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Family rape victims delivered to a worse hell

  • 07 September 2015

'"Girls like you ... "

How the state of Victoria used to 'care' for its most vulnerable!

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