When Valentina was 11, a neighbour’s male friend who was a teacher, ‘told my family that I would go with a whole heap of kids to go and learn how to water-ski … There were no other kids. He only took me and he took photos and he was just playing with me all the time’.
Valentina had a difficult home life. ‘Dad was a big, heavy drinker, so there was a fair bit of violence in the house … and I didn’t have a really good relationship with my mother.’ When Valentina said she didn’t want to learn water-skiing anymore, ‘they just told me I was a selfish little bitch and I had to go … and I ended up going and … I ended up getting on drugs and … then I ran away from home. I couldn’t handle it anymore, and ended up living on the street’.
Valentina was 12 when she was sent to a girls’ home in Sydney in the late 1960s. ‘When I finally got arrested … I had an overdose and got sent to [the girls’ home]. I was sort of relieved in a way at first because I thought that I … you know, this is what I needed. And it was pretty horrible.’ When she was sentenced, her charge sheet stated that she needed ‘ongoing psychiatric assessment, which I never got’.
Valentina was initially sent to a remand centre, where ‘I believe that I was abused by the doctor … I had never had an internal before and it was the worst experience. I still remember that, and still have nightmares … and I honestly believe to this day that that man did not have any gloves on at all, and I have spent a lifetime hiding my head in shame every time I have a Pap smear and like, it’s just so … I really seek women doctors only now’.
Valentina told the Commissioner, ‘One of the … hardest part[s] for me is the body searches we had at [the girls’ home]. Sometimes you got officers that would touch you and would pull your legs apart … it was just humiliating, and there were just girls in cubicles … so every time you did it you were looking straight at a girl … I see that as abuse. I think … that is abusive’.
Officers would inspect girls’ underpants for stains. There was no privacy in the showers or toilets. ‘You were just always being looked at. Always being looked at naked, and it was really hard.’ When girls were menstruating, they had to show the officers their soiled pads before they were given a new one.
‘I see all these things as a form of sexual abuse because I think it was humiliating and you’re never quite sure what’s on these people’s minds … When I was there I was just petrified, but as I got older looking back, I sort of see it like that.’
Valentina began getting in trouble on purpose so that she would be locked in isolation. ‘That, to me, was a retreat.’ She only stopped doing this when she was threatened with being sent to a worse institution. ‘I couldn’t go [there]. I’d seen girls come back broken and I knew that I couldn’t survive that one.’
There was a lot of physical and sexual abuse at the home. When Valentina first arrived, another inmate immediately taught her some necessary survival skills, so she found ways of getting on with the ‘rough girls’ as well as the ‘really scared, timid ones … I was able to play this game a bit, somewhere in the middle, and you had to’.
‘There were many girls that … literally raped other girls and did horrific things to them. I witnessed that a couple of times … and I learnt pretty quick that you have to sort of play the game a bit to get them to leave you alone.’
Valentina’s twelve months in the girls’ home ‘didn’t help me one little bit. All it did was send me in despair for a lifetime as far as I’m concerned’. She told the Commissioner, ‘What I blame [the girls’ home] for is my family disengagement. It totally disengaged me from everything’.
As soon as she was released from the home, Valentina began taking drugs again. She eventually managed to give up both alcohol and drugs, and in the early 2000s saw a counsellor every week for a year.
‘She really taught me not to hate myself, and to like myself, and then she even convinced me to go and do a few courses … It comes down to that nurturing thing again. That someone was actually there to nurture me, to give me confidence … I didn’t think I had a brain, because I was told I was stupid, every single day … Every single day they told us … so you start believing it. So most of my life I’ve just hated myself.’
The first time Valentina was able to talk about her experiences in the girls’ home was in the late 1990s, when she told her doctor. ‘I couldn’t tell people. I was ashamed … For most of your life you’re living in some sort of shame and you can’t shake that. It doesn’t shake so easy. That self-loathing and shame doesn’t shake.’
Because of some health issues, Valentina can only work part-time, but she now has a job that she loves. ‘I just think sometimes of what I could have achieved if the system was better.’
Valentina told the Commissioner, ‘I’ve been broken for a long time and to be honest, this is good to just let it out … Thank you for listening to me. I actually feel better just spurting it out'.