Therese's story

‘It’s about time it was known, anyway. I’m quite pleased that I’ve finally been asked about stuff – you know, to get it out there. Acknowledgement that these things did happen. It has repercussions for the life you live; live and lead.’

In the early 1950s when Therese and her sister Anna were babies they were taken from their mother and placed in an Aboriginal mission in Queensland. They lived there with their aunt and uncle and were well looked after. But when their uncle died, Therese and Anna were separated from their aunt and each other and placed in dormitory sections of the mission.

From when she was about four or five Therese was regularly taken to a nearby hospital where a doctor would perform vaginal examinations on her with a tongue depressor. Therese remembers the examinations as being carried out in the presence of a nurse. They were extremely painful and no explanation was ever given as to why they were being undertaken.

She recalled life in the dormitories as hard, with children ‘all lumped together and many kids would be crying all the time’. Once a month or so boys and girls would have their hair doused with kerosene. ‘We would then sit in class with kerosene dripping down onto our books.’

‘The dormitories were like cages and we were locked in at night and you could not get out’, Therese said. ‘In here you were never given enough food to eat. It would usually be white bread and Milo for dinner. We would also be fed typical stuff like sago and junket and I don’t think I have ever tasted it again since.’

One worker in particular wielded power over the children and would choose who was allowed to go to the movies or on other outings. He carried a whip which he used often and at times he would lock children in a shed.

‘He was a native policeman and he was probably from a different tribal area’, Therese said. ‘I think he would have been conforming to what was expected from him by the white superintendent.’

One day, Therese saw the worker take her sister, Anna and another girl to the shed. She followed and when she opened the door she saw the worker sexually abusing the two girls. Anna escaped and not long afterwards, the worker violently beat Therese with a hose.

There were other incidents of sexual abuse that Therese experienced and witnessed in her childhood, including an older teenager coming to her bed and trying to assault her, and seeing a seven-year-old being raped by an older man. ‘You were just so isolated and a lot went on’, she said.

Therese’s visits to the doctor continued for about five years and stopped when she moved from the mission to live with a non-Aboriginal married couple in the city.

She didn’t speak to anyone about what the doctor had done, and told the Commissioner it was only years later that she ‘identified it for what it was’. She hadn’t disclosed it at times in her life when she’d seen a psychologist. ‘It’s too deep, and for that hour session, I’m going, “No this will take forever”.’

She’d always felt a ‘deep sense of abandonment and loss of not being wanted’ and believed ‘the psychological pain is never going to heal’.

As part of the Queensland redress scheme, Therese received $6,000 – an amount she thought ‘pitiful’.

‘It was called redress but there was no redress. If you want to talk about compensation, let’s talk about something more substantial … What about the Stolen Generation money? I think the money our parents, grandparents worked for and were never given should be now given back to their descendants.’

As an adult, Therese studied and attained tertiary qualifications. She married and had children and grandchildren. She was always hypervigilant and on occasions when younger ones went with her to the area of her childhood, she wouldn’t ‘let them out of the yard’.

Memories of early childhood with her aunt and uncle helped Therese build a fulfilling life.

‘You know, I’ve had chances to think about it, because you’re talking about resilience, about children, the ones that really go on and survive. You wonder where it comes from, but I mean comes from – probably, you know – I had an uncle that actually brought us up who was very proactive … you get your resilience from him. People often ask me, “Where do you get your resilience from? And then I say, “Well you hark back to that one person who gave you unconditional love”.

‘It’s just that stuff that’s always there that will never go away. That’s about it; it’s just the stuff you carry. And it gets good sometimes, you know when I do my work … I go, well I’m still here, I’m still surviving and I’m a pretty positive person anyway at the best of times.’

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