Childhood memories of beatings and sexual molestation at the hands of state-employed child carers are very real for Wilma Robb. They resurfaced when she gave detailed evidence of her experiences to the SARC Inquiry.
“Since my days of incarceration in the New South Wales juvenile justice institutions I have found it very hard to trust people, talk, sleep or feel at ease. I have gone through life at the mercy of whatever moods and dysfunctions that have been operating at the time. I experience rapid and shallow breathing, a condition brought on automatically through fear that was conditioned into me at Hay and Parramatta.”
Wilma Robb commenced the state-sponsored institutionalisation process as a five-year-old when she was placed in Dalmar Children’s Home, Carlingford, NSW, after her mother developed stomach cancer. Wilma spent the majority of her childhood in state-sponsored care after being declared at “moral risk” and was made a state ward. Although Wilma has never had a criminal record as either a child or an adult she has experienced one of Australia’s most brutal and soul destroying incarceration processes.
December 15, 1961 the then 13-year-old Wilma ran away from Lisgar Church of England Hostel for Girls, Arncliffe. She was recaptured and sent to Ormond House, Thornleigh, as an uncontrollable child. Wilma absconded from Ormond House on January 17, 1962 and was again recaptured. She was sentenced to nine months as an uncontrollable child and being exposed to moral danger. She was then sent to the Parramatta Girls Training School.
It was there a depersonalisation process of institutional programming began for Wilma. The humiliation began with regular medical inspections where the girls were stripped naked, legs parted, arms extended shoulder height while their entire body was inspected from head to toe. Internal examinations were conducted digitally to determine if the girl’s virginity was intact or not.
“It was my body being violated. I had no control over my own body but they did. I was getting raped.” Wilma said. “That is how it felt then. It still feels the same today.”
The issue of sanitary pads was another humiliation for girls inside Parramatta. Sanitary pads had to be handed back after use to monitor possible pregnancies.
“This was the most intrusive and degrading experience I was put through during puberty.” Wilma recalled. “After running around, doing hard labour and chafing between the legs, I had to stand and show a bloody broken stinking pad. It was a very shameful, dirty and humiliating part of growing up. I always suffered from heavy bleeding but to have to show and prove I needed a change was so unfair and barbaric. My shame was being a girl.
“I watched my daughter and granddaughter go through their menstrual cycle. It was so personal and very embarrassing for them. Something I never had. It was taken from me.”
Wilma rebelled against the humiliation. Her defiance invoked the wrath of those employed to protect, nurture and care for her. She was brutally punished with bouts of solitary.
“I remember once in Parramatta pissing and shitting myself while I was getting bashed in the isolation cell. I was told it was the ‘bad’ coming out of me.”
On another occasion Wilma was beaten with her hands tied behind her back, her hair held and her face bashed into a sink in the shower block by two warders. She lost most of her teeth and, still bleeding, was thrown into solitary for 48 hours. At 15 years old she required a full set of false dentures as a result of the assault.
Other attempts to curb her defiance resulted with Wilma being force fed doses of the anti-psychotic medication Largactil which left her in a continual zombie-like state.
“I was so programmed I had no use for my thoughts, feelings or being human, I was alien, I belonged to the system. They crushed my spirit. They took my mind.”
It was July 24, 1963 when Wilma was transferred to the Hay Institution for Girls. The institutionalised violence and brutalisation of Parramatta was reinforced and perpetuated by legitimised state-sponsored carers at Hay.
“I didn’t know what Hay was about until I went there. Nobody did. But I knew I was going. I could feel it.” Wilma recalled. “I was scared shitless but I didn’t care. I wouldn’t let them see it. It was my way of hiding the fear. It was the only way I knew how to cope with the abuse.”
On her arrival at Hay Institution for Girls she was led into a cell-block where two officers held Wilma’s arms and a third hacked off her hair.
“They took my long hair. I wasn’t myself anymore. I felt naked.” Wilma said. “Hair changes everything. It changed my identity straight away. I will always remember looking up and getting yelled at: ‘GET YOUR EYES DOWN! WELCOME TO HAY!’”
It was then Wilma was told the rules:
“No talking. No eye contact. No attitude. Do it hard or easy. It doesn’t worry me. We will either make you or break you. Understood?”
Wilma was fitted out with clothes and then put to work scrubbing a cell with a bucket, wire brush and a brick.
“We had to scrub all the paint off walls and they had to be able hear the brick and the brush at all times. This went on for ten days straight.
“At Hay there was no education only conditioning, brainwashing and programming. It was a behavioural training experiment.” Wilma said. “We missed out on being children. There was no laughter, joy, fun or things that kids should have had. We were a child welfare experiment.”
After five months at Hay she was returned to Parramatta.
“When we returned to Parramatta it was impossible to be normal. We were experimental robots. We were freaks unable to function properly outside Hay.” Wilma said. “Within 24 hours of my return to Parramatta I copped a bashing and isolation from the Superintendent for doing what I had been programmed to do at Hay.
“I had no eye contact with anyone and marched everywhere at the double. I was bashed and tormented while they tried to undo what Hay had programmed me into. I had nothing left. I was a broken spirit. They took it all.”
On July 23, 1966, after her release from Parramatta, the NSW Child Welfare Department stole Wilma Robb’s last chance of happiness as an adolescent.
“Welfare took my first born son from me within minutes of being born. They threatened me with Parramatta again.” Wilma reflected thoughtfully. “In 1987 I applied for information about my son. It was then I found out my real age. They had suppressed that information too. I found out I was not a state ward when I gave birth. I was 18-years-old. I had every right to be a mother to my first born son. My rights had been violated again.”
Hay Institution for Girls, Tamworth Institution for Boys and similar child welfare institutions utilised for state-sponsored child care were the Frankenstein monsters of a bygone era. They were monsters cloaked in secrecy by the NSW Child Welfare Department and were used to brutalise and emotionally scar children inside their walls. They served no other useful purpose. The unintended consequences of that institutional brutalisation process cloaked under a guise of state-sponsored care continue to occupy Australian prison cells and mental institutions today.
Most of the brutal child minders employed to oversee those state-sponsored child care processes escaped detection and possible legal retribution. They retired to lead productive lives as respected members of society while people like Keith Higgins, Marlene Riley, Mick Kennedy, Wilma Robb and the many others who suffered under their state-sponsored care continue to grapple with the demons unleashed by their stolen childhood innocence.