‘They were a good family’, Yolanda told the Commissioner. ‘I don’t know what went wrong with me.’
She was trying to explain the circumstances that led to her being placed in care while her four siblings remained at home. Her grandmother, who lived with them, had died. ‘She passed away, but no one explained it to me … They thought I was too young to understand’, Yolanda said.
‘My grandmother looked after us and I for some reason thought that she was the only who loved me.’ Yolanda started running away from home to look for her. ‘I just couldn’t seem to settle myself down since my grandma died, and it wasn’t that I didn’t love my parents.’
She was 10 or 11 at the time, growing up in Melbourne in the mid-1960s. Her parents just thought she was naughty, she said. At a loss, they organised for her to be placed in care in a state-run institution. She was sent first to a reception centre and then to a succession of institutions for girls. Running away became a habit. ‘Every chance I got, I ran.’
At the first institution she was sent to, Yolanda was sexually abused by two older girls. They attacked her in the shower, raping her with brushes. ‘Scruffing is what they called it’, Yolanda told the Commissioner. The abuse took place on three or four occasions, and Yolanda saw it done to another girl as well. It came to an end when the two girls turned 18 and left the facility.
Yolanda reported the abuse to staff at the time of the assaults, though not explicitly. ‘I didn’t tell them I was sexually hurt, because the girls told me that if I told anyone they’d do it again … They told me if I said anything they’d hurt me more. [But] I told Mrs Arthurs and I told Mrs Nettleton and Mrs Matthews. I said, “Take more care of us. Keep your eyes open to what’s going on.”’
After being ignored, she tried again. Eventually, she got into a physical fight with two of the staff. ‘That was because I was trying to tell them to keep an eye on what’s going on with the girls, and they told me that it was in my head – and that’s when I lost it.’
It wasn’t the last time she was disbelieved when she tried to report problems to the staff. ‘Everything was in my head, so they put me on this medication, Largactil, and then in my file it says, “Yolanda is so much quieter now”.’
Medical interventions and misadventures were a theme of Yolanda’s experience in care. She was taken to hospital to have her tattoos removed – then-new surgery which left her with scars that even today mean she wears long sleeves to conceal them. She invented a malaise as part of a planned escape attempt and ended up being operated on. But another medical issue, a genuine one, was ignored by staff and as a result required major emergency surgery some years later. According to her file notes, she had multiple miscarriages. But she didn’t, she said. Instead, she thinks, it would have been the assaults that caused her to bleed.
School and education didn’t offer anything either. Girls from the institution got teased at school. ‘We used to get called homies in there – “Get out you homies. We don’t want you here”. And all that sort of stuff. Well, once again, I didn’t stay there long. Everywhere they sent me I didn’t stay there long.’
Yolanda ran away for good when she was 17. She had her first child when she was 18, and a second child a few years later. She and her partner separated but remained good friends until his death some years ago. She now has four grandchildren. She lost contact with her parents and siblings for a long time, but sees her mother now and was also reunited with her father before his death several years ago.
She has worked all her life, she said, until she was forced by injury to stop. She has had ongoing psychological support, including from a support group for the Forgotten Australians. She now has a lawyer and is seeking compensation for her abuse from the government. She lives with one of her grown up children in a Victorian regional town.
‘I’ve become a loner. I haven’t got any friends, but that’s my choice because for many years I was used and abused in the aspect of “I’ll take the rap for this, I’ll take the rap for that”.’
The abuse has left her with an enduring sense of loss.
‘[It’s] just a sadness that I don’t ever seem to be able to get rid of, but they tell me it’s grief … Because I always say, “What’s wrong with me, doctor?” They say, “There’s nothing wrong with you, Yolanda. They call yours grief.” They said some people never get rid of that grief. So I do have to believe them. So on sad days I just keep myself busy as best as I can, depending on what my day’s like – that’s about the best I can explain it.’