Wynona's story

‘When I was 12, I moved into using drugs – pills, mandies, heroin. My younger foster brother was a heroin addict … I fell pregnant to him when I was 13 and went through a backyard abortion, which was instigated by my foster mother.’

Wynona endured years of sexual abuse that began when she was very young and continued until she was 15. As a state ward, she was taken in by a family in the Australian Capital Territory at 11 months and formally adopted at age 12. Her abusers were her foster brothers, one eight years older than she, the other six.

‘My foster sister, she’s six years older and had also been taken into care by this family; she recalls sexual abuse of me from a very young age, when I was still in nappies …

‘The younger of the two brothers preferred her, and the older one preferred me. He would take me to his room. I was really scared; he would take my clothes off, tell me it wouldn’t hurt – but it did hurt. I would cry and tell him I didn’t want it … But after a while I didn’t really feel anything, it became routine.

‘Once I was school age, it would happen pretty much every afternoon – both parents worked, so we were alone.’ Resistance wasn’t conceivable – ‘He was much, much, much bigger than me, and very aggressive. He was about six foot tall by his 12th birthday and his hands were huge.’

Her foster father had little engagement with the children. ‘His wife ruled the roost … and there’s no doubt in my mind that she got us girls to serve a purpose for her boys.’

Wynona and her sister often ran away. ‘I remember being brought back by the police five times in three weeks ... I was very quiet, totally compliant to everyone … but she was very verbal, I remember her screaming at the police that she “wasn’t going back to that fucking hell hole”.

‘But no one listened … Our mother was very convincing. She said we were mad, that we were damaged children, compulsive liars that lived in fantasy worlds. It was easy in those days to get away with it.’

Neither did authorities ask questions. ‘When I was about five or six I was taken to a doctor with painful blisters from the top of my vagina to my knees. There was terrible shame and pain from these interesting things, ie herpes, that I supposedly had caught off the toilet seat.’

When Wynona’s behaviour should have raised flags, no one noticed. Teachers paid little attention to injuries she sustained from self-harm. ‘I used to go to primary school with razor cuts from the bottom to the top of my legs, and make up outrageous stories about falling in rose bushes. And I raided my mother’s medicine cabinet to take tablets that would make me sick.’

She began taking drugs purposefully, encouraged by her younger foster brother. ‘When my sister left, both the brothers abused me for a time, until the elder one moved out, when I was about 11. After this the abuse continued with my younger brother …

‘The younger one was different. He wasn’t violent. He gave me things to start with, sweets and chocolate when I was really young.’

After Wynona fell pregnant, an illicit abortion went very wrong. ‘I got really sick and was driven to Sydney to be treated by a doctor friend of my mother’s. I thought I was going to die.

‘Some years later my younger foster brother committed suicide. I wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral. It was a house where anything that could bring disgrace was never spoken of. After he died, he was never mentioned again.’

Eventually Wynona’s foster mother threw her out. ‘When I was 16, I came home from school one day and my mother was standing at the gate. She said, “Get in the car” and we drove in silence to Sydney. And she stopped and took out a plastic shopping bag, it had maybe two changes of knickers and a pair of pants and a top. She said, “You’ll go with what you came with”, and she walked into this YWCA hostel, paid a week’s rent and left me there.’

As Wynona put it, a 16-year-old suddenly abandoned in a strange city would find this challenging even if she wasn’t ‘pretty fucked up and on my way to daily heroin use’.

Wynona began sex work. In her mid-20s she began what would become a series of rehabs and relapses. ‘I spent five months in hospital recovering from an epileptic episode brought on by extreme barbiturate use. I had continual seizures, then tried rehab again.’

Meanwhile, she had become a mother. ‘My oldest, a daughter, she’s suffered immensely from the impact of what happened to me as a child. She’s witnessed me as an addict and a prostitute, as someone with chronic mental illness who was overdosing. She visited me in hospitals in scary psych wards, and she had many different schools …

‘Now she’s grown up, and she’s never had a drug problem, nor been in trouble with the law; she always went to school even if it was many different ones. We have a fantastic relationship, she’s highly resilient, she’s deeply compassionate … and part of that is that she always knew where she belonged, and that she’s been loved.

‘Yet she would have been viewed as a child at risk.’

Her son is also doing well as a teenager, but was born with severe disabilities that his mother believes may have been caused by the shock treatment she underwent during early pregnancy. At age three he had to enter care accommodation and the grief this caused Wynona may have been the catalyst for change.

Soon after, she found long-term employment at a community service organization, then started a university degree; recently she graduated with first-class honours.

Wynona has resisted approaching police about her older foster brother, and is ambivalent about seeking compensation for the government’s failure to protect her as a state ward. ‘In nine years I was seen six times, always in the presence of my foster mother … I’ve seen the interview notes, and they all say she was doing a good job.

‘Not that some money would hurt – it always helps … But I don’t really give a shit. I’ve always done it really tough, I’ll probably always do it tough. I just try to do the best I can to have a reasonable life.’

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