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Wilma’s story

By Bernie Matthews - posted Wednesday, 22 August 2007

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.

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This is an edited extract from Griffith REVIEW 16: Unintended Consequences (ABC Books). Full essay is available at

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About the Author

Bernie Matthews is a convicted bank robber and prison escapee who has served time for armed robbery and prison escapes in NSW (1969-1980) and Queensland (1996-2000). He is now a journalist. He is the author of Intractable published by Pan Macmillan in November 2006.

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