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Against the Odds: Care Leavers at University

Against the Odds
Care Leavers at University
Edited by:
Deidre Michell, David Jackson
& Casey Tonkin
First Published 2015
People’s Voice Publishing
PO Box 582 Elizabeth, South Australia 5112
Copyright © 2015 individual contributors
ISBN 978 0 9871858 4 6
Printed in Australia by Rainbow Press, Dry Creek, SA
Care to University, Reeny Jurcyszyn 13
To Learn is to Live, Gregory P. Smith 21
Part of My Story, Kimberley Hobbs 33
A Lonely Little Girl Goes to University, Pam Petrilli 41
Up from the Lowest Rung, Deidre Michell 55
The Continuing Education of the Artist
as a Mature Woman, Rachel Romero 65
I set off on an unchartered course…
and found myself drifting, David Jackson 75
Navigating My Way to a Bachelor of Arts Degree in
the 1960s, Karen Laura-Lee Wilson 89
Going to the Shop, Frank Goulding 103
University Lectures and Lessons in Life,
Stacey Page 113
Why Richard Kingsmill is My God,
Davida Bache 121
A Tertiary Moment, Ryszard Szablicki 129
Choice or Constraint in Everyday Life,
Judith Anne Brooker 137
9 Clouds Gets to University, Amanda Gargula 143
Contributors 149
Acknowledgements 153
Notes 155
This book is dedicated to the memory of Bernard Smith (1916 - 2011), an
esteemed Australian art critic, art historian and academicand a former foster kid.
FORMER foster kids are not known for their scholarly endeavours which makes
Bernard Smith, to whom this book is dedicated, an exception to the norm.
Although he is the earliest we have found, he is not the only in what appears to be
a growing tradition of university educated people who have a background in what
is currently called ‘out-of-home care’. Included in this small group of Care
Leavers are some highly esteemed Australians such as the current Chancellor of
London South Bank University, Richard Fairleigh. In this volume we aim to do
three things:
Draw national attention to the fact that there are Care Leavers who have
overcome enormous barriers to achieve bachelor and higher university
degrees. By doing so we hope to contribute to reducing the negative
perceptions, low expectations, and stigma of Care Leavers that is still
widespread in Australian society.
Encourage more Care Leaversof any ageto explore university as an
option confident in the knowledge they are not the first or the only Care
Leaver to have travelled this path.
Provide Care Leavers who are considering university with a community to
which they automatically belong and to which they can go for advice,
guidance and mentoring.
For the purposes of this book, those Australians who spent part or all of their
childhood in ‘out-of-home care’ are called Care Leavers. That is, Care Leavers are
people who, as children or young people, lived away from their birth family in
either formal (government organised) or informal (privately organised) alternative
arrangements. We have chosen the term Care Leavers in order to be as inclusive as
possible. Therefore the term includes those who may also identify as Stolen
Generation (Aboriginal and Torres Strait people forcibly removed from family),
Child Migrants (children shipped to Australia from England and Malta) or
Forgotten Australians (other Australian born children removed from families).
Care Leavers is also inclusive of those who do not identify with any of the above
three groups and those who did not feel cared for while in ‘Care’.
In general, and over an extended period of time, expectations of children in
out-of-home care have been low. Discussion about the educational needs of
children in care has largely focused on providing a level of education that would
equip such children with basic literacy and numeracy skills. This was the case with
orphanages and children’s homes during the 19th century. The early proponents of
foster care in Australia advocated for the education of State children, at least until
the age of thirteen at which point they would remain under State control but be
sent to work. By the beginning of the First World War, however, even these
modest educational aims had been eroded. It was not until the 1960s that concern
about educational outcomes for State kids again featured in public discourse. As a
result of this revival of interest, some Home children were placed, by the State,
into public schools to complete their secondary education. Payments to foster
parents were then extended beyond the compulsory school age of fifteen years, as
it was then, to allow foster kids to also complete the full complement of high
school years.
After this brief flurry of interest in education for children and young people in
care during the 1960s, attention lapsed until it was renewed in 2001 by the
CREATE Foundation, a national support and advocacy group for children and
young people in care. In 2006 CREATE acknowledged that, despite considerable
progress, State children and young people continued to fall behind the general
population in educational outcomes. Their 2013 Report Card suggests ongoing
An erratic interest in, and practice of, providing education to children in State
Care combined with a lack of formal interest in them once they have aged out of
the system, and a dearth of knowledge about those who have been in informal
care, means we do not know how many Care Leavers have gone on to university
and taken up professional careers. There is, however, an emerging interest in this
area and two postgraduate studies have recently been completed. Care Leaver and
former foster kid Reeny Jurczyszyn, who has contributed a chapter to this book,
conducted research with a small sample of Queenslander Care Leavers, some of
whom were attending or having completed university programs, in order to
understand what factors affected this level of education. Kathy Mendis interviewed
a diverse group of eighteen Care Leaver women all with university degrees. Her
study confirms the importance of children in care having contact with at least one
‘significant adult’ who actively fosters education.
A focus on improving the educational outcomes of the estimated 40,000
children and young people living in out-of-home care is imperative. Education,
particularly involvement in university education, plays an important role in
facilitating a general sense of well-being through enhanced career prospects and
earnings; better physical and mental health; access to, and participation in, broader
social and community relationships; higher self-esteem; and general positive life
outcomes. Those who do participate in higher education are therefore far less
likely to experience the manifestations of social exclusion such as unemployment,
homelessness, mental ill-health, substance abuse, and prison time.
Our contribution to lifting the standards of education provided to current
children and young people in out-of- home-care is to raise expectationsof the
children and young people themselves, and of those in the wider communityby
demonstrating that it is possible to come from an out out-of-home care background
and achieve a university education.
Our concern, however, is not only for current children and young people in
out-of-home care, but for Care Leavers of all ages. Many older Care Leavers were
deprived of a decent education and suffered through the lack of it. Some like
Yoonthalla Close, have redressed this themselves later in life.
Yoonthalla sees herself as a role model for Care Leavers. She believes that if
she, a vision impaired woman whose education was seriously neglected in children
homes, can take herself to university at the age of fifty-eight and gain a Bachelor
of Arts Degree, then so can anyone else who wants to, a view echoed by Davida
Bache in this volume. Yoonthalla, a Wiradjuri woman and former Ward of the
(NSW) State, says that her four years completing that degree was the “most
brilliant magnificent journey” of her life. When she commenced she was unable to
type, had never used a computer and, because of her vision problems, studied by
first laying a magnifying sheet across an open book before taking to it with a
magnifying glass. In spite of her difficulties, Yoonthalla managed to achieve
mostly Distinctions and High Distinctions and was subsequently appointed Chair
of the Disability Council for the Queensland Government. She then began a PhD
and worked as a Research Assistant at the University of Southern Queensland in
Other Care Leavers with a university education have contributed to a national
movement which culminated in formal Federal Government recognition of, and
apologies for, the hardship endured by those in ‘care’.
In 2007 Dr Joanna Penglase was awarded the Order of Australia for her work
as an advocate for Care Leavers. She is cofounder with Leonie Sheedy of the Care
Leavers Australia Network (CLAN). Joanna, who grew up in a children’s home,
first obtained a Bachelor of Arts Degree at the University of Sydney with Honours
in History in 1966. In 1990 she commenced a PhD in Sociology at Macquarie
University during which she met Leonie who was among the ninety people with
experiences of children’s home and orphanages Joanna interviewed. Realising
there was a need for recognition and support of Care Leavers, Joanna and Leonie
incorporated CLAN and held their first public meeting in 2000. CLAN has since
gone on to become a national advocacy and support organisation that successfully
lobbied for the 2004 Senate Inquiry, the Australian Government’s Apology to the
Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants in 2009 and, with others, for the
current Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Another university educated Care Leaver and advocate is Professor David
Plowman (1942-2013). He was chair of the Child Migrants of Malta group from
2002 until 2009. David arrived in Australia in 1953 as one of 310 Maltese child
migrants sent to Australia between 1950 and 1965. From teacher’s college David
won a scholarship to undertake a Master of Arts in Industrial Relations at the
University of Melbourne. For almost 20 years David worked in the Department of
Industrial Relations at the University of New South Wales, and in 1993 took up the
position of Director at the University of Western Australia Graduate School of
Management. In 2012 David was also awarded an Order of Australia for his work
in lobbying for the recognition of Maltese child migrants to Australia.
Former Chairman and Managing Director of the Australian Broadcasting
Commission (ABC) and former Chair of CREATE, David Hill, was a child
migrant, too, but from Britain. David was inspired by his 2005 Diploma of
Classical Archaeology to conduct an oral history study of the Fairbridge Farm
School at Molong NSW, to which he and his twin brother Richard were sent in
1959. David’s 2007 book, The Forgotten Children, tells the story of the child
emigration scheme founded by Kingsley Fairbridge (1885-1924) and the brutality
meted out to many children in the Molong School. Both David and Richard have
university degrees despite starting work at the age of fifteen. Richard studied at
night school in Sydney and then went to London where he gained a masters
degree in Law and became an investment banker. David matriculated at East
Sydney Technical College, won a teaching scholarship to Sydney University, and
finished with a masters degree in Economics.
In this book we have fourteen more inspiring stories of Care Leavers who have
attempted a university education, most of whom have been successful and all of
whom have been enriched by the experience. A common theme running through
the majority of stories is the benefit of Federal Government programs.
The volume is divided into four parts. In Part One are the stories of four Care
Leavers who have recently completed Bachelor and higher level degrees.
The collection of stories in Part Two are from Care Leavers who all attended
university as mature age students having first completed their secondary education
as teenagers.
Extending the possibility of a university education to those from other than
elite backgrounds has long been a feature of the Australian landscape through the
provision of scholarships and ‘studentships’. In Part Three are stories from two
Care Leavers assisted to attend university because of this Federal Government
In the final section of the book are the narratives of five Care Leavers who
qualified to attend university but have not completed their studies.
We hope that all who read Against the Odds: Care Leavers at University will
be as inspired as we have been by these tales of tremendous courage, resilience
and determination
Deidre Michell, David Jackson & Casey Tonkin
Part One
Recent Completions
Care to University
Reeny Jurczyszyn
THE FINAL edit of this work was done on the day of my PhD graduation. Sitting
on a stage with my red and black robe, I could only think about the circuitous
journey it took to get there. Not only was it the progress from finishing school
without an Overall Position, this was about the challenge of leaving care and
realising you never leave care. What happens in care is enduring and going into
higher and further education, your enrolment, attendance and completion is a very
different experience to that of your peers. This is the story of 18 years in care and
18 out and the many challenges with those 18 years in realising a PhD was
achievable. My name is Reeny Jurczyszyn and this is my educational journey.
In 1996, I finished high school at the local state school. Year 12 was a year full
of turmoil as my birth mother reconnected and subsequently passed away just after
I finished, and I moved into independent living at the age of 17 years. Whilst I was
intensely lonely after leaving the foster home and struggled to manage the duality
of preparing to leave care and live independently, I had one positive experience.
This was enrolling in a TAFE course in hospitality, something I was good at. Back
then the day the Queensland Tertiary Admissions Centre published in the
newspaper your offer was an important one. It was a game changer, the gateway to
new beginnings with no Overall Position (you need an Overall Position to gain
entry into university in Queensland).
On the first day of class introductions were made and we were all asked why
we had enrolled and what our goals were.
The woman sitting next to me said with oozing clarity, I am here to upgrade
my Overall Position to get into university.”
It was like she dropped a boulder on the floor, the silence was startling. Others
had described career goals of becoming chefs and restaurant managers. I thought at
the time, if she can do that, why can’t I? Why, coming from care, is that not a
possibility? Why was that not explained to me in preparing to leave school?
The fact was I had one person talk to me about going to university in my early
teens in a café over a banana milkshake. The child safety officer, Verna, was
asking about what I wanted to do. Upon talking about careers and considering
university she thought being in care shouldn’t be a barrier, however she accepted
that there could be financial challenges to fund such pursuits. Someone asking
about what I wanted to do and be and then someone talking about a pathway going
to university from school wasn’t an option. Having someone ask what you want to
do and then having information about how to do this was the key to creating a
fundamental change in my own trajectory.
Managing TAFE full-time, working part-time to fund the costs of independent
living, trying to deal with the death of my birth mother, and leaving my foster
family - I look back on all this as very hard and sustained challenges. At times
there was tin fruit in my fridge and bread. That was it. I was getting on a train late
at night from Indooroopilly to Ipswich, alone, yet with what seemed
insurmountable demands as a 17 year old.
I did make a peer friendship with this young woman who wanted to go to
university and she supported me in maintaining focus to finish. She would take me
to her house for a family meal at times and drive me to TAFE in her pink Suzuki
to provide some relief from the costs of transport. I have maintained contact with
my friend who is now a teacher and I have told her the influence she had was
something everyone in care should have. We finished a Diploma in Hospitality
together mid-way through the year and, upon completion, I was speaking to a
teacher who told me about working in a resort and the opportunities this created
financially. Another TAFE friend, who had also applied for work at the Ayres
Rock Resort, had similar ambitions to save money for university. We shared a
staff flatette together, worked in the same areas and counted our savings regularly.
We had meals provided at dinner and lunch and worked fourteen hour days most
days. The unexpected beauty of seeing Ayres Rock was amazing but so too was
living in a community where no one knew your care background. I was treated like
everyone else and that was a watershed experience. I worked at the Ayers Rock
Resort for almost 10 months and during this time was able to get my driving
licence and visit Alice Springs where, because I was staff I could get discounts on
the tourist attractions. On turning 18, I had money in the bank for the first time. I
grew up fast working there too.
While in Ayers Rock, Yulara, I applied to the Queensland Tertiary Admission
Centre to be accepted into university. I had Social Work and Human Resources as
preferences because I wanted to leave the hospitality industry and work with
people in a different capacity. My confidence developed as I had almost $10,000
in the bank and thought I could afford a second-hand car, computer and books
should I get into university. There was no internet back then and I used a public
phone to call the automated service when the offers were made. All my friends and
managers knew when this was to occur and were supportive and encouraging. It
had been this way when I obtained a drivers licence, when the assessor visited
once a month everyone knew who was applying. When I passed it was posted on
the restaurant notice board. Imagine if I had not passed. The night was near and I
had my coins ready. At midnight I went down as there were no mobiles or staff
phones in our rooms. The phone keypad had two redback spiders sitting there and I
had to carefully press the numbers to avoid them. I needed a lot of coins. I heard
my first preference Social Work offered. I was so excited, however I didn’t know
at the time the legacy of this opportunity. No one in my foster or birth family had
completed university and I had no knowledge of what to expect or what was
I completed my work in Ayers Rock with a healthy bank balance and booked
my flight home. I asked to stay with my foster mother for a month until I could
find accommodation in a unit. This was essential as I had nowhere else to stay nor
did I know anyone to support this transition. Within the month I had leased a unit
near university, bought a small second hand car and applied for a job at the
Parkroyal Hotel with someone I knew who had been to Ayres Rock and was now
the manager. Freedom and independence were in my hands with a degree of ease
for the first time.
Arriving off a bus at the University of Queensland, St Lucia Campus, was
something I will never forget. It was like being in a different city. I had never been
to a university before. I lined up to get my student identification card with
hundreds of excited students around, lots of noise and things to do. This was
unlike anything I had experienced previously. Four years on campus ahead and I
soon learned that with freedom comes responsibility. I had never written an
academic assignment before or undertaken study in an adult learning environment.
In my first semester I passed everything with average grades. I had friends who
received higher grades and I learnt how to write better, take notes and each
semester I did better. Managing working part-time again with full-time study and
having intermittent contact with my birth and foster families was at times
unsettling and took a toll on me. Luckily I made good friends, swam in the
swimming pool, seemed to balance the demands and worked hard to overcome
some difficult times. I also reminded myself that, at the end of this, I can get a
better job and no one can take my education away from me. I can control my life
with education and secure a place of stability. I can have a lot of choices and be in
charge of decision making about my family.
To touch on my care experience, I was one of six children who all went into
care. I was one of the two youngest and we were fostered together with a mother
and father with four of their own children. Sadly my foster dad moved out when I
was ten and this left six children with a single mother. I recall reading my file
notes and being upset that the department offered to place us into another foster
home at this period; an option fortunately not exercised by my wonderful foster
mother. Two more children with many others coming and going for respite lived in
our home. We were taught always to be honest, work hard and to be kind to others
and then we will not have our care experiences set us back. This provided a
platform for university life as working hard was something which featured heavily.
Whilst I didn’t return to tin fruit and bread in the fridge, I was acutely aware of my
peers who were often living with their peers, had access to financial means and
enjoyed campus life. In four years I didn’t go to the campus cinema or restaurants,
however I did use the sports facilities which were subsidised and I played touch
football. I had friends who lived in the residences who would return to class
talking about their meals, rooms and access to technology - all provided. I am sure
many of them took this for granted as I sat listening in envy.
Four years went fast. Two placements were undertaken in Social Work both
seventeen weeks full-time. This meant working to fund student fees, rent and food.
It almost broke me. I was working and being assessed as a student. I would work
all weekend, often long into the night, and then return to placement on the
Monday. I was not going to let this compromise the course completion as if you
failed you knew too well your HECS-HELP debt would be more. I completed the
fourth year placement at the Mater Hospital. They offered me a locum job and I
didn’t go to graduation. In my final placement the university was not supportive
with no field visits during placement despite a minimum requirement for two
given the length of placement and final assessment contributing to your degree.
Instead there was an expectation you would just get on with it. I also didn’t have a
family situation where I wanted to go and celebrate this achievement. Looking
back this was a sad indictment on leaving care and whilst I had a supportive foster
mother, she had young children to care for and at the time, I didn’t want to sit there
at graduation and see everyone else with family there. At the time I was quite
despondent with the university and didn’t have any desire to return.
Not long before commencing work, I started a full-time permanent job in
another hospital and relished the freedom, regular pay, not working weekends and
transitioning into a professional career. I loved Social Work and I seemed to be
competent. I became a mother after a few years and when I returned from
maternity leave, the workplace was offering a graduate certificate in management.
There were three places and it was subsidised by work paying for two thirds of the
course. Four people applied and I didn’t make it. My boss at the time reconsidered
and funded another place. Four subjects, a baby and working full-time people
were questioning me and I thought, this is akin to my whole care experience:
working hard, taking opportunities as they arose and not being frightened to give
things a go.
Again I had no idea what to expect with post-graduate study, however others
who had gone before me described a high workload and high expectations. My
experience replicated my undergraduate program, passing in the first subjects then
progressing to receiving distinctions in the last one. I had to relearn to write and it
was a challenge as I had been used to writing in medical charts. Besides, returning
after six years to post-graduate study was not something in my plans, let alone
with a young baby. Finishing this gave me a good grade point average and I had
completed something that let me acquire recognition in my workplace, particularly
with my boss who had funded the extra position. The graduate certificate gave me
confidence and a yearning to do something else. No one knew my care background
as this study was part-time and a lot of work was done in groups so I maintained
my care anonymity well and kept pace with the others. During this time, my
sister’s partner died and it was a very difficult period. She announced she was
pregnant not long after. I had felt a sense of responsibility to her as the only birth
sister I maintained contact with. Shortly before the birth of my son, my partner had
given me feedback that contact with my birth family seemed to be difficult and
would consume me. I had a conversation with my birth father and wanted him to
say he failed as a parent as my birth mother signed adoption papers yet he didn’t. I
did get recognition that he believed he failed however it only changed one thing; I
made a landmark decision to cease all contact. It seemed right and was a
significant relief. My sister was all I had, which explained why I was troubled by
her partner’s death and the subsequent birth of her child.
I managed to complete the course and had others around who were excited.
Again I didn’t go to graduation as I had a lot on, I didn’t want attention or to ask
family to come, despite having a son and partner. I brimmed with a sense of
satisfaction and achievement as the course was seen as a rite of passage for
managers in health and is still talked about with my peers. I shared having a Social
Work student through Griffith University who were establishing a new School of
Social Work. I started to reflect on learning more and doing some research about
out-of-home care. I had not considered going back and doing any more study but I
made inquiries about research and learnt about a research masters and PhD. Never
did I imagine this being part of my pursuit. The more I learnt and heard about
these programs, the more I wanted to consider them.
I started to write a proposal about higher and further education for Care
Leavers and before I knew it I had a wonderful mentor, Professor Clare Tilbury,
who supported a phase of questioning myself about my own abilities, reaching for
the stars and knowing that with hard work, dedication and endurance anything is
possible. I applied into a research masters course. I spent the first year reviewing
the literature on education attainment for people in out-of-home care. I learnt
quickly there wasn’t a lot and what was there identified a consistent theme many
of those in out of home care do not have the same opportunities as our peers and so
much work is required at times to overcome what our peers take for granted. This
includes a family and family home to return to, a safety net of support, financial
assistance, and career and educational guidance, someone to share achievements,
someone who understands the journey from care into further education all on the
backdrop of trying to find your identity, understanding your care years, why you
were in care, what happened in care and managing your post care years which
changes as your life unfolds. This first year was a year of self-reflection as I also
read some of my 450 pages of file notes retrieved from Child Safety which had
never been read from front to back.
I spent a year putting my research proposal together, editing with feedback and
further feedback. Writing a proposal of this size was new territory but I thrived on
it. I asked a lot of questions in the tutorials and soon realised I could apply to
upgrade to PhD as I believed my question and depth was akin to my peer PhD
students. I undertook confirmation with five examiners, one from outside the
school who would consider the upgrade. It was the 20th of December 2007. I came
home and was told I had passed confirmation and had to wait to see if the upgrade
was successful. I had made big plans to celebrate but my partner was sick so I
decided to sit down and reflect with my son who was three years old. No one
understood how I was juggling working full-time, studying and raising a young
son. No one understood what had gone before this time and what occurred in the
care years and soon after. Not growing up with your birth family and feeling like
one of a crowd at times, you learn to survive and thrive. The examination came
through, my upgrade was successful and I soon became a proud PhD candidate,
one I was so inspired by at times. I took this role very seriously and knew it was
going to be a hard and sustained road. It took seven years. I undertook orientation
and the educator said, Few complete if they are working full-time. I had no
choice but to work full-time but I wasn’t going to be in that group of non-
completes. I never thought about giving up although a few critical things occurred.
My relationship with my son’s father broke down. I took this to heart and felt a
failure. It took me a long time to reconcile and adjust.
The upside, which is what friends say I always seek out, was that I had shared
care and could invest, and in fact overinvested, my time in study when my son was
with his father. I was doing the study in a townhouse garage as we had a two
bedroom place and no study. I remember having the wires all-round the townhouse
as there was no WIFI then. Studying became my sanctuary, an area I could control
when and how much I did. I was thrust into learning the research process and had
embarked on writing up a thesis. This was at a time when my foster mother was
diagnosed with cancer, we were told she had only a few months to live. By some
great good fortune she lived two years which gave my son some great memories.
On the other hand watching someone who raised you out of love going through
intense pain and facing death was nothing short of terrifying. I still don’t talk about
this time much. I know my productivity declined as I would visit and support the
two youngest foster children and my mum. It was a very dark period of my life and
I still don’t know how I managed to continue and progress a thesis. It was those
around including close friends and work colleagues who helped but it was my
mentor, Clare, who sustained me the most. I thought I owed it to my foster mother
to complete as it was truly about her work and trying to improve the system for
future foster youth.
During this time, I became a kinship carer for my younger sister who came and
lived with me for a year. Having a teenager in the house was a challenge but it was
something I was proud of in that I was supporting her and pursuing what my foster
mother would have wanted. The most difficult part of this was having the
Department back in my life. The assessment for kinship care was bureaucratic and
didn’t respect my background nor my relationship with my younger sister. At one
point I was asked to lock my medicine cabinet which was situated close to where I
stored my wine. I found this ironic as I would have thought it would be the wine
and vodka which would be more of a possible issue with a teenager. I did however
comply with the acquisition of a fire blanket in the kitchen, safety checks on the
hot water system,and divulged the family background and my parenting styles to
complete the application process. My sister and I had a laugh about the department
being in our lives and recognising how those working for such a service choose
how to apply rules, regulations and processes without understanding who they are
engaging with and the experiences my sister and I had just faced in losing our
mother and trying to keep family together and nurtured.
The day my mother died I had just completed the data collection for my PhD. I
had interviewed others who had care backgrounds and were considering higher
and further education, or were in higher and further education, or had completed. I
had to keep going now as I had engaged with others with care backgrounds and it
was never an option to give up. It felt like my life stopped when my mother died.
My son was five years of age and I had little reference to draw upon with
parenting, managing shared care and just having a cup of tea with her without
judgement when the going got tough. She was someone who told me she was
proud of me. My life still feels saddened and I have learnt it doesn’t get easier
almost five years on. The pain is still there like it occurred yesterday. During my
final conversation with my foster mother, Judith, I said, My birth mother will be
the first to meet you in heaven to thank you for the wonderful job you did raising
us. My foster mother wasn’t able to talk a lot at this point but she did say she
knew my birth mother would be there waiting. I don’t think one can fully recover
from losing a birth mother and then a foster mother. I felt numb but persisted with
the study as again no one could disrupt this apart from me and it couldn’t die. The
thesis became my resilience building strategy.
I always saw myself as one of the Care Leavers. Never elite, lucky or
privileged yet so appreciative of this opportunity to engage with education. I know
that every Care Leaver experience is different and no one will understand
completely from the outside. I learnt two quotes which I consider often. Jan Owen,
founder of CREATE, wrote a book, Every Childhood Lasts a Lifetime and
Commissioner Tim Carmody stated Childhood is Short, Every Moment Counts.
Both resonate with me as I often find myself reflecting about my own childhood
still having an impact 18 years after leaving care, and I agree, it was short.
After seven years of work I handed in my thesis. I had to wait eight weeks
before the examination results were returned. This day was a special one. I
received a text from Clare saying, Check your email, it is positive. I had been
told that no thesis is returned without changes to make and not to expect it all to be
positive. A leader in the field had marked my thesis, Philip Mendes, and the other
examiner had also given a very positive report. Only minor changes were needed. I
was at work and printed these reports out and almost cried. I was on the way to
completing this beast of a journey. I completed the changes and resubmitted. It
was a Thursday afternoon when I received a letter of conferral of PhD, Dr
Jurczyszyn. I came home to my house alone, got on the treadmill and ran for ages.
I had all of this tension built up and I thought if I cry I won’t stop so I exercised. I
received a lovely text from my two supervisors, Clare and Carolyn, who were
overseas, congratulating me. My work gave me flowers, CREATE sent flowers
and I texted my family. I didn’t call as I thought that if I cried it wouldn’t stop.
Again I didn’t want fuss. I was quiet and I thought it would be very different if my
mother was there. My son however was so kind and at nine years old said, You
have done well Mum. This was the most special thing said.
My son has observed a long journey of me working nights after I put him to
bed and before he gets up in the morning; of asking myself if I can really do this;
of having paperwork across the place and, at times, an array of food wrappers and
water bottles in the study as that is where I ate, wrote and lived when he was at his
father’s home. My son has seen me study for most of his life and will have an
opportunity to have someone who talked about university education, campus life
and, most importantly, expect he will do something similar as this is now
normative for someone who has been studying in higher education for twelve
years my son knows no different. I often tell him he might end up doing a trade
but it still requires study and commitment which anyone can achieve with support.
This support could be mentors, teachers and work colleagues but you need it, like
everyone. Being in foster care makes you tough, resilient and durable. It can,
however, also make you not accept help, something I took a long time to accept. I
have now started to celebrate this achievement and actually be proud of it. I am
keen to publish further and ensure the research results are known and contribute to
positive change.
Looking back, I would never have considered studying for twelve years after I
had left care. There was so much to contend with in leaving care, however I learnt
over time education gave me control, lifted my economic prospects, and facilitated
me buying my own townhouse and having stable employment. This prospers into
the next generation. My son, who attends a private school, has sporting
opportunities that surpassed mine I was able to do sport only if it was free.
Importantly he knows no different, having such opportunities is something
hardwired for him now and was a direct result of his mother having an opportunity
to reorientate her life through education. Whilst life continues to have ups and
downs and I am still learning how to deal with life challenges, my education is
something no one can take away from me and something I hold significant
gratitude for. Sitting up on the stage receiving my PhD, no one knew I was a Care
Leaver except my supervisors yet that is something I felt immensely proud of,
sitting there also hoping many more Care Leavers can be afforded such
opportunity. Opportunity also requires some support and no one can do it alone
nor should they be expected to. I will make sure I use my education to the full and
this isn’t the last you will hear from me. Being in care is not my only identity but it
lasts forever alongside education.
To Learn is to Live:
Education Nourishes Self-Worth
Gregory P. Smith
THERE IS always much more to people’s stories than the few words they select to
represent themselves within a project such as this. Each time I tell my story, I tend
to select the story lines or lived experiences according to the desired outcomes or
results I am seeking to achieve. In this story, I have been asked to share my
thoughts on some of the benefits and challenges of gaining a tertiary education for
people who have experienced out-of-home care as children. Any out-of-home
child care can be extremely disruptive to a young person’s ability to construct
routines and to develop dependable relationships. Sometimes just coping with
these challenges becomes the dominant focus. Mostly an education is so far
removed from reality it is not considered as an option. Out-of-home care can
impact negatively on a young person’s sense of self and self-worth as has been my
experience. So, with the limited space allocated to a chapter in a book, I will
attempt to share my reflexive experiences on what I consider to be the key
challenges in gaining an undergraduate degree and how that learning process has
enabled me to advance my education to being a PhD candidate. I will also share
my thoughts on how a university education has impacted on my lived experience,
contributing to a more developed concept of self, building on self-worth and
providing a degree of confidence in my life.
I was born in Tamworth, New South Wales in 1955. I have five sisters, all
younger than me. Our parents were extremely dysfunctional and violent toward
each other and us. Because of infidelity on my mother’s part, four of my siblings
and I were surrendered to a Catholic orphanage in 1965. At that time, it was not
considered important to inform children about issues which affected their lives in
this way, therefore no one took the time to explain to us why we had been removed
from our home and placed in the institutional care of nuns. I thought our parents
no longer wanted us and just gave us away to the nuns. When we arrived at the
orphanage, my sisters and I were separated and our belongings removed. My
sisters were taken to the girls’ section, I to the boys’. Although I did see my sisters
from time to time, I have no recollection of seeing any of my personal belongings
again. This new and foreign environment was full of unfamiliar routines and
religious rituals which I did not understand. I was very afraid and lonely. A bus
would come each school day and take us off to the Catholic school which I did not
like. One unpleasant memory is that the kids from the orphanage were teased and
tormented continuously by the other pupils. These experiences were not conducive
for learning at a young age.
During my time in the orphanage, I was abused sexually, physically and
emotionally on many occasions and I ran away on a regular basis. Each time this
occurred, I was located by the authorities, admonished for being a nuisance and a
worry to the ‘good nuns’ (who, very generously, provided me with food and
shelter) and returned to the orphanage where I was punished for absconding. These
actions, and the ‘survival techniques’ I developed to support myself during these
times of flight, earned me the label of ‘problem child’ or as being ‘uncontrollable’
by the New South Wales juvenile courts. At around fourteen years of age, I had
been diagnosed as having sociopathic tendencies and of having below average
intelligence by the New South Wales state psychiatrist. That diagnosis, according
to the psychiatrist, was based on my inability to show emotion during the one face
to face session we had where the psychiatrist sat behind a very large and
intimidating desk and asked me a barrage of questions. Apparently my inability to
respond to these questions provided him with the empirical evidence required to
label me as sociopathic.
By the time the diagnosis of sociopath was proclaimed, I had entered the state
‘justice’ system. The label of sociopath influenced how I was treated during the
remainder of my time in institutional out-of-home care. Whilst in these institutions
I was put to work on various domestic tasks and work details. In one institution I
was assigned the ‘rock pile’. This is where the ‘inmates’ used crowbars to dig
holes in rock ledges so that high explosives could be inserted and used to separate
the rock.
I cannot say that any of the several institutions I experienced provided me with
the life skills which would serve to assist me after I left the homes. When I did
leave the out-of-home child care system I had only a very basic primary school
education and no qualifications that would help in building a substantial future or a
meaningful place in society. This lack of an ‘official’ education and lack of living
skills qualified me for the very basic menial tasks when the opportunities
presented. My first working experiences were in industrial cleaning and itinerate
farm work. These were generally low paid positions with little or no job security;
they were often unhealthy, physically demanding and frequently involved working
with hazardous chemicals, dangerous fumes and dust without appropriate
protection as well as machinery and equipment for which I was untrained.
Such employment generally reinforced the many put downs I had received in
the out-of-home care institutions. Therefore I continued to develop a strong sense
of worthlessness and instability as well as a lack of meaningful connection to
society in general, all of which, along with homelessness, remained with me for
many years. I found it difficult to participate in ordinary social activities such as
shopping in large centres, going out to movies, dinner or sports venues or just
having a conversation with another person. I was abject. After many years of
searching in vain for the skills to live a fruitful and rewarding life, I became
increasingly disillusioned with society and decided to live as a hermit in a northern
New South Wales rainforest.
In 1999, however, and through issues of health, catharsis and serendipity, I
made the decision to give society one more chance. I walked out of the forest and
began to explore life from a different perspective. I began to look at human society
as just another eco-system in which I needed to survive. Thinking this way gave
me a slight advantage: I no longer had any expectations of society and I decided
there was a lot to learn about this new environment.
During the first twelve months of attempting to engage with society, I found
myself living on the streets with no prospect of employment. I had submitted in
excess of thirty applications for employment but had not received any invitations
for interviews. This prompted me to wonder what the problem might be. After
taking a quick inventory of my employability, the immediate answer was that, at
the age of forty-five, I really had nothing to offer any prospective employer. I had
spent my life after care in survival mode, avoiding the authorities and hiding from
society. The skill sets these activities required consisted mainly of the very basic
such as finding a warm place to sleep on a cold and wet night, or staying out of
sight of the authorities during the day. Not exactly skills sought by potential
employers in the new millennium.
After realising my limited opportunities for employment, and not being able to
see many other options, I decided to act on my long held desire to obtain an
education. My immediate thoughts were to get my School Certificate. After some
enquiries, I learned that the TAFE education system no longer offered this avenue
of advancement. However, there was an opportunity to participate in a Tertiary
Preparation Programme at a Queensland TAFE which would qualify me for a
possible offer at university. This appealed to me and I promptly signed up. The
TAFE had a ‘pay by the week’ option which I took advantage of after obtaining a
social welfare payment. My mantra became no matter what, be there at the end. At
the commencement of the programme, I found a feather to use as a bookmark for
my reading. This feather became a representation of the freedom I thought
completing the course would provide me. It was my talisman. The chance for a
university education. I would be the first in my known family to go to university.
From homeless and uneducated to becoming a university student. I was excited.
Learning to Learn
Off to school I went. My first day was nerve-wracking. There were about
twenty other people and I could not talk to any of them. They were mostly well
dressed and I was busy making comparisons. A big mistake. I learned that if I start
to look for the differences, I will find them. I told myself to focus on the things I
needed to focus on to get to where I needed to be. For the first few days I was not
sure where that was or how I was going to get there. The teachers, however, were
extremely patient and tolerant of my inability to absorb the content of those early
classes. I asked lots of questions and with each explanation or instruction became a
little less confused.
Over time this new learning experience began to become extremely valuable as
it exposed many of the necessary basic life skills I lacked such as communication,
self-discipline, organising and planning. One of the skills which impacted on me
significantly whilst I was learning to learn was the ability to obtain suitable
accommodation. I understood the theory of finding somewhere to live, but I had
never actually gone through the practical exercise by myself. I was ashamed of this
and to complicate the issue, I found it very difficult to talk about it to anyone, I
was embarrassed and ashamed of my inabilities. As such, I remained homeless for
much of the Tertiary Preparation Course. Every afternoon after the face to face
teaching ended, I would go away and find a quiet place, either in a library, a park
or on the beach to study for the evening. The opportunity of formal learning was
so important to me and I was of the belief that an education would help me gain
worthwhile and meaningful employment.
Surprisingly, after a short while I realised I was already beginning to establish
some connections within the TAFE student community. One of the instructions
we received as students was to talk to each other about the content of our classes.
Our strongest learning asset was each other. Each student was facing the same
challenges to learning and sometimes in the process of talking about a challenge,
new ideas were formed. For me this was a really important part of learning. Over
coffee we would discuss the serious challenges such as, what is a topic
sentence?” and “how is evidence supported in a paragraph?” There were also some
uncomfortable questions such as where do you live?” Over the years a homeless
person becomes good at deflecting these enquiries. I found that no one really
pushed the issue when I answered with “down near the beach.” As much as
possible, I tried to keep my conversations centred on the process of learning. There
was much discussion on what was going to happen when we completed the
program. I remained neutral on that topic as I had no real direction in mind. I was
just beginning to really enjoy the experience and focused on completing the
I found the content of the tertiary programme very difficult at first. Twelve
months previous I had not even known mobile phones existed now I was
learning how to use computers and software programs. I was learning how to
research a topic and write paragraphs on it: constructing an argument. However,
being homeless was becoming a real hindrance. It was not until toward the end of
the TAFE programme that I managed to obtain a cheap living arrangement, a small
flat on Cheveron Island on the Gold Coast. At the time I could not afford any
furniture. I ‘liberated’ some milk crates which substituted for table, chairs and
other necessities. A bed was a little more difficult. I removed a door from the
bathroom and laid it on six milk creates. With a couple of blankets from the
Salvation Army store this sufficed as a bed and study table for several months.
Thankfully, by the time the TAFE course was completed, I had obtained many of
the basics such as cooking utensils, writing desk, chair and a comfortable bed.
More importantly, I had gained a level of confidence which allowed me to apply
for a place at university. Already my life was beginning to change.
Graduation night for the Tertiary Preparation Programme was unlike anything I
had previously experienced. There was fine food and drinks for the graduates.
There were politicians and official people, all exceptionally well dressed, who had
come to see us receive our certificates of graduation. As the names were being
called and certificates handed to each person as they filed up, I felt extremely
uncomfortable, embarrassed and felt undeserving. I recall thinking, if only they
knew who I was and where I come from. I should not be here. Then my name was
called and I froze. After some prompting by those on either side of me I managed
to stand and walk down to accept my certificate. I actually wept and became
overwhelmed with the moment. Sometime after I was seated and managed to get
comfortable, I was horrified because my name was called again. At the time I had
no idea why. I just stood and walked to the stage again and accepted the offerings.
Later, at the after presentation ceremony, I realised I had won an award for
achievement. Again, I felt so undeserving of that award and embarrassed to have
accepted it.
As a result of my successful completion of the Tertiary Preparation
Programme, I decided I wanted to study a degree in the Social Sciences. This was
not one of the more glamorous degrees on offer, however it did suit my mind-set at
that time. My thinking was not so much about completing a degree, which was
going to place me in some fantasised place of uniqueness and provide me with
lifelong security. Rather, it was an attempt to develop an understanding of why I
found it so difficult to function in society. I had no idea what I was in for. After
some anxious waiting, I received my official acceptance letter to commence a
Bachelor Degree of Social Science.
The Undergraduate Years
It is important for me to acknowledge that from the very beginning of my
university studies I did not believe or feel I was ‘good enough’ to perform at such
a level. I was intimidated by the enrolment process and the testimonies I read in
the various promotions. The process of engagement seemed cold in comparison to
the preparation course. Anxiety and feelings of inadequacy aside, after attending
the orientation week speeches, I committed myself to be there at the end no matter
what. I wrote my mantra on a sheet of paper and placed it in a visually prominent
place, the back of the toilet door, so as to be a constant reminder of my
commitment to myself. At times, this seemingly simple philosophy was not always
as easy to adhere to as it sounded. I found that everyday survival created an
anxiety which began to play a significant role in my ability to learn. One of the
‘big’ ongoing questions which haunted me was ‘what am I going to do with a
degree when and if I actually pass?’
The first semester was extremely challenging. It was nothing like the TAFE
course. In university, I had to decide which units I was going to include in my
degree. I had agency but no idea of what I was doing. There were several things
which exacerbated this lack of direction. Having no one to talk to on a personal
level about the processes and expectations of gaining a degree was a considerable
disadvantage. Learning the language of academia was also difficult. The
individual language of the disciplines and each core unit was a further challenge.
As I had chosen a bachelor’s degree of Social Science I was required to learn the
language appropriate to that area of discipline. Although the Tertiary Preparation
Course had provided me with some of the basic research and computer skills
required for embarking on the university experience, it had not provided me with
the terminology I would need for the area of study I chose, nor did it explain to me
exactly what a degree was and how to choose the units I would need to construct a
program which best suited my desired objectives and outcomes.
As much as I had learned and enjoyed the first few lectures from the various
core units, they provided me with no understanding of exactly what constituted a
degree. Students were talking about majors and units and having to make decisions
on directions or pathways of study. After some enquires and lots of confusion, I
learned that an undergraduate Bachelor Degree in the Social Sciences at the
university I attended consisted of twenty four units. This can vary across degrees.
For example, a Bachelor Degree in Education has thirty six units. In the Social
Sciences, however, a ‘major’ area of learning consisted of six units in the same
field of study, each unit complementing and building on the knowledge of the
others, and two major areas of study was required to form an undergraduate
bachelor’s degree. It was also possible to include a minor area of study. A minor
contained four units in the same field.
I started by taking a couple of counselling units thinking I might get a degree in
counselling and help others to understand their problems, if not solve those
problems for them. Again, this was quite naïve of me. To start with, I did not like
the idea of listening to other people’s problems and thus far I had not had any real
success in understanding my own. I still suffered from a severe inferiority complex
and had a strong inexplicable sense of shame. This had continually impacted on
my life and affected my learning at different times during my university
There were several assumptions of homogeneity by some tutors in their units.
For example, although there was a combination of ‘online’ units and face to face
units, one of the face to face units explored group activities. One such activity was
to recall a happy memory from your childhood and share it with the group, at the
mention of which, I froze. After a few moments I regained my composure and
walked out of the room stating that there was an assumption in the activity that
everyone has had a happy childhood. This was the first time I was able to assert
myself in this way. To the tutor’s credit, each future activity after that event was
shown to me in advance of the session. If I found that an activity was potentially
disturbing, I was excused from participating in that particular exercise.
Learning to identify and communicate my feelings on potentially disturbing
issues became invaluable in the longer term. A lecturer from another unit, Trevor,
became aware of my situation and approached me in regard to the direction I
wanted to take in my degree. My response was similar to what it had been from the
time I commenced study: although I had taken two counselling units and all my
core units, I really had no idea where I was going or what I wanted to do. He
suggested that I have a discussion with him about this in his office. A couple of
days later we met. He had a printed transcript of the units I had completed and was
enrolled to do in the following semester. After some discussion, he suggested to
me that I would probably make a good counsellor if I chose to take that path. I
responded to the effect that I was going that way because I did not know what else
to do.
He said, “Being a counsellor is a bit like resetting the time on a clock when it
gains or loses time. But, every now and then someone comes along who has the
experience and ability to go into the mechanics or workings of the clock and make
some adjustments so that the clock does not lose or gain time. Maybe you are one
of those people.”
I asked him to explain.
He replied, “Sometimes the problems are more about social policies and
educating the policy makers.
Trevor went on to talk about his time working in the Victorian Juvenile Justice
System, saying that he worked for the Department for many years before he
became an academic. During his time within the Juvenile System he became
frustrated with the lack of understanding and empathy of officials toward the
challenges of children who experienced unstable family environments. Many of
the children had experienced foster care or other forms of out-of-home care. He
suggested that there was much work needed to assist policy makers to understand
the ongoing issues of Care Leavers. With the units I had completed in mind, we
planned a pathway forward for my degree. As a result of my conversations I
decided not to continue with the counselling units and instead focus on sociology.
From that moment on my university experience had meaning and direction. This
experience helped teach me that it was okay to own my past without shame or the
fear of being judged. Trevor lost his battle with cancer just over twelve months
My Bachelor Degree in Social Science consists of majors in Sociology and
Community Development with a minor in Indigenous Studies. I chose this
pathway because of my desire to develop an understanding of my previous conflict
with Australian society and Western culture in general and the conversations I had
with Trevor. The process of learning at this level, and having direction I found
assisted greatly in developing and advancing those understandings, which
significantly changed the way I saw and presented myself to the world. At times
this seemed to happen through a process of osmosis. Participating in campus life,
being involved in the tutorial discussions, researching and writing the essays on
various sociological topics all provided me with a deeper understanding of how I
was positioned within Australian society as well as insight into how society
A key to being able to perform at the level required of a university student was
having an understanding of the right questions to ask and the right person to ask
them. One of the most frustrating experiences of participating in the university
undergraduate process was not knowing what questions needed to be asked. For
example, I had no idea that when I wrote an essay I would require references to
support the theory used and the position I took on each essay topic. It was on the
return of my first written essay that the marker’s comments provided me with this
information. I felt very embarrassed that I did not know that. I soon learnt that one
of the key questions to ask each tutor was ‘how many references do you require for
an essay?’ and ‘what is that tutor’s preferred referencing style?’ Two things
students should learn very quickly. On reflection, there were many questions I
could have and sometimes should have asked of the school, the tutors and the
markers, which would have made my experience much easier. Having said that,
the mistakes I made were an important contribution to my learning and they all
played a significant role in the completion of my undergraduate degree. Knowing
someone who had previously had the university experience, such as a parent or
sibling, would have provided more clarity and made the journey much more
enjoyable. Just having someone to talk to about the progressive challenges would
have helped me to understand and plan the tasks and assessments.
Using University Libraries
Another of the great challenges to adjusting to university study and getting the
most out of my assessments was learning to make the best use of the library and
librarians. For a novice university student, libraries can be very intimidating. There
are the catalogues, journals and databases, to highlight a small portion of the
library resources. Each of these resources was available online which made
midnight study a viable option for the nights I could not sleep. Of course the best
resource was the librarians themselves. For the most part, I found they were very
accessible and willing to assist, often at a moment’s notice. They had a good
working knowledge of the databases and journals and many tips on how to access
various disciplinary-specific resources. The librarians were also invaluable when it
came to understanding and providing guidance on any issues with referencing each
resource in the required style. Because they are generally experienced in several
disciplines, librarians often had some understanding of the language, areas, and
topics for the various research tasks for my assessments.
One of the key tools for completing an undergraduate degree is a computer. It
did not take me long to work out that technology could save me time and work.
The more efficient and familiar I became with technology, the easier I found each
assessment task to complete. In the beginning, although I had learned some basic
computing and word processing skill in the Tertiary Preparation Course, the new
software programs required at the university level were challenging to master.
However, persisting with the programs and the extra efforts paid dividends in the
long term. I became quite efficient and able to produce each assessment task
before the due date, allowing time for important tasks such as proof reading and
editing. The discipline acquired through the development of these skills also
enhanced my graduate and post graduate attributes and contribute enormously to
my work as an academic today.
Some Benefits of a Tertiary Degree
When I commenced my undergraduate degree, I had no idea that I would
become an academic working within the university sector. At the time all I really
knew was that my study was not about vocational desires. I was not so naïve as to
think that completing a bachelor’s degree at fifty two years of age would make me
an expert in some area and I would become financially comfortable. Instead, this
degree was more about advancing my understanding of myself to a place where I
no longer felt stupid and uneducated and allaying the derogatory and destructive
messages of my youth. I had been told many times in the homes that I was stupid
and would never amount to anything. Obtaining this Bachelor Degree was my
chance to dispel the nagging voices which persisted in my head. It was also an
opportunity to begin to understand and experience society from an entirely
different perspective.
The very first day of my university lecture experience taught me valuable
lessons about society. As one of about forty students waiting for the Social Science
lecturer to arrive and deliver our very first lecture, I was amused to learn that the
small statured elderly man approaching the lecture theatre carrying half a dozen
pairs of spectacles of various descriptions (a small and a medium sized telescope, a
couple of pairs of binoculars and several magnifying lenses), was our lecturer for a
core unit ‘Introduction to Social Science’. As was soon to be apparent, the
implements he carried into the theatre impacted significantly on my understanding
of Social Science and of society in general. His simple message was that any
perspective of society was created by the lens through which an individual viewed
it. Each person viewed life differently according to his or her own lived
experiences. I had been viewing society through the lens of a person who had
spent most of his childhood in institutional care and had been repeatedly told that
he was stupid and worthless. During my youth, there were not too many positive
affirmations that I could reflect on to help improve my general understanding of
life and my place in society. I had been viewing society through the eyes of a
person who had been labelled a sociopath, who had experienced many years of
being angry and resentful of anyone and everyone. Now I realised I could choose
the lens for how I interpreted this new and exciting world in which I lived. This
revelation was a real attitude changer and further enhanced my ability to develop
relationships with others. It also gave me permission to be the person I chose to be.
Toward the end of my time as an undergraduate, I began to notice that I was
becoming much more confident in myself and my world view. I had developed a
much healthier sense of self and had become willing and able to participate in
conversations I would have previously avoided. Before my university experience,
I was resentful toward almost every aspect of society. This resentment stemmed
from not having developed an understanding of how the various mechanisms and
systems worked. For example, I did not know how to find somewhere to live or
how to pay bills. These activities may seem obvious and simple to many people.
To me, the mere thought of doing them was overwhelming, partly because I had
never been shown the process of undertaking these most basic of living
requirements. The resulting feeling was resentment toward those who did not have
to live as I did. Another important part of this resentment was of me not having an
understanding of myself. In effect I had no idea of what my capabilities or
limitations were. However, I found that through the process of learning I was
offered an opportunity to introduce myself to myself. The getting to know me was
important and exciting. Without the self-esteem which comes from having an
understanding of myself, a Bachelor Degree would be just a piece of paper to hang
on the wall. The connection with other students allowed me to develop an
understanding of how others communicated and provided me with insights of
some expectations within groups as well as larger communities. These insights
became relevant and were well utilised when undertaking my honours year.
In 2007 I completed my Bachelor Degree in Social Science, and was invited to
add an honours component to that. My honours thesis title, I would like to tell you
a story, but I’m not sure if I can, was a self-reflexive work focusing on five adults
who experienced institutional out-of-home care in a New South Wales regional
orphanage and felt they needed, or had a desire, to tell their stories but were unsure
of doing so. For some, the process of revealing that part of their lived experience
was cathartic. The examiners awarded the thesis with a First Class Honours. This
award, combined with some other papers I had published during the process,
provided me with a pathway into a PhD which has been and continues to be
supported with a full Australian Postgraduate Award scholarship. On the
completion of my first degree, and before I began the second phase, I registered on
the academic register for tutorial work at a regional university. I had only to wait a
couple of weeks for a reply to my notice of availability to work in the sector. I was
invited to lead some workshops and tutorials within the Social Sciences. This
became my first paid employment in many years. With my very first pay, I bought
a new pair of shoes. It would bring me to tears to try to explain how elated I was
from the experience. Five years on and I remain employed, albeit on a casual basis,
as an academic.
On reflection
I believe much of my inability to achieve was about not having a good
understanding of myself. Completing a Bachelor Degree was at times very
challenging financially, emotionally and mentally. I found the stress factors tended
to increase incrementally. They snuck up on me undetected. But one of the skills I
developed was learning how to manage this stress. I developed a set of activities
and disciplines to alleviate the stress before it became a serious issue and affected
my work. Some way into the study, I became aware that I had begun to develop
many other life skills as well. Besides stress management, these included the
ability to budget my income and meet my basic living expenses such as rent, food
and clothing. Other skills such as socialising and basic communication were also
beginning to improve. This became obvious when fellow students began to invite
me for coffee. These student gatherings not only provided me with the
opportunities to practise communicating skills, they also assisted in building my
self-esteem and, combined with a process of getting to better know myself,
enhanced my world view. It changed the way I operated in society. I began to feel
that I was a part of something. Until recently, I still did not feel that I belonged
because I continued to feel very different. I had that constant feeling of being a
fake, a fraud, an imposter and soon someone would find out and I would be
A university education has provided me with the ability to access the
information I need to make the life choices I was previously unable to make. These
choices have allowed me to live in a much more stress free manner. Today I have
the power to choose my life philosophies and participate in the world as a person
free of the shame and guilt I carried from my childhood. Today I like who I have
become. I am okay with the world.
Part of My Story
Kimberley Hobbs
Apart from having more career options I think university is a bit like travel.
Both give you the chance to see life from different perspectives. They help
you grow and you never quite think the same as beforehand.
I’M KIMBERLEY Hobbs, a 24 year old woman with a mixed nationality like
many Australians. I’ve always fancied myself having bit of a European
appearance, with my dark hair, slightly olive skin and brown eyes. As I sit here at
my desk trying to describe myself perhaps I could illustrate to you some of the
things you would see in my room. I’ve just moved houses so there are still a
couple of boxes that are not yet unpacked and put away. In front of me is my TV
on which I enjoy watching movies from comedies and chick flicks to sci-fi and
horrors. On my desk is my iPhone which I love. I don’t only use it for Facebook
but for other apps including Spanish lessons, photography, star guides, fitness,
recipes, meditation, games, videos and music. I also set a lot of reminders and use
the calendar to try and organise myself. To my right is a wooden photo-stand
showing me with my friends at parties and university pub crawls. Next to my desk
is an art-stand showing one of my own paintings focused upon a lush tree with
green hills in the background. Behind the art-stand is my violin which I still play a
little bit and my guitar which I haven’t played much although I would like to more.
On my bedside desk is a book I am reading for my social work studies. On top of
one of my drawers I have chosen a couple of meaningful necklaces to display of
which one is from my mother Mary and the other my sister, both of whom have
passed away. I also value the books that I have placed above my wardrobe as some
of the best I have read.
I feel that I have achieved and accomplished much in my life: I have good
friends and family, I have completed a science degree and am soon to get another
degree in social work, I have travelled to four different countries (university and
travel have always been a goal for me), I have nice housemates at the new place I
am living and a lovely boyfriend I get to see regularly. I am healthy and happy.
However, I believe that in order to understand someone’s accomplishments you
need to be aware of their background. A person’s background includes more than
their culture, family and place of birth. To know someone’s background is to know
their life story especially the challenges that were faced and overcome,
oppressions they had to live with, and all the low and high moments that have
made them who they are today.
I would not have achieved so much if it were not for a lot of support I have
received from people. I have had two foster care placements. The first only went
for 3 months and the second placement became my family for life. I know that I
am lucky and especially to have had a very positive long-term placement. I
acknowledge that many other people who have been in foster care have had
multiple placements and that a number of those may represent bad moments or
years. The trauma and upheaval that has occurred to foster children can impact
them for the rest of their life and does so for most foster children. My story is but
one of many thousands of people who have been in foster care and the experiences
vary hugely. Yet we are still all connected and sometimes our stories have
similarities. It is my belief that as more people are able to voice their foster care
stories it will help others to find their voice and do the same. That we were foster
children does not define who we are but telling our stories may help the next foster
I will not be able to tell my entire story in the space I have been given. I have
chosen to tell you a couple of stories about my life with a particular focus upon my
university experience. Very few, maybe three percent, of people who have been in
foster care obtain a university degree. I know that I often felt alone in my
university accomplishment as I had never met anyone else who had been in care
and gone on to university. It would have greatly eased some of my worry hearing
other people’s experiences of university.
With any story a good place to begin is at the start. I was at the hospital at only
two and a half years old when I was taken into foster care. The community aid
worker, Eunice, came to pick me up and saw all the bruises over my body. She
heard how I had been punched ten times in the face by Mary, my mother, because
I had gotten upset when my father had stormed away after an argument between
them. It wasn’t the first time that their arguing had distressed me or the first time
bruises had been found on my body but this time, however, I had been hit in
public. People who saw what happened made reports to the police and Families
SA were required to take action. News of my abuse was even printed in the
It was Eunice’s job to transport me to my first foster care placement.
Apparently the placement was horrible. Kelly, who was my foster carer, seemed to
despise me. When Eunice took me to Kelly’s home for the first time it wasn’t very
welcoming. Kelly took me into her house, harshly setting out the rules without any
affection displayed. Whenever Eunice came to pick me up to see my family Kelly
was pleased to get rid of me saying how much of a nuisance I was. Another time
Eunice was there I was sitting on the ground waiting patiently while they were
talking and Kelly’s son came along and stomped on my fingers. Kelly’s reaction
was that it was my fault for having my fingers in his way. Her son always got what
he wanted. Even if I was playing with a toy I had to give it to him. In Eunice’s
eyes it did not appear that I was being fed very well. Eunice was appalled how
Kelly would resort to smacking me in order to control me. Unbeknownst to
Families SA Eunice started looking after me more and more when Kelly didn’t
want me. One such time was when Kelly left me with Eunice while her family
went on holiday.
When it was time to visit my family Eunice would take me there and supervise
my time with them. It is no surprise that in time I became attached to Eunice. She
was, after all, the one who would rescue me from Kelly, look after me and be there
while I was visiting my family. While I really enjoyed visiting my family I think
Eunice’s presence gave me an extra sense of security. Eunice got along with my
family and helped to teach Mary how to play with me. There were times though
when Eunice’s supervision was necessary. One time was when my father was
chasing me around the table. At first I found this fun but then it kept on continuing
to the point where I was becoming hysterical and so Eunice had to tell him to stop.
Another time she was there to help me was when I became upset because my
family wouldn’t let me hug my mum on Christmas day.
During the three months I was at Kelly’s I underwent psychology and
attachment assessments as required by Families SA. From these assessments it was
deemed that the placement wasn’t appropriate. When my nanna found this out she
tried to get custody of me however my mum didn’t want her to look after me.
Given this, and that I had an attachment to Eunice, Families SA then decided to
place me in her care.
I became a part of Eunice’s family on the 1st of April 1993. Eunice is able to
recall how at first I was like a scared rabbit. Everyone new I met I was afraid of
and for a long time I was afraid of anyone I wasn’t highly familiar with. I hardly
left Eunice’s side. Wherever she went, I went and for the first six months I slept on
a mattress next to her bed. Over time, however, I became more comfortable
leaving Eunice to mingle with other people. Given that I was also neglected by
Mary, Eunice would find me sometimes hoarding food in my room. After a while,
I came to trust that food would always be there for me too. I had everything I
needed and more than that I had another family, a new family. I had two families.
When I was in Primary School my best friend asked me, Kim, what are you
afraid of?
“I’m afraid of being hopeless.”
My response surprised her. To her that just didn’t make sense. I appeared
confident and capable. However, I really was afraid of being hopeless. It wasn’t
just in relation to my educational goals; I greatly feared not having a happy life, a
life I was not proud of, perhaps a life like Mary’s. Growing up I saw how Mary
struggled to always have food in the house which was always dirty. It also didn’t
help that my birth family would make the occasional snide comment about my
mum when she wasn’t around. You might think this would cause me to have low
expectations of myself but actually I had high expectations and a lot of the time I
could not live up to them.
It did not help that at home one of my family members would call me hopeless
when I made mistakes. The most frustrating of these mistakes was when I was
asked to do a task but would forget to do it or would forget where I had placed
something. This is typical of a child but I would do this more than the average
child because I was prone to spacing-out, a characteristic that can be found in
children who have been abused. The more stressed I was, the more likely I was to
‘space-out. At times I felt I could not control making the same mistakes over and
over again and so would think that maybe I am hopeless.
I think if I was willing to seek help more as a child, hopelessness would not
have been so much of a fear. I was, however, scared of showing my emotions
which made me very hesitant about sharing my worries to anyone. Before I came
into foster care I learnt not to cry because if I did I got hit. This is how my birth
mother sometimes coped with my crying. What this meant while growing up was
that people often perceived me to be emotionally handling situations better than I
was. It was rare for me to cry, even rarer for anyone to know that I had been
When I was thirteen I was encouraged to seek compensation for the trauma that
had happened to me before I came into foster care. It was something I did not want
to do. I did not want to make my mum (Mary) feel bad. I loved her and I didn’t
care about getting compensation money. Anyway, one of the processes was to
undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Today I find it interesting that the psychiatrist
noted I had low self-esteem, low confidence and a higher than expected anxiety for
someone my age. I was encouraged to see a therapist and I did for a while but I did
not enjoy it so before long I stopped going. Given that I had anxiety I feel I should
have been encouraged more to see a specialist. People often undermined my
anxiety because of how I expressed my emotions. As an adult I have enjoyed the
experience of being able to talk to a counsellor. I wish I had been able to do that
when I was young as it can be freeing to be able to talk to someone outside of your
social circle about anything.
Growing up I was given many opportunities to develop my confidence and
help me reach my potential. Eunice encouraged me to take on these opportunities
and supported me throughout them. I went on many camps, most notably Edmund
Rice Camps and CanTeen camps. I was able to join CanTeen because I had a
foster sister with cancer and most unfortunately she passed away. Apart from
greatly helping me with grief issues, CanTeen offered many leadership and
personal development opportunities. Some of the other things I did were a
modelling course to help with self-esteem and I was also lucky enough to be
involved in the Spirit of Science trip to London in Year 10. With these experiences
I have learnt to take opportunities that present themselves because I’ve often
received much more out of them than I thought I would.
Year 12 was a huge hurdle to getting into university. It didn’t help that my high
school made it particularly difficult. My maths teacher had to look after her
acutely ill son leaving us without a maths teacher for most of the year. I also had a
chemistry teacher who didn’t know her own curriculum that well. There were a
couple of times where she asked my very intelligent friend for help behind doors.
What made chemistry difficult as well was that my teacher would make fun of me
for asking questions when I was unsure about a topic. I was most often the only
one brave enough to ask. When I talked to my friends afterwards they were
grateful I had because they too were confused in class.
These two courses stressed me out a lot. Luckily my home group teacher, who
was also the physics teacher, had actually majored in chemistry at university so
was able to help me whenever I got really confused. He had a particular talent for
taking the most complex information and making it simple. Unfortunately I didn’t
really have this support in regards to my maths class and the text book they gave
us to learn from wasn’t always that useful. So worried was I that I wouldn’t pass
these subjects I looked on the internet for how I could get further help. I found that
there were courses I could do in my term break and so I enrolled quickly for both
maths and chemistry. These extra courses really helped in learning the main
concepts of each subject. In the maths course I even found a teacher who was
happy to come to my high school during the week to help my class with the
I didn’t always think I was going to make it into university. There were times
when I was just worried I was going to fail the subjects and hence fail year 12.
However I tried the best I could because I wanted the highest score I could get so I
would have more options for university. I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do at
university either until towards the end of high school. It was very hard trying to
decide what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. My home group teacher was so
helpful in making me reframe the way I viewed university. He told me that I didn’t
have to know my career choice before going to university and that many people
change their careers in life so you don’t have to pick a job for life. Since I really
liked science, he suggested that I do a Bachelor of Science. He vouched that the
benefits of the degree would open many doors, that throughout the degree I could
choose what I wanted to major in and that I was in no particular rush right now to
choose my career.
A Bachelor of Science was what I applied for in the end. At the end of Year 12
I was surprised at my results. I ended up achieving a Tertiary Entrance Ranking
(TER) of 81 which went up to 91 with all my bonus points. I had actually gotten a
much higher TER than what I needed to get into a Bachelor of Science. I couldn’t
believe I had done so well.
In the first semester of university there were so many new experiences that it
kind of felt like being on a roller coaster. While there were many highs there were
also incidents when I felt a lot of frustration and stress. University felt so much
bigger than high school. It was great to be in an adult environment and a lot of the
immaturity found at high school was left behind. Unlike high school the students
in my classes were much more enthusiastic about the subjects and the lecturers
were leading experts in their fields. I found a greater sense of camaraderie around
the university. New students were keen to get to know each other and make new
friends. I found it exciting to be meeting other people with similar interests, such
as science, in my courses. During Orientation Week I also realised there were
many clubs that I found interesting and could join. While I enjoyed meeting new
people it was also great that one of my friends from high school was studying
many of the same subjects. We were able to support each other when we needed
help with course work. I found my friends helped me a lot in the way of settling
into university.
I enjoyed always being able to learn something new about science. I tried to
remember as much as I could and was stressed that come exam time I wouldn’t
remember much. Chemistry was particularly very stressful. I ended up achieving a
score of 15 out of 20 for chemistry in Year 12 which meant I had to go into the
harder of two chemistry courses for first year students. Given that my Year 12
chemistry teacher was incompetent and I had to do so much extra study I felt this
was unfair. When I had to do chemistry lab work, I would get so frazzled over the
task-work. They would hand out instructions with chemical equations that made
no sense to me, yet the instructions seemed to make sense to everyone else. I had
to ask other students and the staff so many times I felt like I only just scraped
through every lab exercise. One chemistry professor told me once he would be
surprised if I made it through my first year of university. He expected me to fail! I
wasn’t even always so sure that I would get through university but I was going to
give it my best shot. When I fully set my mind to a goal, I don’t give up easily.
First year is great for scoping out different subjects. I would have never
thought that geology would be fun but that’s how it turned out. For first year
students, geology had a camp in the Adelaide hills. After a week of analysing rock
formations we would joke how we would never look at rocks the same way again.
The camp was great for getting to know other students better as well. From the
experience I also started to consider environmental science more. After all, a lot of
the camp we spent out in the rain walking through national parks. Compared to a
lot of others I really enjoyed the experience. The rain didn’t dampen my spirit and
I found exploring and learning about the natural environment so fun.
Heading into second year I had spent a fair bit of my holidays in some turmoil.
My relationship had ended just before second semester exams. We had been
together for two years and best friends for five. The emotional hardship made
passing those exams extremely difficult but I ended up gritting my teeth and
pulling myself through. While I was the one to end the relationship it was still a
circumstance that spun my world around. We did try to stay best friends but given
that Jono still had feelings for me a platonic friendship was hard. Our friendship
dissolved because it hurt me every time I looked into his eyes and saw the pain
behind them. I knew him so well that at times his pain would become mine and it
was not mine to bear. He loved me so much that it was hard for him not to show
his emotions and to hope that things might change between us. I was the one to say
that our friendship had to stop. I can’t imagine the pain this caused him but it was
not easy on me either. I was shocked at my own actions. I couldn’t believe that I
had hurt him so. It made me question myself and who I was. Along with this I had
lost his family that I loved and my best friend that I could always rely on to do all
the activities with me that I enjoyed doing. I felt I had to find ways to meet other
people who had the same hobbies so my life wouldn’t have to change too much. It
did help joining an environmental social club at university and reconnecting with
friends who liked getting outdoors.
It is hard to explain but what happened with Jono caused such doubt in myself
that it made me become quite anxious. University was very difficult at this time.
Even social occasions were difficult as I found it stressful spending time with other
people. It was hard but I pushed myself to continue university and to not
completely disappear from my friends. I remember close to exam time I almost
gave up. I felt utterly exhausted and would cry. My next semester for the year was
to be spent studying in Canada. I was worried a semester in Canada wasn’t going
to be good for me but I more so thought that getting away, travelling and meeting
new people would be good for me too.
Going to Canada ended up being one of the best things I have done for myself.
It was the first time travelling overseas by myself so it was quite exciting. I lived
on campus in a unit with six other people. They had some units with themes so I
chose to live in the eco-lodge so I could meet other people who cared about the
environment. In my unit there were a couple of other exchange students I became
friends with. While I met many Canadians on campus it was great to be able to
meet other exchange students as well. With these students we went out on trips,
had parties and even went away on a weekend together to Montreal.
There is so much you can gain from travel. The greatest thing I gained from my
time in Canada was a new found confidence in myself. It was also the first time
living without parents so I gained a new sense of independence. With all the new
social experiences I feel that I also gained better social skills. Going home I felt
less shy and was able to handle myself socially unlike any other time before. These
were the greatest skills I gained but it was also terrific to be able to study topics I
couldn’t have otherwise, experience a different university, and live in a different
country. I wouldn’t have been able to go if it weren’t for financial aid I had two
scholarships that contributed $6,000 to my travel expenses. I urge you to look for
scholarships if you want to study abroad. There are a few and you don’t need to be
a genius, you only need to show that you need help with finances.
I ended up finishing my degree and looked for jobs but you may say that a
career in science may have not been meant for me. After a short break from
university I decided to switch course and study social work. At first my mum,
Eunice, was surprised by this as she had always pictured me following a scientific
career. I’m not even sure if at first she thought I would make a great social worker
but I now know she has the utmost confidence in me. What pushed me to choose
social work is, not surprisingly, my background. Growing up I have had many
social workers and I did not like all of them. I felt I could do a better job than
many of those social workers and that I had something to offer. I was drawn to
working in Families SA because of this motivation.
During my studies I have, however, changed my mind about working for
Families SA. This was particularly affected by difficult circumstances my birth
sister, Stacey, went through. Basically she was placed into independent living
before she was ready. Prior to that she was living in a transition home and because
she wasn’t getting along with another teenage resident they moved her out when
she turned sixteen. I will never forget when she was living alone how she would
phone me crying hysterically because she was afraid. She was afraid of someone
breaking in, stealing her property and hurting her. I was so angry at Families SA
for doing this to my sister. It was quite traumatic for her. Given this I can’t believe
that her social worker had all the say when it came to these circumstances. I
believe that she was forced to make some of these decisions because of protocol.
No one would have done this to a sixteen year-old if they had the freedom not to.
This is why I don’t want to work for families SA. I would hate to have to make
decisions I know would hurt someone.
I would still like to find a way to use my social work degree to help people
who have been in care. Families SA isn’t the only way. There are other
organisations and agencies that help people who have been and are in care. For
now I am focusing on developing my social work skills and completing my
degree. I thought social work would be easy in comparison to studying science.
While the information is not as hard to learn, social work can be quite confronting.
Most confronting was a course called ‘Interventions in Situations of Trauma’. It
caused me to think about the trauma I had received as a child. At this time quite a
few tears were shed and I soon after went to see a counsellor to talk about my
feelings. However I believe this has made me stronger and being more aware
about myself will only make me a better social worker. Apart from that I have
enjoyed most of the course and I look forward to my future career.
My story is far from over. I’m only 24 years old and have so much to look
forward to. I am currently doing my last social work placement then my degree
will be finished and I will be set for the work force. My placement can be at times
stressful but I am still getting adjusted to my social work role. My friends, family
and professional supports have been very helpful during my social work studies.
After years apart I am now back together with Jono and he too is very supportive. I
am highly thankful to every one of these people who have helped me with my
achievements. I should also thank myself. If it weren’t for my determination I
wouldn’t be where I am today. When I look at all my strengths and all that I have
to be thankful for I have faith in my future. I know wherever the future leads I will
be successful and happy.
A Lonely Little Girl Goes to
Pam Petrilli
I WAS about three years old when my parents separated. Initially, my father,
brother and I moved in with my maternal grandfather, grandmother and aunty. I
suspect that my mother had left us for a man she was having an affair with. My
father and brother were not around for long before they left me at my grandfathers
to live with my paternal grandmother. I do not recall being too perturbed about the
disintegration of my family because I was very content and happy to stay with my
grandparents and aunty. They lived in a beautiful old bluestone villa complete with
tennis court and swimming pool on a big block of land with a creek running
through the back. It was a great place for a child to grow up and there were always
plenty of interesting things to do. My grandfather was a very tall man who seemed
kind and I distinctly remember he had a nice presence about him. He was the kind
of person most were drawn to, similarly with my grandmother and aunty.
My grandmother was the first person I recall showing me affection. I have a
vivid memory of sitting on her lap in a big rocking chair in the beautiful bay
window of the formal lounge which was decorated with red velvet wallpaper.
Unfortunately, she was not around for long. At the age of forty-five she was
diagnosed with an unusual form of early onset dementia and after the diagnoses
was promptly admitted to a nursing home. During my time at Grandpa’s I also
spent a lot of time with my aunty who, in her late teens, was a lot of fun to be
around and spoilt me on many occasions. While I was there I began my primary
schooling, and despite living apart from my immediate family, I remember my
time at my Grandpa’s home being a very happy period in my childhood.
My grandfather worked as a bookmaker at Victoria Park racetrack. I can still
recall the late Saturday afternoon rituals of him arriving home with his
bookmaker’s bag full of the day’s takings: many wads of cash. He would spread
the cash out over a table in the sunroom to be counted. It seemed to me that
grandpa was quite affluent and, not that I knew or appreciated the full value of
money, the thought of that made me feel secure. It was the early sixties and my
grandfather and his by then new partner were considered popular socialites,
regularly entertaining guests. They held lots of parties, some lasting for days.
There were always plenty of people staying over. It was a big home and there was
plenty of room. However, as I was soon to find out, as big as the house was there
apparently was not enough room for me.
I will never come to terms with why, at such a young age and given that I was
clearly happy and flourishing and living in a house of plenty, I was taken from my
own home to go live with complete strangers. One day, unexpectedly, my
grandfather told me to hop in the car because we were going for a drive to the
shops. To begin with I was excited about the prospect of spending time alone with
grandpa but was curious as to why all of a sudden he wanted to take me to the
shops. As I waited I noticed he put a suitcase in the back of the car. I was not sure
whether to be excited or concerned. I was thinking that perhaps I was going on a
surprise holiday somewhere, maybe to stay with my mother. However, on this
particular day I felt that my grandfather was not his usual self and I began to feel
apprehensive about our pending journey and what was about to transpire.
When we did eventually arrive at some shops I was told to wait in the car
instead of getting out with him as I expected. This made me very suspicious. I felt
something bad was about to happen so I hid between the front and back seats in
the hope that when Grandpa returned he would assume I had run off. Then,
concerned about my disappearance he might turn around and go home where I
would surprise him and this strange journey to the shops would all but be
forgotten. However, when he returned he ignored my disappearing act and
continued on regardless until we reached a huge neglected old home. We got out
of the car and I noticed that my grandfather was carrying the suitcase. Needless to
say I could not stop myself from starting to panic. Nevertheless, we continued our
walk on a long path surrounded by lots of tall weeds until we reached a gate where
beside it a cockatoo was tied to a post. In a bid to try and distract my grandfather I
started to head toward the bird. My grandfather grabbed me by the hand and we
continued on until we reached the back door.
A large untidy looking woman answered the door; I had never seen or met her
before. The lady was wearing old worn out clothes, a funny looking hat and an
apron with stains all over it, and her hair was unkempt. This woman looked
strange to me, not at all like any of the women I had known previously.
My grandfather handed her the suitcase and I remember not being able to
control my emotions any longer. I screamed and clung to him while begging him
not to leave me there. It was no use. No matter how much I resisted and protested,
my distress was disregarded and I was left standing alone with this strange woman.
I was terrified of what lay ahead. My very much loved and adored grandfather had
literally dumped me.
Looking back, the pain of that realisation manifested through my screams and
my body in the form of tightness in my chest. At six years of age I knew what it
was like to have a broken heart. This precarious circumstance left me wondering
for a long time what it was I did to deserve this type of abandonment. Was I being
punished? Why else would my own grandfather leave me like this? Worst of all,
was it because I was not wanted?
I found out later my out-of-home care situation involved a private arrangement
between my grandfather, my grandfather’s new partner and my guardian. To this
day I do not know how the arrangement came about nor even how my Grandfather
knew this person. All I know is that my foster home consisted of a run-down old
homestead that belonged to a bed-ridden old man in his eighties who somehow
knew my grandfather. As it turned out, my guardian was his live-in career who
resided there with her two older daughters and a son-in-law. To make matters
worse, this new and strange environment was in complete contrast to how I was
used to living at my grandfather’s home of abundance. Compared with the other
members of the household who had access to whatever they wanted, my food was
restricted. I was not allowed anything that was considered extravagant or
expensive, with ox’s tripe being one of my staple meals. To this day I gag at the
very thought of eating it.
To the best of her ability my guardian did try and take good care of me and she
was a reasonably nice person. She read to me a lot and encouraged my love of
reading, learning and going to school. She was a Christian and belonged to a
Pentecostal church where she was a significant figure. Thus all of my social
functions and outings revolved around the church. Initially, the church
environment seemed very foreign, especially when the congregation talked in
tongues and fainted in the name of Jesus. However, eventually this did not bother
me and I quite enjoyed praying to God. It was like having an imaginary best friend
who kind of made me feel safe and not as lonely. When I prayed I managed to lose
myself within my conversations and imagination by thinking about what it would
be like if he really was listening and one day would answer my prayer that my
grandfather return to take me back home with him.
One thing I loved about my foster home was that it was like a little farm where
I had access to lots of pets I pretended were mine. They included a black cat
named Blackie, Ambrose the goat and a Major Mitchell Cockatoo called Captain. I
loved being around them all because then I didn’t feel as lonely, a bit like when I
talked to God.
I was sexually abused and raped while in foster care. The abuse began when I
was required to massage my guardian’s son-in-law’s back, a very strange thing to
ask a child to do. I did what I was told despite the fact it was very embarrassing. I
felt ashamed and disgusted about having to perform this task daily. Apparently he
had suffered a severe back injury at some stage and as a result struggled to walk
without being massaged every day. This daily event turned into sexual abuse and
rape that continued over a number of years. My abuser threatened to kill me if I
told anyone. However, my guardian was aware of what was taking place because I
remember her screaming at him to get out of my bed. Looking back and
considering the era and her Christian stance on anything sexual, I suppose she was
not equipped to know how to deal with such a confronting situation.
Even though this abuse occurred over forty-five years ago I still vividly
remember the events leading up to and after it but I cannot remember details of the
actual abuse itself. All I know is that when I begin to remember, I feel a sense of
dread, guilt and shame which manifests in shortness of breath and feelings of
despair and fear. As a result, I become very apprehensive and awkward about any
form of intimacy and on many occasions even fearful because, depending on the
context, I experience flashbacks.
Throughout my time in foster care my mother would visit occasionally and
take me to stay with her as a treat. I remember being excited about spending time
alone with her because I missed her so much. Sometimes staying with my mother
could end up being worse than being in my foster home though. My mother had a
boyfriend who tended to be violent and, I later discovered, was a criminal and hit
man for the mafia. While she stood by and watched, her boyfriend did things to me
that by present day standards would make media headlines. To make matters
worse, if I showed any kind of distress or emotion my mother didn’t want to know
and just told me to keep quiet. After a while, her visits became few and far
The last time I saw her at that stage of my life her circumstances had changed.
She was working at the state printing press and was with a man she seemed settled
and happy with. When she picked me up for the last time she had a small child
with her. She informed me he was my baby brother, was very special and I was to
make sure I didn’t upset him. I wondered why I couldn’t live with her as well but I
just put it down to the fact this was yet further evidence that at some stage I must
have done something terribly wrong. Nevertheless, I still longed to live with either
her or my grandfather. They were my real family and now neither one of them
seem interested in caring for me.
As I grew older I became hyper-vigilant about my surroundings so I could be
well prepared for how best to survive the next traumatic event should it occur. I
did not want to make too much of a scene for fear of people discovering either my
real situation of not being wanted, or my real identity of being a bad person.
Therefore, I managed to disguise where I was from and who I was by developing
an alter ego, a type of survival skill I guess, or as others may interpret, I was a liar.
At school I came across as very confident and by making up incredible stories I
could convince other kids my family did actually want me, it was just that I came
from quite a unique family. For me, foster care was only a temporary arrangement
because my real family was off doing lots of exciting things around the world.
They wanted to take me with them but could not because I had to stay and attend
school. This was a thrilling story very befitting for the times. It was the hippy era
and non-conservative free spirited people were considered hip. School became my
safe haven where I was popular and it provided me with many different forms of
One day my guardian told me my father was coming for a surprise visit. I was
nervous about meeting him again after such a long time. My mother had warned
me not to ask about him or have anything to do with him because he was a nasty
man and was the cause of our family breaking up. However, I found this not to be
the case at all and when I did meet him again I couldn’t get over how nice and
handsome he looked. He seemed genuinely happy to see me. He even gave me a
big hug that felt nice and not awkward.
I will never forget our first time together. We went to a park where people were
sailing model yachts. There was not a lot of talking but that did not bother me
because I felt happy just being with him. Afterwards we went to visit my paternal
grandmother and my brother. I had forgotten about my brother. I was so
overwhelmed and excited. I silently thanked God because I thought that he must
have been listening to me all along. While my brother and I played, I overheard
my father and grandmother talking in the next room. Grandmother was warning
my father not to take me to live with them. She reasoned that because I looked like
my mother I was probably going to be like her therefore I could never be trusted. I
hoped and prayed that my Dad would not listen to her.
Recently, this memory resonated with me whilst reading an autobiography
about an experience in foster care, the words reminding me of that day: You were
someone who could be left. You were someone even a motherly person could turn
away from. After reading this, an immense feeling of sadness, worthlessness, loss
and isolation washed over me and, surprisingly, at the age of fifty-four I felt like a
rejected eleven year old all over again.
Fortunately my father did not heed my grandmother’s warning and not long
after that weekend I packed up all my things from my foster home, including my
cat Blackie, and went to live with my father, his partner, and my brother in their
new home. I was eleven going on twelve and was incredibly excited and happy
about living with my new family. My brother and I were instantly inseparable and
most days we were off on our bikes first thing in the morning looking for
adventure and would return home just before dinner. My father and his partner
were married not long after my arrival and all seemed even more complete with
the addition of a new step-mum and not long after that the arrival of my youngest
brother whom I absolutely adored. He was an added bonus. I felt blessed and was
very grateful.
It was not long before things started to change. It seemed that no matter how
hard we tried, our stepmother began to lose patience and was always angry with
my brother and me for what seemed to be no reason at all. One evening dad asked
us to come with him to the garage because he had something important to tell us. I
felt anxious because he seemed very angry. He told us that our stepmother had just
been diagnosed with cancer and for some reason he made it seem like it was our
fault because he threatened to kill us if she died. I was distraught at the prospect of
losing my stepmother to cancer on the one hand, on the other I was confused about
how my brother and I may have contributed to her illness. I panicked and that
familiar sense of fear from when I was abandoned and abused returned. Once
again this must have had something to do with the fact that I had done something
very bad at some stage. I just wished someone could tell me what exactly it was.
I set out to resolve the situation by running away. I thought if I were no longer
around, things would be okay and perhaps return to normal. I ran in the hope of
finding my grandfather’s place where I used to feel happy and safe. I thought that
maybe my brother and I could live with him until things were sorted out at home. I
remembered he lived near a racetrack close to the city so I hitchhiked and slept on
the streets for two nights until finally I recognised the racetrack and then the street
opposite. When I arrived I found my grandfather and his partner had married and
were living there with her two older daughters and one of their own. I was
devastated. Why was it okay for other kids to live with my grandfather and not
me? I was exhausted, defeated and it felt like my heart had been broken all over
again. I just wanted to cry but instead I suppressed the urge because I knew from
the last time I felt like this with my grandfather it would make no difference. I
tried to explain to him the reasons for running away but words failed me, I felt
embarrassed and a fool. As Grandpa drove me home and from that day on, I began
to sense a feeling of numbness. I became withdrawn, detached and started not to
care anymore.
One day, out of frustration and in the hope that maybe my stepmother may
become more lenient, I told her about my sexual abuse. Instead of understanding
and compassion, she told me never to tell anyone else because it was shameful and
disgusting. So telling her my story in the hope of helping her to understand why I
was the way I was only made matters worse. I decided to keep my abuse a secret
from others for a long time after that.
I was in year nine and full of self-loathing to the point that I felt sick to even
look at myself in the mirror. Worst of all I had lost all motivation to continue
school and doubted the reason for my very existence. Eventually, I dropped out of
school and somehow managed to find a job, one I really did not care about. During
this period I attempted suicide twice by swallowing random bottles of pills that
turned out to be only paracetamol. All I managed to achieve was to awake the next
day, only to find that I was clearly not dead but I was completely alone.
Unfortunately in 1979 my brother was successful in his attempt at suicide by
driving head on into a tree after drinking a bottle of scotch.
In 1978, at the age of nineteen, I became a single Mother. I was terrified at the
prospect of having a baby on my own but I was also excited about having someone
of my own. Being alone and lacking support was not new to me. But I believe that
through my life experiences to that point I had gained the determination and
courage to see my pregnancy through and was capable of raising a child
independently. When she was born my daughter became my world. I was
determined to prove to her that I was capable of being a good mother and a good
person. However I quickly became aware that giving birth to a child does not
necessarily bestow you with a natural motherly instinct. Without a motherly role
model I was left to my own devices to try and figure out the confusing and
sometimes scary task of caring for an infant.
I loved my daughter immensely, but felt guilty and unworthy of her. Thus
motherhood caused me great anxiety and sometimes even fear. Furthermore, I felt
terrible because the showing of physical affection was awkward for me, even
toward my own daughter. I tried to make up for these inadequacies by hand
making all her clothes and was determined that she only ate natural and home
cooked food. I hoped that these non-physical displays of affection were going to
suffice and make her feel that she really was loved, adored, and cared for.
Two years after my daughter was born I met my husband. I fell in love with
him but as per my usual pattern, I felt unworthy of him. After our marriage I
gave birth to two more daughters and the conflict of love versus fear and what the
role of being a mother consisted of was the same with my other two daughters as
with my first.
My husband is an Australian born Italian and in line with Italian Australian
culture we were encouraged to spend our first few years of marriage living
amongst the extended family on the premise of saving money to buy a house. I
was made aware from the beginning that I was not the ideal choice for my husband
and it seemed that no matter how hard I tried, the cultural dynamics of exclusivity
within an Italian family would never make allowances for someone like me, an
Australian from a broken home and, to make matters worse, a single mother.
Instead of regarding their rejections as a cultural influence, their attitudes
reaffirmed my continual rejection as a child. Therefore even though I was part of a
family unit, albeit on a peripheral level, I still felt isolated and alone. It seemed
that no matter how hard I tried to deflect being exposed as a bad person, by trying
to please no matter what, my inner feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing
returned with a vengeance. Trying to fulfil the role of being a good person,
partner and mother therefore precipitated unrelenting turmoil. I felt like a fraud
and became overwhelmed and depressed.
Existing in this continual tumultuous state, even after we moved into our own
home, eventually got the better of me and instead of understanding that I was
probably depressed and anxious, I became detached and disassociated, especially
toward my family. To make matters worse, and perhaps justifiably so, people
considered me to be cold, uncaring and elusive. My behaviour inevitably served to
validate my own thoughts of self-loathing. I became convinced I was like my
Mother and even worse, maybe I was evil. I even convinced myself that my family
would be far better off without me and in hindsight they probably were during this
period of my life. Unfortunately, my husband and I separated for eighteen months
and my children remained with him.
During the separation I experienced recurring nightmares where I literally
faced all kinds of demons. To avoid these terrifying images I became an
insomniac. On top of everything else I now I had to deal with the pain of living
without my family and my life became even more unbearable. I was once again
Fortunately, I was able to confide in my husband and we reunited in the hope
this would resolve both his and my suffering. When I returned, and in addition to
my emotional distress, I now felt there was even more evidence that I was bad.
Why else would I have chosen to hurt the family I loved by leaving them, thereby
deservedly losing their total respect? For this I accepted any punishment,
disrespect and anger that came my way. Every morning I struggled to get out of
bed and found no happiness or motivation in anything. I experienced bouts of
vomiting and diarrhoea and could not rid myself of extreme feelings of anxiety and
fear. Finally, a friend recommended I should visit a GP who referred me onto a
psychiatrist specialising in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I was
diagnosed with chronic depression, anxiety and on the brink of a nervous
breakdown. To alleviate the symptoms, I was prescribed anti-depressants and they
eventually gave me some relief.
Initially I assumed it was pointless seeing a psychiatrist who would only tell
me what I had known all along, that I was bad to the core and just needed to move
on from my childhood experiences and stop feeling sorry for myself. However, she
was surprisingly interested in hearing my story and very concerned about the level
of sexual and psychological abuse, abandonment and rejection I had experienced
as a child. She acknowledged and was not surprised about why I felt so distressed
and anxious most of the time and why there were strong feelings of self-loathing
and sometimes suicide. Apparently, my flashbacks were related to being severely
traumatised during a crucial development period of my childhood. Accordingly,
my past trauma directly contributed to forming the very foundation of my
personality traits and was the reason I could not move on unless I learnt how to
deal with them appropriately. This may seem obvious to others, but relating my
emotional pain to my childhood traumas rather than to me being a bad person was
something I found difficult to comprehend. She recommended that instead of
trying to get over my childhood, I needed to embrace my resilience, strength,
courage and determination, and my ability to be positive in the face of adversity.
This was a bizarre and confusing concept because I had never thought of myself as
possessing these attributes and I couldn’t remember the last time I felt positive.
Furthermore she was amazed at how I had managed to get through without
resorting to self-medication or some sort of substance addiction. It took a while,
but eventually I started to accept what she was telling me and to feel a sense of
I continued seeing my psychiatrist fortnightly for another two years. I
connected well with her and her interventions were starting to have an effect. She
also taught me about the benefits of meditation and alternatives to drug therapies
in preparation for ceasing the use of anti-depressants. I was fascinated when she
described different personality traits and disorders, particularly those incapable of
empathy, void of conscience and consideration of others, even at times toward
their own children. These personality types are capable of considering family
members as objects, only to be utilised for their own ends or they are capable of
disregarding them completely. She believed these were reflections of the
personalities of my grandfather and mother. Eventually I began to view my
childhood from a different perspective and after so many years of struggling with
why, I was able to move on and find answers through understanding and learning
about personality disorders and flawed character traits. All this new found
knowledge inspired me to delve deeper and learn more about what motivates and
drives human behaviour from both a personal and societal perspective.
Thus I became an avid listener of Radio National and was very interested in
any documentaries involving mental illness, politics and social justice. My eldest
daughter, who at the time was working on her PhD in psychology, noticed my
enthusiasm in these fields and encouraged me to apply to enter university. I told
her I would love to, but attending university for me was a very unlikely scenario. I
had never finished school, was way too old and certainly not clever enough to
complete a university degree. However, my daughter is a most persistent person
and in the end I put in my application to prove to her it was a futile pursuit.
As part of the entrance criteria I had to sit an IQ STAT test in addition to
writing an essay about my reasons for wanting to attend university. During the
STAT test my brain shut down due to nerves, anxiety, a complete lack of
confidence and education to get me through the exam. I walked out of the
examination room knowing I had failed. In addition, when writing my essay, I felt
embarrassed about my English and Grammar skills which I knew were certainly
not up to university standards. Despite all of this I somehow managed to gain a
letter of offer at Adelaide University to commence the program of Bachelor of
Social Science, my first choice. Even though I thought it a mistake, I was
overwhelmingly excited before panic set in. It was fantastic that I had been
accepted but considering all my limitations how on earth was I going to get
through this mammoth task?
I can still recall every second of my first day, from the time I got onto the train
and then walking through the university grounds while looking for the room where
my first lecture was to be held. I was terrified and in such a hyper-vigilant state I
was sure I was on the brink of an anxiety attack. As I walked through the
university I hoped I wouldn’t be able to find my way around, then I would have an
excuse to go home and forget this insane idea. But I did find my way and had no
excuse to turn back. I convinced myself that seeing as I was here, I might as well
just see what the first lecture entailed. As it turned out, I had chosen my first two
semester courses wisely. The first course was a Learn-to-Study course specifically
designed to teach people who have not studied for a while and it involved
organisational, writing and presentation skills. The other course involved the study
of Social Science in Australia and that included social justice topics similar to the
Radio National documentaries I loved listening to.
Initially I found it very difficult to adapt to university life. The university
environment triggered old issues stemming from my childhood, issues I thought I
had dealt with long ago. I felt vulnerable, guarded and self-conscious to the point I
found it extremely difficult to communicate with teaching staff without my
emotions getting the better of me. Even when it came to constructive criticism, I
couldn’t help but take it personally. I kept convincing myself I was incapable and
an imposter. I was confused as to why now, as an adult, I was taking everything so
personally and continually felt like a child being scolded all the time. Sometimes
my defensiveness manifested in embarrassing tearing up. This was frustrating and
irritating I could not control my emotions and was perturbed as to why they were
manifesting now. Furthermore, my experience at university was in complete
contrast to my then career as a building consultant, where I was capable of being a
formidable negotiator and communicated professionally with my clients no matter
how intense or intimidating the contract proceedings became. Hence, university
distorted my belief that I had become a very capable forty seven year old who had
come to terms with her childhood traumas ages ago.
Initially then and to a certain extent throughout my undergraduate course I
dealt with a fair bit of fear, confusion and anxiety. This led to what I disliked most
about university it was causing me to confront my childhood issues and
insecurities. However withdrawing turned out to not be an option. Instead I
became curious and was determined to find out why these issues were resurfacing
again after all these years.
I found the second year the most difficult and by the end and even though I was
determined to finish, I had had enough. I had decided to detach so that I could just
get my degree over and done with and be free of study forever. When it came time
to complete the pre-requisite course in Social Science Research at the beginning of
third year, I was particularly negative and had lost all enthusiasm. Psychology was
not what I expected and I believed this subject involving research was going to be
similar. To my surprise this subject proved to be a turning point. Everything
started to fall into place and I began to embrace my time at university. I
particularly connected with the social justice aspect of the course and also with my
personable and down-to-earth lecturer. Therefore during the third year and after
completing my final four subjects in psychology, I committed to complete the
Advanced Social Science Research course as my final subject.
Nearing the end of my degree I was very motivated and found my love of
learning had returned to the point that everything I learnt was incredibly amazing
and wonderful. I began to acknowledge that un-resisted learning could facilitate a
mechanism, offering freedom of choice in ways that can empower you to gain
further strength, growth and independence through knowledge. I assimilated this
realisation with my life choices of either becoming a victim or a survivor. Thus,
my time at university eventually afforded me the confidence to draw upon the
unique skills I had acquired as a foster Care Leaver, to be resilient in the face of
adversity and to utilise my technique of being able to turn a negative into a
positive. Even though I struggled throughout my undergraduate years, the
difference now was that as time progressed I learnt to turn my struggling into
In addition, I loved my choice of program, Social Science, majoring in
Psychology. Social Science gives a broader perspective than psychology when
learning about human behaviour. For example, it examines how humans interact
with society and how society can impact on individuals. I could relate to most of
these topics and therefore could now appreciate that on the one hand there was a
lot I needed to address and confront, yet on the other, the more I was prepared to
confront it the more determined, confident and empowered I became. In my final
year, instead of being overwhelmed with fear and insecurities, I became
overwhelmed with gratitude and enthusiasm to the point of sometimes feeling an
amazing warm vibration as I walked through the beautiful surrounds and the old
buildings that form the University of Adelaide.
Up until my last semester, I was not sure about what I was going to do once I
had completed my degree. I knew I wanted to be involved in something to do with
supporting marginalized others or individuals within a mental health frame but was
ambivalent about continuing on with psychology. First, my marks in the scientific
component of psychology were average. Second, I found psychology to be quite
competitive and clinical. Through my experience as a Lifeline Counsellor I knew
that listening to individuals’ problems, while rewarding, was not going to fulfil my
ambition of wanting to contribute to society on a broader scale.
To my surprise, the choice of my last subject, Social Research Advanced,
provided me with the answer. During this course we were required to complete a
research project of our own which involved ethics approval. As a guide, our
lecturer provided us with her own ethics application and, coincidentally, it entailed
a proposal for a project on the history of foster care. As I was reading the proposal
I suddenly remembered the words of my daughter when she was trying to convince
me to apply to university. She said, Mum, you never know, you could end up
working on a project to do with foster care. This was definitely a lightning bolt
moment. I immediately wanted to be involved in the project, but was hesitant
because I thought that participants had to have been institutionalised Care Leavers,
and therefore, because my foster care arrangement was private, I would not
qualify. When I informed my lecturer of my interest and reservations, she
reassured me that this was not the case at all, I too was eligible to participate in the
Now here I am, writing about my experience in foster care and how it has
influenced my experience at university. Essentially, this experience has
transcended any prior expectation of where my degree would lead me, and the
timing was surreal. Not only am I involved in a project I am passionate about, but
the coincidence was astounding.
The purpose of this story is to motivate others who are struggling with their
past issues or traumas as Care Leavers and who may think that their desire to
attend university is way beyond their reach. I am here to tell you that it is not. If
my story has demonstrated that I can go through the experiences I did and succeed,
then so can you. As my daughter encouraged me to do, all you have to do is make
the first step. Yes, it has been a difficult journey and I had to confront all sorts of
issues, but as a survivor of foster care you possess a unique set of skills and if you
are prepared to tap into then, you will get through despite everything.
If you are contemplating a university opportunity, I guarantee if you decide to
go ahead your life will change and be enriched in ways you never thought
possible. The only time you will look back is when you choose to nurture and
embrace the little child you once were and then only to heal the wounds of
abandonment and a past full of fear and struggling.
Part Two
Mature Age Students
Up from the Lowest Rung
Deidre Michell
AT THE base of my neck I have a lump like a small sand castle. My husband first
pointed this out to me shortly after I met him more than twenty years ago; he
thought it was the legacy of hanging my head in shame when I was a kid in foster
care. He may well be right, although I didn’t give it much credence back then, not
the lump and not the shame. Both have been on my mind in recent years, however.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when I first starting thinking deeply about shame, or what
prompted it, but it was probably when I became tired of feeling furious and
outraged at past injustices and wanted to move forward. What I discovered is that
in order to stop feeling out of control with anger I needed to sit with it for a while,
trusting that anger had something to tell me if only I would stay in one place long
enough to listen. Suddenly wracked with sobs, I realized that beneath the rage,
even beneath the sorrow at having been separated from my family when I was a
little girl, was the powerful and painful feeling of shame.
What I’d like to do is blame my foster mother for the shame which has caused
me no end of difficulties. For fifteen years of what would have been regarded as a
stable and successful foster care placement I lived in a situation of family violence.
I was socially isolated, unable to have friends at home or visit them in their homes.
I was berated for crying too much, told I was devious and manipulative, that I
could turn tears on and off like a tap. According to my foster mother, and I
believed her, I was ugly too, and as I sprouted up beyond family members during
my teenage years I felt monstrously tall. How much food I ate was measured and
used to control my behaviour; disobedience equated to being sent to bed without
tea. On those occasions, and others when I was still hungry after tea, I’d eat my
next day’s school lunch in bed as I read, particularly if chocolate cake was
included, I loved Mum’s chocolate cake. That made for extreme hunger the
following day at school of course, although sometimes my friend Joy would take
me home and her mother would boil an egg while no doubt wondering why my
foster mother didn’t take better care of me. I remember having distinctly better
food and more of it if there were visitors, but going out with Mum and being
offered food or ‘seconds’ required seeking approval before I’d feel brave enough
to up the offer. My worst food memory, though, is of when during a balmy
summer evening I would become aware of my foster mother and her daughter
sharing a rockmelon. They’d cut it in half, fill the halves with vanilla ice-cream
and chat over the shared pleasure. I don’t think I ever tasted rockmelon as a child,
but it’s the feeling of exclusion from a warm family moment that hurt the most.
The story of my birth parents neglecting me was regularly rehearsed and in a
manner which made evident my foster mother’s disgust for them.
“They aren’t real parents she said, real parents wouldn’t have treated you
like that.
While I understand now my foster mother was asserting her moral superiority
as a caring, responsible and therefore respectable working class woman over my
unmotherly ‘White Trash’ ‘real mother’ and inebriated, lazy ‘real father,’ the
criticisms of my birth parents made me feel disgusting, as well as guilty and
personally responsible for their failings. Consequently I became intensely ashamed
of my birth family too.
I now understand that shame and divisions between the ‘respectable’ and the
‘disreputable’ were built into the foster care system from the beginning through its
origins in the British class system. A migrant from England to the new British
colony of South Australia, Caroline Emily Clark (1825-1911)
, was motivated by
genuine concern for the welfare of the State’s ‘pauper children’ incarcerated in the
city’s destitute asylum and, influenced by the new practice of ‘boarding out in
England from the 1860s, lobbied the State Government to implement a similar idea
in Adelaide. Clark was also, however, influenced by the classist ideologies of her
time including the popular beliefs that destitution, like the measles [or
consumption], was a contagious disease
, and that poverty is the result of
individual moral turpitude” rather than problems of capitalism, and therefore
should be treated punitively to discourage such moral failure.”
The upshot was
she wanted poor children permanently removed from the pauper moral influences
and pauper physical and social gradations”
of their families of origin and placed
with ‘respectable’ or conforming working class families. The latter were to receive
some financial compensation for the care of a child until the age of 13, at which
time the child was to be removed and placed as a domestic servant with a middle-
upper class family if a girl, or sent out to work as a labourer if a boy. That some of
these children would have gone to work as servants to members of the ‘leisurely
class’ from which members of the State Children’s Council the Council
presiding over the foster care system was drawn
seems a little too convenient.
By 1888 the Boarding Out system was so successful that a majority of the State’s
‘pauper children’ were in what was to become known as foster care.
What I thought of as abuse by my foster mother I now see as abusive foster
care practices endorsed by Clark and other members of the State Children’s
Council. For example, I always thought my foster mother was particularly cruel in
threatening to send me back to ‘the Welfare’ when I was disobedient. One day she
even packed my bags and left me sitting on the front wall waiting for a social
worker. On another occasion she organised her daughter, my foster sister, to drive
me past a reform home, threatening this as punishment for misbehaviour. I would
have been about 9 years old at the time. While my foster mother never carried out
the threats, the impact was traumatic - I didn’t feel safe at home. What I
experienced as an oppressive practice, however, was what Howard Becker
have called an endorsed, legitimated one. According to Clark’s friend, Catherine
Helen Spence, threatening children with removal from a foster home, ‘in disgrace
for being naughty,’
was a way of inculcating obedience to a new regime in a
different home. I also understand now why my foster mother was happy to use me
as a ‘little servant’ during the fifteen years I lived with her. She would have
thought this appropriate and endorsed training for my future life, given the foster
care system intended State children to be sent out “as little servants to help
School can mitigate some of the difficulties of a troubled home life and it did
that for me. School (and reading) was a haven, a sanctuary, a place where I had
friends and was validated for reading; a place where I could be myself. I thought I
was pretty smart too until I went to high school where I was ‘streamed’ into an
‘average’ class. Maybe that’s the reason I chose to go into the commercial stream
the following year. I’d accepted my fate of a vocational education, the sort that had
been provided for during the 1950s with the mass expansion of secondary
education because workers were needed in the manufacturing and business sectors.
After completing three years of shorthand, typing and bookkeeping I decided I
wanted to proceed onto matriculation and even to university. The Federal Whitlam
Labor Government had abolished university fees during the early 1970s and the
foregoing public debate no doubt influenced my thinking. My foster mother was
visibly alarmed when I talked about university, but not actively discouraging.
During the 1960s there had been a brief spark of interest in the education of State
children which allowed for payments to foster parents to be extended beyond the
then compulsory school age of 15 which may have influenced her to let me
continue at school. I’d also begun part-time work at the local Coles supermarket
and had some financial independence.
Doing Year 12 was my first experience of feeling educationally incompetent.
That commercial stream education had prepared me well for becoming a secretary
but not adequately for fifth year and some of my grades plummeted. I also felt
rather lost and lonely for a time as I was one of only four girls to go from the close
knit class of commerce students into matriculation, and the only one to make it
through to final exams. It was a tough year, and I recall walking home from my
maths exam feeling despondent and despairing I was certain I’d failed.
I don’t recall now the reasons for deferring my place at Flinders University
when it was offered at the beginning of 1974. Was I too scared? Was there too
much going on at home? Conflict between me and my foster mother was rife as I
began, clumsily and with passion, to stand up for myself. Mum never mentioned
receiving regular payments for my care from the Department of Welfare, nor did
she talk about those payments having ceased, but they must have once I’d finished
school and certainly when I turned 18 three months later. My summer job in a car
radiator repair shop continued on into autumn and I began to pay board. I recall
complaining about the amount as it left me with little to spend freely but I wasn’t
thinking about or aware of the financial impact on my foster family of me no
longer being a Ward of the State.
My first foray into a comfortable middle class life was via that summer job. I
baby sat for my boss Geoff and his wife Sue, loving to visit their large and
comfortable home (palatial by my standards) in much the same way the fictional
kids from the slums loved to explore the six acre garden of their middle class
neighbours in Ethel Turner’s 1925 story, The Ungardeners. When I confided in
my new friends about how sour things had turned at home, the kind and generous
couple invited me to stay and then later assisted me in finding my own place. I
don’t remember making a conscious decision to carve out a new life for myself,
nor even of leaving the life of my foster parents behind. At some level though I
must have decided I didn’t want my foster mother’s life – bound by home,
television and bad moods. I wanted to be like Sue. She was the most elegant,
sophisticated, confident woman I had ever met. This brief time with Geoff and Sue
thus served as a potent opening into larger possibilities and the beginning of my
journey into the middle class.
Sue was my hero but I was far from being anything like her. Instead, by the
time I left home at age eighteen I embodied the signs of oppression
: I hated
myself, I hung my head low as I walked along, I was frequently depressed,
extremely shy, and I would withdraw because I dreaded being exposed as a foster
kid. I also bit my finger nails until they bled. My memories of foster care are laced
with hunger for love, food, warmth and intellectual stimulation. Within a very
short period of time after I left home, and finally began eating as many biscuits as I
damn well pleased, I quickly put on weight.
I’ve battled with depression and self-loathing my entire life. I often still dread
being exposed as a former foster kid even though, paradoxically, I write about the
experience. I still bite my finger nails too. These days I’ve become aware I
sometimes over-eat to spite my foster mother as well, regardless of not having
seen her again since my eldest daughter was born thirty years ago. By then I knew
she’d been abusive, whereas formerly I thought I was inherently bad. I was like the
little boy Brian in L.M Mongomery’s story The Tangled Web, who says to his
Aunt Margaret:
“I’m afraid you won’t love me when you know all about me. I’m not good Aunt
Margaret, I wouldn’t want you to be disappointed in me when you found out I
wasn’t a good boy.”
My baby daughter did love me, however, and that made all the difference.
I ended up having a gap of two years before I finally went to university as a
twenty year old. I loved the idea of studying, but I didn’t know what I wanted to
do with my life. I lacked confidence, was too shy to speak in tutorials and didn’t fit
in. My results show I was a competent university student, but the feelings of being
a failure, of being inadequate in this new environment, of not belonging, prevailed,
and eighteen months into my Bachelor of Arts I formally withdrew. It took another
thirteen years for me to venture back.
For most of the intervening thirteen years I worked for IBM Australia, a blue
chip international corporation. This middle-upper class environment was a very
positive one. IBM actively promoted the idea of self-improvement and, seeing
qualities in me I couldn’t see for myself, my managers encouraged attendance at a
number of personal development courses. Two memorable ones were Dale
Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and much later, Lou Tice’s
New Age Thinking. The ideas of both Carnegie and Tice have roots back to the
Christian Science church which was founded by Mary Baker Eddy in Boston in
1879, a church which was to have considerable importance for me later. During
the 1980’s, however, I identified as an atheist and was more interested in the
decent salary, excellent working conditions and caché which came from working
for a prestigious company.
The longer I stayed with the corporation, the more I transformed myself so that
I ‘looked the part’. I ensure that my self-presentation conformed to the high-status
and professional image of the company. Consequently, much of my salary was
spent on what Chris Warhurst et al.
call ‘aesthetic labour’ buying clothes,
learning to apply makeup, having my hair expensively and regularly cut and
coloured blonde, as well as keeping my weight down with a diet dominated by
alcohol and tobacco. After much experimentation fuelled by consumption of
Vogue magazines and observing those around me, I eventually looked ‘right’. I
came to embody what Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza calls the ‘White Lady’ ideal.
Not only was I slender and blonde, I looked (and sounded) middle-upper class too.
At no stage was I asked by anyone to make this ‘transformation’ hence it appeared
to be my choice. However, I am quite certain there is no coincidence between my
‘enhanced’, middle-upper class appearance and the enhanced career opportunities
which came my way.
I became very restless as I entered my thirties. I was dissatisfied with my long
term relationship and deeply unhappy with myself. Mine was a divided self. I was
ontologically insecure. In Bordieuan terms, I was living across a divided habitus
because my current class location was at such a vast remove from the ones I was
born into and grew up within. I had become ashamed of my impoverished
beginnings. My strategy was silence and erasure of the past. Happy enough to have
my life trajectory interrupted by my work, I was, however, thoroughly exhausted
from internal conflict and ongoing public performances. I had ‘constructed a new
self as I went along’ although it gradually came to feel ‘artificial, contrived,
deceitful, even counter productive’
and lead me to wanting to discover myself. I
was also dependent on alcohol and tobacco to get me through the many social
functions I attended, and also suffered from regular and debilitating bouts of
depression. Emotionally bankrupt, no longer wanting to live a life where the image
I projected was at such a vast remove from my self-image, and tired of masking
my working class origins, I left my high flying, high paying job. It wasn’t long
before I was financially broke as well.
Being broke provided me with an opportunity to act on the long nurtured desire
to return to university. In 1991, newly married and pregnant with my second child,
my son, I took up part-time study, amazed and thankful the university would give
me another chance. I only did one semester of study in that year but recognised
there’d been a seismic shift – I no longer felt as awkward or shy partly because I’d
matured somewhat, but also because the middle class university was no longer an
alien environment. As I spoke out in classrooms, initially an incredibly difficult
thing to do, new beliefs such as that I do have something to say began their
hesitant, faulting emergence in my mind. From 1994 I was a more regular part-
time attendee and when I discovered Women’s Studies in 1995, fortuitously the
same year my third child, a second daughter, was born, I finally felt at home. I
finished the degree at the end of 1997.
I met a student last year in the final semester of his Bachelor of Arts degree.
“It’s taken me 19 years to get this far,” he confided, and I feel quite ashamed
of myself for taking so long.
“Don’t worry about it, I was able to say, it took me twenty-two years from
the time I started until I attended the graduation ceremony in 1998!
When I confess to being a ‘slow learner’ myself, I find it helps students realise
they’re not the only ones to make a habit of dropping out and dropping back in
again. Not that I don’t regret taking so long, because I do...
There were a number of factors which helped me get through my degree. We
were financially supported via Austudy my husband was studying as well and
I’ll always be grateful for this government benefit. Supplemented with paid casual
work we had just enough money for a very frugal life but we never felt poor. We
may have been frustratingly low on cash and, and fearful as bills piled up, but we
were never poor. We had enough and we had each other and there was an
incredible richness in a purposeful life focused on ideas, changing our lives for the
better, and caring for our children. I also had, for the first time in my life, a wealth
of emotional support through the unconditional love and positive regard of my
husband and children, support which was nourishing and encouraging through
even the most difficult times. By then I had discovered a form of spirituality which
encouraged me to define myself in less limiting ways and, while that engendered
considerable internal conflict as I bounced between seeing myself as inadequate
and capable, it was a mainstay during my study. I could begin to see different
possibilities for myself, a different way to identify myself rather than as foster kid,
wife, failure, mother and this began to edge out the negative effect on my
consciousness of my parents, particularly my two mothers. Through my studies I
began to understand the connections between my personal troubles and the public
issues of sex and class. The marginalisation and stigmatisation of many groups
within society, and Berger and Luckmann’s
idea of the social construction of
reality, was to me very similar to the Christian Science church’s challenges to the
discursive construction of beliefs about bodies and abilities.
Finally, what Tillie Olsen later did with Silences by encouraging the reading
and publication of long buried women’s writings, Women’s Studies at the
University of Adelaide did for me it unbridled my tongue by challenging
internalised self-loathing and self-protective ‘passing’. I began to write about my
despised identity while trying to untangle the “knots upon knots”
in my ‘pauper’
psyche and to process the immense grief caused by separation from my birth
family which left me a person without a history. This was the legacy of Emily
Clark’s Boarding Out Society. In wanting to cut off at the root the evil, the
parasitic growth of pauperism and crime”
the foster care system effectively and
distressingly severed me from my roots, causing me many an identity crisis over
the years. Initially, I thought the sorrow I felt while writing was a very personal,
private experience that is, that it was produced somehow by forces within
. Reading Margaret Barbalet’s now classic 1983 history of the State
‘Care’ system, Far from a low gutter girl: the forgotten world of state wards:
South Australia 1887-1940 was the “accidental encounter”
I needed in order to
realise I was writing about structural forces, namely the State ‘Care’ system, and
the personal pain resulting from the external, public, structural injuries of a classed
I was a late and tentative starter in higher education, but the funny thing is I’ve
now been at university for twenty years. In 1998 I made the odd decision to study
theology at which point the idea I’m going to do a PhD too popped into my mind.
This was surprising since I’d had no such impulse or desire for postgraduate study
when doing Women’s Studies not that I’d have been asked either as my grades
were erratic. A year later I was again surprised when the idea I could do that came
to mind as I watched a Theology tutor go about her work. In all my years of study
I’d seen the craft of lecturers and tutors as so far removed from my capabilities
that I’d never considered myself in either of those roles. Yet here I was changing
my mind. Once I’d made the decision it was simply a matter of finding out how to
get work which required building up a relationship with a lecturer who gave me an
opportunity. Once I’d made the decision to do a PhD, I set about finding out what
grades I’d need to get into the program and how to apply for a scholarship (achieve
first-class Honours and get writing published).
I commenced my PhD in 2002 and began work as a tutor in 2003, both at
Flinders University. Opportunities to lecture came up early in my PhD time, and I
taught in the Women’s Studies Foundation Course for five years. This was a
fulfilling and rewarding experience which led to other opportunities to teach
undergraduate students in Women’s Studies during 2006 and 2007. I kept up other
casual administration work too, as tutors and casual/contract lectures are largely
only required for five to six months of the year and it is not fulltime work anyway.
For the five years of doing my PhD I juggled primary care for our family and paid
work within and without the university sector, and felt continually grateful for the
scholarship which contributed to the family income. I also loved doing my own
research project.
Although I’d been on track to complete the PhD within three years, I became
unstuck as the public debate about sexual abuse in State ‘Care’ resulted in what is
now known as the 2004 Mullighan Inquiry
. This debate triggered PTSD and I
remember vividly the day the words I can’t do this came into my mind becoming
louder and louder until I was paralysed with fear, despair and hopelessness.
Eventually I ended up in counselling to work through the issues of child sexual
abuse. I also discovered CLAN, the organisation founded by Joanna Penglase and
Leonie Sheedy described in the Introduction to this volume.
A feature of CLAN has been the way it creates space for the voices of Care
Leavers by publishing individual stories in the bi-monthly newsletter The Clanicle
(available online). When I joined CLAN in 2004 I received a backlog of
newsletters which I read in bed at night. The effect of reading so many personal,
brutal, sad, and traumatic stories was complicated. On the one hand I no longer felt
so alone as previously I’d never met anyone outside my own family who had been
in ‘care’ and it had felt as if we were the only dysfunctional lot in the world. On
the other hand I was re-traumatised and flung into a sea of repressed memories in
which I floundered for years. Other complicating factors were a sense of guilt that
my experience had not been as dramatic and inhumane as many others had
experienced, and feelings of shame that I had no idea of any of this previously.
It’s impossible to read the stories of Care Leavers and not consider the injuries
inflicted on masses of people by our classed society. As I said earlier, I unwittingly
moved into the middle class as a young woman and much preferred that lifestyle to
the one I knew from my working class neighbourhood and foster family. But
fourteen years ago and for reasons of convenience and finances, my husband and I
purchased our first home in a working class suburb. So ‘class blind’ was I that I
was totally oblivious to this being a working class suburb and confronted when
people I’d not considered ‘snobs’ would express astonishment at our move and
disparagement of the people who lived out there. They would ask:
“Are there people you’ll be able to talk to out there?”
Are there decent schools out there?”
Are you safe out there?
Living out there in Adelaide’s northern suburbs has given me an excellent
opportunity to explore and challenge classism within myself and in the broader
community. By classism I mean the low social esteem in which some people are
held, often revealed in a relentless deficit discourse focused against those who live
in the outer suburbs of Adelaide. For example, university students from such
suburbs, that is, those from poor and working class backgrounds, are often
characterised as the students who ‘lack’ the appropriate cultural capital or
aspirations and are seen as the most ‘at risk’ of dropping out. However, while I
know these students can experience culture shock when they come on campus, I
also know many do brilliantly and that middle class students drop out of university
too. As someone said recently: University is the great leveller.
I currently work as a lecturer at the University of Adelaide. I never set out to
become an academic I felt too inadequate and unintelligent, was too anxious, to
make that a goal. I had to grow into the idea as I was growing into the job,
discovering by doing it that indeed I do have a capacity for the work and enjoy
interacting with students from diverse backgrounds. Because I believe in all
students having unlimited potential I am an encouraging teacher. That I am paid to
do what I love, to read and to write, is the icing on a very rich and delicious cake.
The Continuing Education of the
Artist as a Mature Woman
Rachael Romero
WHAT DID University mean to a girl who herded sheep through paddocks of
blonde Phalaris grass and dust? I didn’t even imagine it. Being born a girl and not
a boy in rural Australia in the 1950’s meant I was a disappointment to each parent
for different reasons. There was no human feat I could perform that would bring
them to realize the error of their gender preference. Apparently I’m still a tad
defensive about this, because when I was told that the focus of this essay was HE,
the HE jumped out at me like the figure of a superhero. Why HE not SHE? I
wondered (reversing what my parents begged the heavens when I was born.)
About to write back and ask What HE? I realized the obvious: H is for higher E
is for education. Is it really higher? Does it come from above? Let me look into
this as I consider the saga of the patchy formal education cobbled into my self-
taught life.
My extrajudicial imprisonment as a child had a big influence on the trajectory
of both my education and my biography, framing and influencing my Higher
Education. I find it valuable to pause for reflection and re-examination at various
points in life. My sixtieth year is one such occasion.
As a child isolated on a farm I became accustomed to being alone. An
autodidact by the age of three, I studied trees, traced the dappled shadows of
leaves, imagined friends. I found clay in the creek, fashioned it and baked it in the
sun. I made up songs and poems. I learned by doing. But I was lonely. I longed for
friends and therefore couldn’t wait to go to school to meet other children. Alas, at
five, I contracted Rheumatic Fever. I howled like a chained sheepdog when told
I’d have to lie still in bed and do correspondence lessons. After six months of
convalescence I was allowed outside. I clamored up onto the seat of my sisters
large tricycle and took off hurtling down the steep loose-stoned driveway, the
pedals spinning wildly, my feet clacking.
I arrived at the two-room schoolhouse mid-year. A gawky fourteen-year-old,
too big for his uniform, was crammed like a grasshopper into the tiny desk in front
of me. Billy was starting school too, and spent most of his time bent sideways,
ducking his head under the miniature desk. I found it difficult to differentiate
between Bs and Ds. My slight dyslexia was never diagnosed. I was discouraged in
my ambidexterity and made to sit still while Billy kept ducking down in front of
me. Billy wanted to play with us during recess. He tried whizzing a couple of us
around on a cartwheel mounted in the playground. It was fun. He spun us faster
and faster. My new friend Moira’s head swung out, the speed sucking her back till
she was dragged. Billy didn’t mean any harm, but he was ejected from school after
that. It was clear: if you don't fit in, you get thrown out.
I managed to pass grade one with fierce determination” inscribed on my
report card, going on to thrive with a teacher who encouraged me. She left to
become a nun. I wanted to study woodwork but “girls had to sew. In the big room
I balked when the male teacher beat me for my reluctance to recite times tables. A
recipient of violence at home I was not about to comply with a second tyrant. I
vowed I wouldn’t participate in any rote learning he demanded of meever. He
hit me every day and made me stand against the wall during recess.
This teacher didn’t just beat me. There were others. He made the mistake of
explaining the use of voodoo dolls as a surrogate target of a curse. Pretty soon a
sailor doll of mine was made to look like him. A bunch of us plunged a pitchfork
through his proxy heart. He had a heart attack that very week! We looked wide-
eyed at each other when we learned. Simultaneously guilty, and in awe of our own
power, we developed a sudden fascination for the surfaces of our desks. Luckily he
survived. I learned: acting on a desire for revenge might have bitter or
uncomfortable results.
In the six years I attended this rural school I learned more from extra-curricular
activities like performing in the annual concerts in the village hall; folk dancing;
rough-housing with kids in the schoolyard (beating the boys); and school
walkabouts than I ever did in the classroom. At home I herded sheep, rode
bareback, fed the calves, caught tadpoles, cleared the creek of leaves, evaded my
father’s beatings by hiding high in the pine trees, and observed my mother’s hard
work with chickens, cows and in the garden.
Of the few books available to me I remember my grandmother’s big fairy tale
book whispering to my spirit. I basked in the stories about maligned children being
freed after evil spells were broken. And if I disliked some of the scary illustrations
I conjured drawings from my imagination that I felt worked better. During the
school holidays my mother ordered me books from the long-distance library. She
spoke bitterly of having to leave school at age thirteen because high school was
too far away. Trained as a nurse during the war, she remained peeved that she
hadn’t had much of an education. I found endless fascination leafing through her
old nursing school anatomy book-bodies unfolding to reveal muscle, sinew, and
veins. Layers folded open like butterfly wings revealing fruit-like organs inside the
My father could boast that he had gone to a ‘good’ private school for his
secondary education (his ambitious Scottish father had wanted his first son to fake
his way into a ‘higher’ class). The only subject he ever spoke of was boxing.
“It’s better to give than to receive, lass.”
He graduated with the old-school-tie, which was the purpose after all.
I like a woman strong enough to pull the plow but stupid enough not to
complain, he’d snigger.
I intuited that this was horribly wrong, setting my sights on getting far, far
away. Thus my parents’ relationship to learning and study became my via
negativathe road I chose not to take. Not that. Anything but that! I was a
fiercely determined girl who wanted to follow her own curiosity.
Was this a partial conceit? Years later I realized with chagrin that by
embracing the opposite of my father’s certitudes, and in revolt of him, I was for
many years just as obstinately blinded by my own contrariness as he was. The
horror! To paraphrase Mark Twain: what you don’t know is not as troublesome as
what you’re sure you know, but that isn’t necessarily true. Even if we are pre-
disposed to repeat the mistakes of the pastwe can stop it!
When the farm I loved was sold, we moved to the Adelaide suburbs where I
was sent to a private all-girls school for the very social climbing ambitions I’d
come to despise. Why study French when France was far away? If someone had
whispered, “Tahiti isn’t far,” I would have been motivated. I dreamed of Tahiti.
Never mind that private education was supposed to be better, I was unwilling to be
beholden to a father I loathed, and insisted on attending a free, co-ed high school.
Isolated by my kin, I sought family among friends, mostly first generation
children of European war refugees; budding intellectuals who knew their way
around the main library—(a place I’d never been introduced to and found
intimidating). We shared poetry and books about Existentialism and hung out.
At home, the facade was unraveling. In those days the buzzword: juvenile
delinquent was used as a cover for ‘putting away’ living evidence of inconvenient
truths like abused children. My second year at high school was interrupted when,
following a particularly brutal and life-threatening attack by my father, I ran
barefoot and penniless into the night. After a few days staying with friends I turned
myself into ‘the Welfare’ and was subsequently d