Una and her siblings were taken into care as young children. At five years of age she was placed by Queensland community services staff with a foster mother, Aunty Dot, who had children of her own.
Over a period of years, Una was sexually abused by Aunty Dot’s eldest son as well as a number of men who were visitors to the house. ‘There was a lot of sexual abuse’, Una said. ‘They were all related to her – uncles, brothers, sons. One of her sons was one of the major ones.’ At first, Una couldn’t understand how many of the men managed to gain entry into the house.
‘Aunty used to make us lock the house up – close all windows at night, lock the doors, make sure the latch was on, and she made us do that every night so I couldn’t understand why the men could get inside the house to the bedroom. Jenny told me she saw Aunty giving a key to one of the uncles and that’s how they were getting in. They gave Aunty money.’
In addition to the sexual assaults, Una endured regular physical abuse at the hands of Aunty Dot, who wielded considerable influence in the town. When the school principal tried to take action about Una’s injuries, Aunty Dot told him she could do what she liked because they were her kids, and no further action was taken.
At one stage, Una disclosed the abuse to a community services worker who occasionally visited her. The worker must have reported it but nothing was done to remove Una and she ‘ended up getting floggings and beatings for making up lies’.
In the 1980s Una was in Grade 5 when she attempted suicide by taking an overdose. She was admitted to hospital and told the social worker there about the sexual abuse.
‘I didn’t want to leave the hospital. I was fighting not to leave, I remember that. The social worker asked why I did it. I said, “Jesus was calling me to a better place, a happy place”. But I remember really getting scared when Aunty came to the hospital to pick me up. I didn’t want to go. But no one stopped me from going.’
At 13, Una ran away and was living on the streets when she met another girl who offered a place in her home. Una lived with the girl’s family for years and although she experienced abuse there, it wasn’t as bad as what she’d been through and it was better than living on the streets.
For a brief period, Una followed her older sister and went to live with their mother, but it didn’t work out because her mother was an alcoholic and Una also began drinking ‘really, really bad’.
For some years, Una lost contact with her sister. When they reunited she began having flashbacks not only to the abuse in Aunty Dot’s house, but also to a time during her adolescent years when she’d been held captive by a man and beaten whenever she tried to escape.
As an adult, Una found it difficult to find work. ‘I had a lot of trust issues, anxiety attacks, and I just didn’t feel like I was good enough’, she said. In her 30s she had a ‘major breakdown’ and was admitted to hospital after the ‘flashbacks started coming and it just went downhill from there’. She’d attempted suicide several times since childhood and though she had close links with mental health services, it was hard to work with them because they had a high staff turnover and she felt they were mainly focused on her medication.
‘The mental health, they keep changing their doctors all the time so you have to adjust and I struggle with that. I have to repeat my story all over again. My anxiety sets in and I get very emotional and it’s like, why do I have to repeat myself? You’ve got it on my file. Why are you making me repeat it? No wonder why I can’t move forward. Not too long ago I got a bit angry with them and stormed out and said, “All you are good for is just medication and tablets. That’s all you do, is just sedate me”.’
As the mother of two girls, Una said she’d ‘watched them like a hawk’. She realised that it ‘was probably suffocating’, but said she couldn’t help it and though they were now grown young women, she still had a tendency to be over-protective. Una’s daughter, Julie, accompanied her mother to the private session and said finding out about her mother’s history of child sexual abuse had helped her understand why her mother had been so strict. ‘It made a lot of sense because I knew something had happened but I didn’t know what’, Julie said. ‘Up and down and all of that. When she did tell us, it made sense’.
Una hadn’t sought compensation from the Queensland government nor reported any of the abuse to police. She thought an apology from the government might go some way towards giving her ‘acknowledgement and recognition’.
‘Just to look at me in the eyes and say, “Look, we’re really sorry”, because I’d like to say to them, “My whole childhood was just ruined, taken away from me. I didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy my childhood. And the only memories – I don’t have any good memories from it; I just have these horrible flashbacks”.
‘I know this is a healing journey but it’s caused so many barriers in life, in my relationships. I never understood why I was the way I was or why I was snapping at my girls or why I would barely let them go to the corner shop on their own. It’s had a huge and major impact on my life. It’s just here you know. I don’t have a sense of belonging. I don’t know where I belong. I have no sense of connection.’