go out there.
Tegan and her sister Jill were made wards of the state and sent to the home after her mother was declared unfit to raise them. As far as she knows, after her parents split up, her dad was only allowed to keep her brothers. It wasn’t considered appropriate that he bring up his daughters as well.
Tegan describes the home, which was run by the very stern and cold Sister Roberts, as cruel and loveless. Girls of all ages were there, up to 20 at a time.
Tegan remembers a little three-year-old in particular. ‘We were sitting at the dining table and she was getting smacked in the face for not holding her fork properly. They just smacked her and smacked her and she just sat and cried because she didn’t know what to do … No one was game to speak up. We just sat there … It was awful to watch.’
Another woman at the home, Fiona Steele, was just as vicious as Sister Roberts. The constant threat of punishment kept Tegan in a permanent state of anxiety. She and Jill would cling to each other for emotional support. ‘Every night we went to bed and prayed that tomorrow we’d wake up and it was all a dream. And it was never a dream.’
When Tegan began to wet the bed regularly, Sister Roberts told her she was doing it deliberately and that she was just too lazy to get out of bed. Tegan had to strip her bed, handwash the sheets, then get undressed and have a cold shower. Sometimes she was ordered not to have a shower, and was sent to school smelling of urine.
Sister Roberts watched the girls when they were naked in the shower. She did this almost every day until they were older. Sometimes she’d beat them with a strap while they were under the water.
Looking back on it, Tegan realised how strange this was and how bizarre that on some mornings the girls weren’t given underwear, or shirts to wear. On those days they had to go to school in just a pinafore. ‘You’d think, “That’s rude. That’s not normal ... You don’t make kids go without underwear”.’
At school, the sisters were seen as second-class citizens because they were ‘home girls’. And although Tegan and Jill were both state wards, no one from DOCS ever came to visit them. They went home to their father on the odd occasion but didn’t tell him about the abuse.
Tegan left the home at 14. She was extremely shy, distrustful of people and completely lacking in confidence. Alcohol gave her the confidence to socialise. ‘I was a big drinker ... after I left the home.’
To this day, Tegan and Jill are very bonded. If Tegan goes anywhere without Jill she has panic attacks. They don’t see themselves as social people at all and the trip to Sydney to talk to the Commissioner made Tegan feel sick. ‘I feel like I’m coming back. It’s like when you were called to her office, just that anxiety.’
The first person Tegan told about the abuse was her husband. She also told her children. ‘It’s been a long hard relationship and even with him … Any time he tried to discipline them I just couldn’t cope with that … I just felt, you can’t go crook on them.’
Tegan was determined to provide a stable home for her own kids and she’s now very proud that she’s raised them successfully.
Tegan’s now in the ‘long awful process’ of suing the Church of England, but she thinks it’s worth doing just to shine a light into the Anglican Church’s behaviour. The local Anglican Archbishop has apologised to the sisters for their treatment at the home, but Tegan’s not convinced he was genuine.
‘I think he was just saying it. He felt he had to say it … I said to him “I prayed to your God every day”.’
The two sisters once ventured up the hill to the former home to see if it might help them in some way. But the building still held too many ghosts and they walked back out quickly.
‘I know a lot of the places have closed, but there’s still people out there looking after children. And no matter who or where they are, they need to be checked.’