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Wenona's story

At the age of 15, Wenona, who was a ward of the state, was given the choice of finding work, accommodation and attending school unsupported, or going to ‘prison’. She chose the former and paid her way by doing sex work. She survived. But her younger brother, Luke, didn’t.

Wenona grew up in Melbourne in the 1960s and 1970s. She came from a well-off professional family which was highly dysfunctional. Her father and uncle used to sexually abuse her. Her father was a violent alcoholic and her mother would take the children from one place to another – hostels, shelters, motels – to avoid domestic violence.

Wenona’s early life was severely disrupted and her mother was very poor. Wenona recalls there were numerous ineffectual interventions from welfare authorities and the police. After her mother attempted suicide, a youth worker, Gary, used to visit every week. Wenona told him about the sexual abuse she suffered but nothing happened. Her mother became addicted to the drugs prescribed her to manage stress. She also used to give these drugs to Luke.

When Wenona was 15 she was thrown out of home, became a ward of the state and was placed in foster care. She thought being a state ward would provide some financial security and independence. It didn’t. It was ‘hardly any improvement in what I had left. In fact, it was much worse’. Her foster parents kept all her allowance, stopped providing food for her and made her find alternative accommodation on the weekends when their own children came home. Gary (who Wenona notes had no qualifications at that time), was unsupportive, ineffectual and even blamed Wenona and her brother for the state their mother was in. Gary went on to have a very prominent career in child welfare.

After couch surfing and sleeping in parks and squats, Wenona was told by her then case worker that her efforts to find accommodation were inadequate. Unless this improved, the case worker would have ‘no alternative’ but to send Wenona to a female youth training centre in Melbourne’s outer suburbs.

‘Now it’s important to be clear, at this point, on the nature of this prospect …’ Wenona read from her written statement to the Commissioner ‘when [the training centre] was, and is, a high security correctional facility. It’s a training centre, in other words, as a euphemism for prison … We were threatened with a prison. It’s not a caring environment’. Wenona went on to say that ‘Everybody knows what was going on [in the training centre] at the time, when I was 15’. She was determined not to go there.

Wenona described the system as a form of ‘punitive welfare’.

At the time, she was told that remaining a ward of the state – the alternative to the ‘training’ centre – was dependent on her continuous enrolment at school. Wenona was a very motivated student. She often found, in her share house situations, that her housemates would be abusing drugs while she was just doing her homework. However, she did try heroin once and now has Hepatitis C as a result. Attending school was difficult, given the instability and poverty in her life. At one point, the school Wenona was attending allowed her to sleep on the premises.

Unable to survive on the government allowance (half the amount of the adult dole), Wenona turned to doing sex work on the streets. She did this for a year. ‘It was one of the most degrading times in my life … and I still today dream and have flashbacks about my time on the street. You name it, I had to do it.’ She was still a child, and a ward of the state.

Wenona’s brother, Luke, also had no stability in his life. He was placed in short-term care and foster care. Gary, the youth worker, ultimately sent Luke to a government-run boys’ home ‘essentially because he hadn’t made his bed and he stole $50 out of my mother’s purse’. Wenona told the Commissioner that the reality was that their mother was incapable of looking after them. ‘We ran the household.’

At the boys’ home Luke was systematically sexually abused and there was a tacit acceptance at that institution that abuse would occur. Wenona recalled how her brother was changed from his experience there. When he came out, he told Wenona about the abuse. She told Gary, who did nothing.

As a young adult, and while ‘completely desperate and just off his face’ on drugs, Luke committed robbery. He was sent to a maximum security prison because, Wenona told the Commissioner, there was a vacancy there, not because it was appropriate.

Inside, Luke was raped. He tried to kill himself. Three months after serving a relatively short sentence, Luke was dead. He was a young man. He was extremely intelligent and Wenona mourns his loss every day.

When Wenona was 26 she read her welfare file for the first time. It was a source of ‘immense distress’. The sexual abuse she suffered as a child had been noted yet no counselling was offered at the time. One comment from a psychiatrist, whom Wenona never met, stated that their mother’s suicide attempt was the fault of Wenona and her brother. Gary described Wenona as an ‘upper class snob,’ a ‘trendy feminist’ and that she was violent towards her mother, which was totally untrue. Amongst his many disparaging entries, he also wrote that the play wrestling she and her brother did was ‘sexual in orientation’.

Wenona felt sick that people would read those things about her, she told the Commissioner.

At the age of 25 Wenona completed Year 12. Some years later she went to university, was awarded a university medal and now enjoys a successful career. She has a supportive husband and children, who are now adults.

Wenona sometimes suffers severe anxiety. She has drunk more alcohol than usual over the past two years because the publicity about the Royal Commission, and specifically the stories about the boys’ home where Luke was sent, has been very distressing.

Although she is, and always was, strong willed and outspoken, Wenona is still afraid of social workers. As a young mother she was anxious that Welfare would take her children from her. She became a highly diligent and over-protective mother to the point of wearing herself out.

As a result of the welfare system, Wenona reflected, she has experienced life as a ‘quintessential outsider. There’s a feeling that you’re not really part of … the everyday. You’re a kind of deviant’.

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