Tonya was born in the early 1970s, and placed in the care of a Catholic children’s home in the Australian Capital Territory before she was two weeks old. She spent time in and out of the home until her teens, intermittently staying with her mother.
The children were constantly being sent to Confession, for walking out of step, misspelling a word in their homework, or any number of minor transgressions. Tonya remembers one of the nuns there was ‘really nice, but some of the rest of them were really, really horrible, and really nasty’.
A boy called Devlin sexually abused Tonya during the home’s Christmas party, when she was nine years old. Devlin was a few years older than Tonya, and took her into a room, removed her clothes, and started touching her genitals. Another boy came in and stopped the abuse: ‘He put Devlin up against the wall and thumped him’.
Tonya then disclosed the abuse to Miss Susan, a house parent, telling her ‘that he’d touched me, in my privates’. Miss Susan was ‘cruel, she was a nasty bitch’, and told Tonya she was always trying to ruin things. Tonya does not think any action was taken against Devlin.
Two years later, Tonya disclosed the abuse to her mother. Rather than being supportive, her mother told her she should be grateful for everything the home did for her. Tonya told her again five years later, ‘I was almost raped in the home’. This time her mother asked her, ‘are you still telling that lie?’ So Tonya never bothered broaching the subject again.
Tonya was also sexually abused when she was 10, on a short term holiday foster care placement. One of the family’s sons, who was in high school, got Tonya alone in the cubbyhouse in the back yard.
‘He told me if I ever wanted to go with a good family again, I’d just do what he wanted. And proceeded to have his way with me.’
She was sent to stay with this family two more times, but did not disclose the sexual abuse (‘not after the reaction I got the first time’). The third time she started making a fuss, refusing to go. ‘They didn’t know why, and I was told I was ungrateful, and I should be thankful that such a good family should want me.’
The incidents of sexual abuse, and the failure of either her houseparent or mother to respond adequately when she disclosed the abuse at the home, left Tonya angry, disobedient and rebellious. She started acting out in her teens, running away from home and drinking alcohol. Her mother had her charged with being ‘uncontrollable’, and told authorities she was a ‘pathological liar’.
The police asked Tonya why she kept running away, and she told them ‘because nobody believes me’ about the abuse at the children’s home. ‘I told them what happened ... They said, “Well, do you blame people for not believing you?” And it’s like, aren’t you supposed to protect me? And so my attitude to police became, well you don’t give a crap, why should I?’
Placed in a youth refuge, Tonya’s life was not very stable. She managed to get a job, but her mother made her leave it when she became pregnant at 17. Her family wanted her to terminate the pregnancy, but she refused, and they would not support her. Receiving no support from the baby’s father either, she struggled to keep the child and hold her life together.
When Tonya had a mental breakdown a couple of years later, her mother stepped in to take care of her daughter. She was still drinking heavily, and also using illicit drugs. Her mother would deny her access to her child as a way of controlling her behaviour.
Tonya has never considered going back to police to report the abuse, or applied for any compensation from the Church. She now has information regarding accessing legal advice, and will think about this further. Although she has her faith, Tonya no longer attends church because of her experiences at the home. She lives with post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder, which her psychiatrist believes may have been triggered by the sexual abuse.
‘Initially it felt like, why me? And I did go through the why me, and the anger, and the resentment, and the self-pity. And I’m at the point of, you know, look, it happened, I can’t change that it happened. I can put my voice to it, and hope that through this process that things can be put in place so that it doesn’t happen ... Ideally, if it doesn’t happen ever again it would be great. Realistically, even if it doesn’t happen as often, that would be very beneficial.’