Madeleine Hamilton | 06 September 2015
'"Girls like you ... "
Several months before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse commenced a public hearing on Victorian state-run youth training centres, a woman emailed me.
Her message was a single stark line: 'The place still makes my heart race when I think of the time spent there.'
She was referring to Winlaton, the institution purpose-built in 1956 to hold teenage girls on remand or serving sentences.
By the end of that decade, however, and until its closure in 1993, the vast majority of Winlaton 'trainees' were girls on care and protection orders. Effectively, they were imprisoned for being neglected, abused, and homeless.
While at Winlaton, many became the victims of sexual and physical assaults — by staff and other girls. This was how the state of Victoria looked after its most vulnerable girls, who following their incarceration were simply expected to get on with their lives.
Except many didn't. One former resident interviewed for the 2001 documentary Winnie Girls, recalled that in the 1980s there were so many funerals for former Winlaton residents who had died from heroin overdoses that to protect her own sanity, she had to stop going to them.
As the list of witnesses for the Royal Commission hearing was being finalised, a woman who assists former state wards access their official records rang me. 'There's going to be a lot of very angry and re-traumatised mothers and grandmothers suffering in their homes over the next few weeks, and their families will have no idea why.' Many, she said, had never told their loved ones of their pasts, such is their shame of having been imprisoned as children.
A small group of Winlaton survivors was present every day of the hearing. They clapped vigorously for the women who stepped shakily from the witness box after giving evidence of their horrific abuse; shook their heads vehemently at the justifications, poor memory recall, and never-satisfactory apologies of former child welfare professionals, and outpoured their grief and fury to a cluster of Royal Commission-appointed counsellors who sat constantly amongst them with boxes of tissues and open, benevolent faces.
Over hot chocolate with marshmallows at a café near the County Court, one of these survivors told me of her experiences going in and out of Winlaton as a young teenager. After one admission she endured drug withdrawal without any assistance — bar that of her cellmate who screamed and hammered at the steel door for someone to come and remove the 'crazy girl' she was trapped with. No one came.
The under-resourcing of Winlaton (and other Victorian youth training centres) was a recurring point of discussion throughout the hearing. The two former superintendents who gave evidence, Lloyd Owens and Eileen Slack, recalled that they had to constantly beg the Department for more funding and more staff. But the staff-to-resident ratio remained dangerously low. And some of the staff members were predators. Or utter bitches.
Karen Hodkinson gave evidence that in 1974, immediately after being sexually assaulted by a male Winlaton social worker, she reported the incident to a senior youth officer. 'She slapped me across the face and said words to the effect of, "How dare you make up such dirty lies about one of my staff members. You are nothing but a dirty lying little bitch. Girls like you are why we have places like this, because you need to be taught to tell the truth".'
Karen then spent several days in isolation for her trouble. 'You can imagine,' Counsel Assisting, Peggy Dwyer, asked of former superintendent Lloyd Owen, 'in those circumstances then, why that child would never again report that she was sexually abused?' 'Yes,' agreed Owen.
Another survivor described being sexually assaulted within Winlaton, then following release in 1987 being forced to perform oral sex on her Dandenong social worker before he'd hand over her welfare cheque, then being coerced to provide sexual favours to Oakleigh plain clothes police to avoid arrest. All before she was 15. In the same year, a couple of kilometres away, I was a ten-year-old mooning over a picture of Jon Bon Jovi in my Caulfield bedroom, despairing that he would never answer my fan letters.
A strong focus of the public hearing was the poor handling by child welfare professionals of the case of BGD — a 15-year-old girl who had been repeatedly raped by her father. When questioned why she was unable to recall the details of such an extraordinary case, former deputy superintendent Marilyn Minister stated, 'I would have said there were hundreds, honestly, in all the years I was there. I would say hundreds, in estimation.' 'Hundreds of children who had been raped by members of their family?' Peggy Dwyer responded, startled.
Of the many, many devastating moments of the hearing, this to me was the worst. In the 13 years Minister worked at the institution, 'hundreds' of family rape victims were delivered through Winlaton's secure entrance. For many, their personal hell was about to get much worse.
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