I am speaking as the estranged, forty year old daughter of a woman who was a ward of the state and under the "care" of the Sisters of Mercy at St. John’s Orphanage, Thagoona, nr. Albury in N.S.W. from 1950-1958. At sixteen I was forced to leave home, because my mother had become an alcoholic, which I believe was her way of coping with the psychological effects of her tortuous experience at the Home.
Although I loved and admired her in so many ways, especially for being a survivor of a brutal childhood, I knew if I wanted to survive emotionally, stay at school, pursue a healthy ‘normal’ lifestyle I had to do it on my own. This was very traumatic for me and my two younger sisters who were later ‘kicked’ out on their sixteenth birthday. It was over the housework not being done properly. The last straw was forgetting to empty the bin. This was typical of the rage and frustration which mum had inflicted upon her during her childhood by the unmerciful nuns. Fortunately, she was restrained when it came to thinking up the more sadistic punishments the nuns metered out.
Mum didn’t have very good parenting responses to teenage girls – because she herself hadn’t been allowed to develop through constant abuse by the nuns that she was the ‘bastard scum of the earth’ and only fit for domestic labour, so we too were discouraged from rising above our station.
Mum wanted us to leave school and work in a factory, so she didn’t have to support us. I couldn’t bear this as I always wanted to be a teacher, so I had to leave in order to stay at school! I found a room in a house with a social worker and I was able to complete Year 12. However, I was homeless soon after a trial return to my mum and step-dads house and without any support apart from the Under 18 dole of $36.00 per week(John Howard was Treasurer), I was stuck in a bungalow of an old lady’s back garden until I found work. Going to College wasn’t considered. After all, I grew up not knowing what a University was.
My mother had learned to read and write. She was very proud of her ability with numbers, but was never encouraged to discover her true potential. From an early age she was up at 4.a.m. milking cows, ironing the hundreds of pleats of the nuns habits, polishing stair-cases and then at 11yrs sent out as an unpaid domestic to outback cattle and sheep stations to help with the house and babies.
Obviously this laid the foundation for her entire working life, but I always had the feeling she was jealous of me going to primary school with all the myriad activities that went on, being able to play and be creative. You could see the conflicting emotions when I showed her my work, and she would be like a child and say "I would have been good at that, but we were never taught".
I left home and struggled to support myself without any family. My dad was in England, and even though mum and step-dad got decent wages at the factory they blew it all on alcohol, cigarettes and gambling. Okay they may have had a predisposition to alcoholism, and one can see a pattern running through the family. It seems to me therefore, that any stresses and harms inflicted on that person the culture is to turn to drugs. I was brought up in a culture of using alcohol as a means of escaping from living with the reality of the ups and downs of mood and life experience.
This is much harder to learn to live with when these negative experiences of emotional and physical abuse trigger mental illnesses, which was the case. Mum was obviously self-medicating for a myriad of problems, and my sisters and I coped in the best way we could. Unlike our mother we had the benefits of a high school education which improved our chances. However at fourteen my twin sisters were working in factories and propping the parents up in cigarette money and food by the end of the week.
During one time of hopeful reconciliation I went to visit one Sunday and they blamed me for them living off the plum tree in the back garden because I hadn’t been down and given them some money!
How I wished that mum still had the rebellious spirit in her that she talked about when she was at the orphanage, and left my abusive step-father, but by that time her spirit was broken, just as the nuns had promised her and her friends.
I met the ‘girls’ she grew up with many years later after mum and her husband had gone back to live in England(mum had been brought out from Birmingham under the Child Migrant Scheme). I needed to understand mum’s story more, in order for me to forgive her for the abandonment I felt. The fellow orphans had followed similar paths of abusive relationships, menial labour, alcohol and other drug abuse and mental health problems. However unlike mum who had in a sense moved away, these women were still within a ten kilometer radius of the place where they had been physically and emotionally abused.
One woman told me she had been raped and only forty years later, the child who had been adopted out made contact with.
I hadn’t been there, but through my mum’s blood line I felt their story in my bones. When they talked about their children, I understood what their lives must have been like, and just how difficult it is to break free of the negative impacts of being the offspring of wards of the state.
When mum ran away, they caught her and stuck her in home-made calipers; boots with bricks tied to wood to stop her escaping again. Or ingeniously they tied the children to a tree over a bulls-ant nest in the hot sun. Those kids could have only been resilient to this torture for so long. By the time they tried to be normal and have families it was a struggle to cope because they had witnessed no civil relationships between human beings.
People excuse the adults in those institutions by saying how stressful it would have been looking after so many children, but they were supposed to have been charitable, merciful, kind and protective. Instead they were cruel. Thus my sisters and I suffered with the effects of her childhood.
We all are dealing with our own mental health problems triggered by our experiences with a mother who was emotionally distant, abusive, alcoholic and full of rage against church and the state. One sister tried to commit suicide, and got into illegal drug abuse to escape the emotional pain and the stress of surviving on her own. Fortunately with my encouragement she came out of that destructive environment and went to T.A.F.E. Her self-esteem grew and now she has the tools to understand and cope, and now is a respected outreach worker for the homeless. She had the strength to rehabilitate from the psychology of abuse, although years on, she finds it hard to have a relationship with our mother other than she would a client.
My other sister shows signs of repeating the same patterns as mum in the mixed messages of her parenting, and her gambling addiction which has ruined her marriage and other relationships.
Myself, I found salvation through creative endeavors, and when my daughters started school I became a mature-age student. My aim is to bring joy and stimulation to children through my puppet shows. Also, as a volunteer community worker I hope that my presence on the streets will be an opportunity for other young people who have got caught up in the cycle of poverty and drug abuse to be heard and guided to a healthier state of mind and lifestyle.
We must continue to be vigilant with our care and attention with all our children, wherever they may be, because they will be bearing the next generation. My mother had no suitable role-models or education to help her in her parenting role. I believe that wards of the state from the vicious earlier years, their children and their children’s children should now be helped by the Churches and States who helped to create the traumatized families.
My husband and I communicate to ensure the success of our family. I have had to learn the hard way what it is to be a parent who is supportive on all levels, sadly without the love and support of my parents who dwell in the trap of depression and angst brought about by government and church negligence.
(Extracts from this submission are published in the Community Affairs References Committee Forgotten Australians Senate Committee Report, Aug 2004). A Report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children. Under Perspective from children p.151)