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Placed into foster care with her sisters. Then it started....

Rosie.

Trigger warning: This post may raise issues for readers who have experience with sexual abuse.

By ROSIE WATERLAND

My parents struggled with… being parents. My sisters and I endured a turbulent childhood. There are many who have had better and many who have had worse. But it was, in the very least, unique.

A by-product of this unique upbringing was that we often found ourselves being ‘taken away’. ‘Removed from care’. Shipped around, basically. We were lucky enough to have extended family to step in and take care of us most of the time, but it was a big ask: taking on three young girls is no easy feat. So when all other family avenues had been exhausted, we ended up in our very first foster home.

And it was there that we were molested.

In foster home terms, we had apparently hit the jackpot. It was a very wealthy family, who lived in a massive house in Pennant Hills. Their only son went to an exclusive private school and was around the same age as us. Everybody kept saying that we were just so lucky that anyone was willing to take on all three girls, especially when one was a toddler. Which is true. My older sister was 13, I was 10 and my younger sister was 3. It’s very unusual for three siblings to be able to stay together in situation like that. We were so, so lucky.

The first night we went to live with them, it was like a dream. We dropped off our stuff in the biggest house I’d ever seen and then drove up to their farm for the weekend. (A house and a farm? What, WHAT!?!) There was a tennis court, tree house, waterslide, flying fox and they adopted abandoned Joeys. That’s baby kangaroos! We couldn’t believe how awesome it was! Then it was time to take a bath.

There was no hot water, so the dad heated some up on the fire outside, took us to the bathroom and poured it into a massive tub. He told us to jump in… and then he just stood there. My sister and I looked at each other. “Come on!” he said. “Before it gets cold!” And still, he just stood there. He obviously intended to stay, and everything was just so awesome and there was a tree house and we were just so lucky.

So I took off my clothes and jumped in. I didn’t particularly want to, but I remember thinking that maybe that’s just how their family did things so I should just do it. My sister on the other hand, got as far as her undies and refused to take them off. He tried convincing her several times but she stood firm. They had an intense staring standoff until she just got in the tub with her undies on. To this day, I vividly remember the look on her face. It was equal parts confusion, desperation and humiliation. I tried to embrace the whole thing, laughing as he sat on the edge of the tub splashing us with water. But my sister stayed quiet.

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Later that night, as we sat around the fire outside, the dad asked me to come and sit on his lap. As soon as I did, he reached inside my pants and rested his hand on my bum. I froze. I had tried to pass off the bath thing as a family quirk but this was definitely wrong. Or was it? I was only a kid. Men don’t do stuff like that to kids! He must be just playing around! Maybe they just touch bums in this family? But as his fingers tickled my skin and moved further and further forward, my whole body stiffened.

I thought of my grandma, who we’d been living with right before we came there. She told me that if anything went wrong, if anything didn’t feel right, to call her straight away. And as I sat there, with this strange man’s hand massaging my bum, I stared into the fire and debated whether or not this constituted a phone call. It definitely didn’t feel right. But we were so lucky to be there! I didn’t want to ruin everything and be split up from my sisters only to find out afterward that some people just stick their hands down your pants to be nice. So I stayed quiet.

We lived there for almost a year and it continued the whole time. I shared a bath with my little sister from that point on, which he always joined us in the bathroom for. My older sister showered alone, but she wasn’t allowed to lock the door, and he always found reasons to be in there – like checking if she needed a towel, or bringing her a hot chocolate (because everybody drinks hot chocolate in the shower).

Apart from always wanting to be there when we were naked, the hands down the pants thing also kept going. Getting tucked in, sitting on his lap, watching TV, getting a hug: the hands were down the pants. It never felt normal to me, but since his wife must have seen it half the time, I just assumed it was normal to them, and that it wasn’t my place to say anything. My sister and I never talked about it. Not even that first night after the bath. Not even when he would go into her bedroom and close the door just to say goodnight. I kept telling myself that we were kids, and nobody would think that way about kids, so I must be misinterpreting it. I must be.

After a year of this, my Mum got it together enough for us to return home (this happened many times) and about 12 months after that, my mum received a phone call. It was the police, and they were investigating claims of sexual abuse made by other girls who had lived with the same foster family.

She called us into the living room and asked us if anything strange had ever happened while we there. My sister and I looked at each other, and after a moment of tense silence, burst out laughing. I can’t explain that reaction. I guess we both always knew that the other one knew, and finally looking each other in the face with mutual understanding was a little overwhelming.

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We told my mum everything that night and were formally interviewed by the police a couple of days later. I remember we still tried to tone the whole thing down though, which in hindsight, I know came from humiliation. There was a sense of not wanting anyone to think we had played a part in something sexual – after all, we hadn’t stopped it, so does that mean we were okay with it? Wouldn’t it be easier and less embarrassing if we all just acted like nothing fishy happened?

It’s only now as adults that we have been able to deconstruct everything that went on and get angry about it. Particularly since the man in question was, as far as I know, never charged. Many years later, I saw him being celebrated on the cover of a newspaper for his charity work. When I called my sister and told her, she cried in frustration. There’s also feelings of guilt there, as investigators at the time wanted us to testify in court but we were both just too uncomfortable with it.

Too young, too confused and too embarrassed.

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Given the emotional scars we carry from what could be considered only a mild case of abuse, I cannot even begin to imagine the inner-turmoil suffered by those children who have experienced sexual abuse at its most hideous extreme. Particularly when that abuse occurs in foster care, where many children are at their most vulnerable.

When my grandma found out about what had happened, the first thing she said to me was, “Why didn’t you tell me? I would’ve have come there immediately!” I felt so guilty that I hadn’t. I wanted to tell her that I did think about it. That very first night, sitting by the fire with a grown man’s hand down my pants, all I could think was that I should call grandma.

But my sisters and I were very conscious of being a burden on our family, that’s why we kept having to go into foster care, because they were overwhelmed.

I’m sure I’ve been looking back and contemplating this experience the last couple of weeks because of the announcement of the federal royal commission into child abuse. I say bring it on. Because mine is just one story of thousands. And of those thousands, most kids were either too scared to tell their grandmas or had no grandmas to tell. I hope this commission gives a voice to the children abused by those in the institutions that were meant to care for them. And I hope that voice is loud enough to effect some actual change.

If this post brings up issues for you, or you just need someone to talk to, please call Lifeline on 131 114.

Rosie Waterland is a writer based in Sydney. She finds her own jokes particularly hilarious. Follow her blog here or twitter here.

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