Trish was very young when the Gilbert family fostered her, so she couldn’t remember how she came to be in their care. When she was old enough, she asked her foster mother about it. Mrs Gilbert answered with vicious lies.
‘She used to say, “We found you in a beer carton in the pub. In a carton of beer with a bottle of curdled milk”, and things like that.’
Later in life Trish was able to piece together the real story. Her mother was an Aboriginal woman who gave birth to two daughters in the late 1950s: first Trish and then her little sister, Josephine. Josephine contracted gastro, which was passing through Darwin at that time, and died before she was a year old.
Many people in the community blamed the baby’s death on Trish’s mother who, isolated and grief-stricken, took to drinking. Welfare perceived that Trish was in danger and removed her from her mother, delivering her into the hands of the Gilberts when she was about two years old.
Trish was the only Aboriginal child in the Gilberts’ large family. Mr and Mrs Gilbert, who employed Aboriginal domestic staff, treated Trish like a servant too, forcing her to do long hours of labour every day after school. They made her sleep on a bunk bed in the corridor rather than in the bedroom with their daughters.
The Gilberts also had several sons. The oldest of these, 18-year-old Alan, began sexually abusing Trish when she was eight. At night he would take her from her bed and lead her into the girls’ room. He always chose those nights when Jacqueline, the eldest, was away visiting her boyfriend. Pushing Trish down into Jacqueline’s bed he would abuse her while the other Gilbert girls slept in the surrounding bunks.
Trish is still amazed that the other girls never reacted to what was going on. ‘I used to look over here, thinking, “They’ve got to be hearing this or got to be seeing this”.’ But none of the girls ever mentioned the abuse to her. Trish never mentioned it either.
‘Who’s going to believe me? I was an outsider in that family. I lived in the corridor.’
In all her time at the Gilberts, Trish never received one visit from the Welfare officers. Worse, over the course of more than a decade, Trish’s mum was only allowed to visit her three times. And on each of these occasions Trish’s mum was verbally abused by the Gilberts and forced to stay outside the house.
For a while Trish had secret meetings with her mum at school.
‘When I’d get off the bus my mum used to be sitting there at the bus stop, right out the front of the school just waiting for me to arrive so that she could see me. She wasn’t allowed to come anywhere near me. She had to stay well clear. And I’d say, “Oh, Mum! Mum!”, and she used to have packets of salted plums for me and stuff like that.’
When the Gilberts found out about these secret meetings they moved Trish to another school.
Trish left the Gilberts when she was about 13 years old. One day her mother arrived to inform them that she was taking her daughter back. Trish remembers that there was much ‘swearing and carrying on’ from her foster parents but in the end there was nothing they could do. Trish’s mum had a right to take back her child.
‘I was just: “Wow, it’s finally happened”. I’m out of here.’
Trish had escaped the abuse, but her new life was hardly the paradise she’d dreamed of. She struggled to cope with her mother’s alcoholism, often spending the night in a nearby church to avoid going home. She became rebellious.
‘It was freedom and then I went wild after that. It was like letting a lion out of a cage. I went a bit out of control.’
Then her mother got sick. Trish nursed her for two years until she died. After that, at 15, Trish was suddenly on her own.
‘I just worked to survive, to look after myself, and have been since.’
Her chosen field was community services, where she worked for years, training Welfare staff to treat Aboriginal families with compassion and respect.
‘I used to always say to the welfare officers when I worked with them, “When you are walking away with that child on your hip from that woman over there … look behind and just have a look at that mother. Have a look in her eyes. Just look at her. When is she going to see her kid again? That woman’s got no idea when she’s going to see her kid again. No one believes her, no one listens to her”.’