The PM’s apology to the Forgotten Australians was a heart-wrenching occasion for ex-Townsville ward of the state Patricia Slattery and her nephews.
The Murray River town of Cobram is far enough from Melbourne to keep Patricia Slattery calm.
Mrs Slattery moved from Townsville to Cobram last year with a load of grievances originating in Melbourne in the 1960s.
She and an older sister are seeking compensation from the Victorian Government and Uniting Church for mental, sexual, and physical abuse while wards of the state in Melbourne.
Her sister lives close to Cobram, in Yarrawonga.
Both were among nearly 1000 people in the Great Hall of Parliament House, Canberra, on Monday to hear apologies by Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull for the “absolute tragedy of childhoods lost.”
Mrs Slattery said she felt leaders had spoken sincerely in apologising to survivors of orphanages and homes.
“I don’t think there was not a dry eye in the whole hall,” she said. “We were all moved in the same way.”
Personally, she felt relief that the enormity of institutional cruelty had been acknowledged.
“I came away knowing that people believe me,” she said.
“Before you could not tell anyone because no one would believe you. As children we were to be seen and not heard… not to say anything about what had happened.”
In 1962, Patricia, her sister and two younger brothers were placed in a Methodist Church-run home, authorities having judged their mother unfit to care for them. Their parents had separated that year and later divorced. She spent six years in the Orana Children’s home from 6 to 13.
Mrs Slattery blames her three failed marriages and an attempted suicide on her years in the home.
She also sees the suicide of her youngest brother, aged 47, as a result of his fractured childhood.
His sons, aged 19 and 22 both attended Wednesday’s Forgotten Australians ceremony.
“It was something we could not talk about,” she said.
“When they heard the speeches they were both in tears. They said they could now understand what he was on about.
They always thought their father was hard on them. Because we were not shown love we didn’t know how to show it back. The boys felt they weren’t loved.”
Mrs Slattery says her own life was “one upheaval after another” until her fourth marriage when she and her husband, Noel, quit Victoria for North Queensland.
They settled in Townsville about 10 years ago and probably would still be here, but for the Senate Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care in 2004, and the emergence of advocacy groups such as Care Leavers of Australia Network.
Newspaper stories about compensation claims by former wards of the state gave her courage to talk to her sister about their experiences in Ormond – in particular sexual abuse.
She joined CLAN, an advocacy group for people who grew up in Australia’s orphanages and Children’s Home, and initiated legal action against the Uniting Church – incorporating Ormond’s former operator, the Methodist Church.
Mrs Slattery and her husband had moved from Townsville reluctantly last year because they could not afford frequent flights to Melbourne to pursue cases against the church and government.
“The church has said they hope it can be settled amicably,” she said. “We are still waiting for a decision on compensation by the governments of NSW, Victoria and the Northern Territory.”
She said police were investigating her allegations of sexual assault.
Mrs Slattery said she had met some other former Orana ‘wardies’ at Parliament House.
She also recognised a few Queenslanders, but no one from Townsville.
“There are probably half a dozen people in Townsville that I know of in my position,” she said.
“There would be more but because of the stigma involved they will not come out.
“They were told they were being sent to a place for naught children and believed it.
“Parents threatened their children ‘if you don’t behave you will be sent to a home’.”
She hopes that stigma will vanish with this week’s apologies and new measures such the government’s recognition of the special needs of the Forgotten Australians.
“This is the first step in quite a few steps that will take place (but) most are happy with what we got”, she said.
But she feels she is unlikely every to shake her loathing of Melbourne.
“We were averse to moving back to Victoria,” she said.
“It’s a very edgy experience – we will be glad to move away.
“We had so many friends up there in Townsville who supported me.
“Cobram is good because I can cross the Murray and I am into NSW and just a state away from Queensland.”