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Holly's story

Floral wallpaper with text overlaid. The text reads: "21 years."

My first memory is of domestic violence.

It was my father pushing my mother against the kitchen stove.

I was between 2 and 3 years old.

It is quite surreal as a memory as it feels like it was so long ago and yet it is really clear.

After that there are not any memories apart from that. You have your violent memories, then your really positive memories. There is nothing in between.

Pretty soon after that we moved into a refuge.

In my home, the violence was normalised – we would watch our mother being beaten up and we would laugh, because we were used to it. It would happen every day. Then my mother told me and my siblings we were going on a holiday to a fun place. We were going to a refuge. I was about 4.

We did not make the connection between the violence and the holiday.

In the refuge, it was no different.

My brother and I were being quite naughty one day and one of the women who ran the refuge put us in a room, turned off the lights and locked the door. It was really scary for us. She told my mother she was disciplining us for her, that as a mother she should discipline us better. Mum had to rescue us from that room. There was no understanding from that worker of what trauma was like and the impact an experience like that would have on us, having already seen all that violence. It wasn’t a positive experience being at the refuge, but it wasn’t the worst.

I remember a boy at the refuge threw my barbie doll over the fence and the refuge staff would not get it back for me. It was my first barbie doll I ever had.  It just went over the fence and it was gone forever.

After a month we went home.

I have since asked my mum why she did not tell us that we were going to the refuge and she said that she did not want to burden us with that. Mum never told us that domestic violence was not okay, I wish she had. Then we would have known it was not okay, we would not have assumed it would be okay.

Things would have been different.

I did not know what a normal family should be like. We didn’t know anything but the violence. And for both my mother and father, domestic violence was intergenerational. If my mother had a different experience as a child, she would not have ended up in the experience she did.

And then I would not have either.

My mother has always been steadfast in the fact that she loves us.

Even when she wasn’t there, she still loved us.

The violence went beyond Mum to us kids. I was next in line when I was between 8 and 12 years. I was the oldest – I was the one who had to protect my siblings and I bore a lot of the violence. We were beaten with a broomstick, his hands, his belt.

I would lock myself in the bathroom. One time he was beating on the door, the door flung open and knocked me back and I hit my head on the bath. Then he set in on beating me.

He was also verbally abusive. He called my brother retarded. He would tie my brother to his bed with ropes when my mother left the house.

You would have violence from all sides really.

I remember vividly the constant fear.

There’s a gripping fear that is in your chest – constantly knowing that any wrong move will lead to you being beaten. I had a constant heightened state, to survive. It was fight or flight. The rules were you did not fight – not your father.  We removed the door handles from the outside of our doors so that he could not get in to the room. Then we could go out the window and run. Or you would have to find places to go where there was less of an impact.

The school did not pick up on it at all. 

I internalised it. It would build up and then one kid would do something and I would lash out.

The quiet kid who internalises and is quiet does not get picked up.

When I was 7 or 8, I was in out-of-home care for a year. It was only meant to be 3 days.

My mum put us in out-of-home care for 3 days so that they could move house. Just before we were put in care there was a violent episode. DHHS saw their chance and took it. I had to get in a car with complete strangers. I remember crying myself to sleep every night.

We moved to 15 placements in 6 months.

Then we were in a family group home for 3 months. That was the best experience I had. The carer was constantly there, he was a decent guy and always looked out for our best interests. He had a real commitment to us kids.

Then we were put into a unit.

Then I was put in a ‘permanent’ foster care placement, then 3 days later, we went home.

Before I went into care I was at the same school – my mother paid for us to go to a private school for 2 years. I don’t know how she did it, but she wanted us to have a proper education.

DHHS were watching us, that was quite clear. When I sprained my wrist, DHHS came to my home and took me to the hospital. We had a case worker. We had help from services but it didn’t do much really.

I got my friend’s family to ring the police when my dad hurt my mum again.

Dad was beating Mum and she told me to go up the street and get help and I did. The police came but nothing happened – my dad and mum said that nothing had happened and so the police did nothing. My mother told me years later that Dad said to her many times: "If you leave me I’ll hunt you down and put you in a body bag - and the kids." This was why she never told the police what happened. My father always controlled and isolated my mother – I remember the constant belittling of her existence. He made sure we were constantly moving house - there was never any stability for her to gather her thoughts and build connections. So she was never able to do anything about the violence.

There was nothing she could do.

She was beaten every day.

She was a trapped on all sides.

It got to the point where the violence and control had taken its toll on our mother – she was in so much pain physically and emotionally that she was on medication and she could not take care of herself or us. People told me that I acted as a mother to my siblings when my mother was not able to.

When my father was charged with offences that had nothing to do with us, that’s when the system stepped in.

School was my one stable place. I was always in a heightened state – in fight or flight mode.

You get bullied because you are so different but you have friends.

Sixth graders would come and knock down your sandcastle and then bash you up. They knew I was different – you have a dirty uniform and stick out – they didn’t know what was wrong with my home. They did not know why I was different.

So I copped it everywhere.

School was my one stable place.

Until the strangers in suits came to school.

I felt safe at school before that, and then they came into a place I felt safe – I shut down. I did not understand what they were saying – I thought: "What are these people going to do to me?" I was called to the office and I was left alone in a room with these strangers. There were no teachers, no-one who I knew. And then the strangers asked me questions.

"Tell us about your life."

"Tell us about what your mother and father do."

That happened to all my siblings on that day. That was a traumatising experience in itself.

Then we ended up in the Children’s Court. Again we were put in rooms with strangers. Only this time it was a lawyer who asked the questions. It was another traumatising experience. For 2 weeks we sat at the Children’s Court with Mum and Dad. We knew that the people were trying to take us away from Mum and Dad. People just assume that kids don’t understand. They think: "there is no point in explaining this to a kid." But we knew. My siblings and I were sitting in the waiting area of the Children’s Court making an escape plan, in case they came to take us away. Then we were taken.

"We’re splitting you guys up."

I wanted to be with my sister. I was crying my eyes out. I said goodbye to my parents in the presence of DHHS and they put us in different cars. Then I was by myself in a car by myself. It took them just 30 minutes to split us up. I never lived with my mother again.

I didn’t see some of my siblings for about 4 months.

I was in out-of-home care until I was 18.

I just wanted to go home.

There was no-one I could talk to. There was no-one I could trust. I lost all trust as soon as I came into the out-of-home care system.

I don’t think people understand that kids pick up on language and overhear the conversations like "they are damaged" or "your family doesn’t want you." I heard those things and I thought: "it’s my fault because I said this to the DHHS worker, this is why I am here."

It never goes away – the trauma, the feelings, the memories, its not about the experience – what remains with you is the feeling you had in that situation. You remember the intense moment of feelings for the rest of your life. 

I was in a long-term placement with my siblings and a young family. That was when I began to realise that our lives had not been normal. But our lives were still not normal. We were treated differently to the children that were born into that family. There was not enough support for them – they did not have the money to care for us full time. It was stressful as they had a whole family of children, some with tough behavioural issues and who had lived with violence and neglect. Some of my siblings only knew to communicate through violence that they needed something.

Then the whole placement broke down. It was the most traumatising event. I thought I had a family where I could live until I was 18 and it just crumbled within 24 hours.

DHHS again came to my school – you know as soon as they come to invade your school that you are moving on.

The next day you go back to school and there is the car, the DHHS worker, the case worker, so you get in the car you can’t go back there.

We were put into another placement.

I still don’t know why the placement broke down.

I didn’t leave my room for 3 days. I refused to eat. I refused to hug and comfort my siblings.

We lived together as siblings but had rotating staff coming in every 8 hours. Barely anyone was the same. The food was bad. Up until then I had worked hard to have good grades. I was getting 80% and 90% marks. But I could not do it anymore. My last term of year 11 I really began to struggle.

My mental health suffered, it was almost impossible to process all of it – to cope with everything that happened before and then to lose the stability of another family. I reached rock bottom and knew I would either break down entirely or I could pick myself up and keep going.

I never knew that they had case meetings and were making decisions behind my back. I did not even know I had a leaving care plan.

Eventually I was moved to another placement, which is where I am now. The person who took me in is the most patient person I have ever met. She took her time and taught me valuable things

I never had the time to just be a normal kid and be a normal teenager.

But with her I did. She showed me how to cook a meal, how to communicate with another person. She showed me how to call someone on the phone and book a doctor’s appointment. If people had worked with me enough, I would have been able to do those things.

I am one in a million and I am still not to the point where I am recovered – I will probably never be a completely recovered person. There were a lot of supports in place for me, despite the bad system. But I always have underlying guilt that I got the support and my siblings did not.

My brother Jack, who was very close in age to me, did not get any support. Because he constantly ran away and left care, he was allowed to live with our mother. As he was not in care, he did not have access to support and he did not want any supports. For him, having support equalled being weak. He had an ongoing build-up of the effects of trauma and all his negative emotions and at the end of it he just could not cope any more.

Jack committed suicide. He was only 18.

I worry that my other siblings will go down the path of suicide.

Most of the things that have occurred have been a result of our father’s actions, and a lot of it can also be attributed to the system as a whole.

I was extremely lucky and if I had to relive my life, I would not change it. If I hadn’t had the life I did, I would not be the person I am today. I would have been a lot more ignorant and less understanding. There are things that you learn from experiences like mine that gives you the capacity to understand why people end up who they are.

People automatically assume that we kids in out-of-home care will never make it.

I have no idea why I came out like this but there are a few things that explain why I am who I am.

My mother always told us that she loved us and always said she would be there for us.

She would always be a constant.

She was the person I could trust.

I could tell her anything and she would say that she would love us no matter what we did.

I want kids in the same situation as me to know:

Your origin is not your future. 
Your origin is not who you will be.

In the out-of-home care system, you get to adulthood and there is no support. You are expected to make it through somehow, expected to be a successful contributing member of society. The successful ones are shown 'look how well we did' but it wasn’t their support, it was the child themselves who found the support. We found some outlet that allowed us to go and see that we did not have to be the people we were.

We need to stop seeing adult perpetrators and adult victims and we need to see the child victim and see that is who they turn into.

I just feel so angry at the way we treat children in our society – we either neglect them or go way over the top. It is an extremely complicated thing and family violence is one small stone in a massive flowing river. There is so much else that goes along with it that hurts children. It’s what comes after – the services to help children recover, that makes the difference.

I’m lucky because I had the time to build a positive relationship with my mother. There was positivity around my birth. She always told us she loved us. But I know there are other children in our society and in the out-of-home care system that don’t have that.

I would prefer that no kids go through what my family have been through and if I can make it one less kid, that is something amazing in itself.