As I sit with Jenny Forrest out front of her Singleton home, she assures me that “nothing has changed.”
She’s referring to the removal of Indigenous people as explored in a Singleton Argus article last month.
“Laws of forced removal may have changed and the goal posts may have moved on the field, but the outcome of the game is still the same,” she says.
“Indigenous people and children are still suffering.”
An Indigenous Elder and a woman of the Wiradjuri tribe, Jenny has personally suffered at the hands of past forced removal procedures.
In 1973 she was sent to the notorious Parramatta Girls Training School, commonly known as Parramatta Girls Home. Sixteen-years-old and pregnant at the time, she was taken from her family and Indigenous culture in Cootamundra.
Charged with exposure to ‘moral danger’ on the basis of a spurious vaginal examination, Jenny and other women were condemned to suffer abuse perpetrated by doctors, supervising staff and other inmates.
“They made sure I was isolated at the girls’ home,” Jenny recalls.
“I had no ability to form friendships; we were not allowed to speak. I was completely unaware of my own human rights.”
Despite being sent to Parramatta Girls Home to escape ‘moral dangers’, what Jenny experienced inside the walls of the detention facility was far worse than anything she could have imagined.
Upon arriving, she was forbidden from continuing any formal education, unable to engage in any physical fitness, stripped of her communicative rights and had no access to medical services for her unborn child. Jenny suffered through regular invasive examinations and was no longer called by her name. Instead the authorities called her 114, a designated entrance number.
“I didn’t let trauma push me over the edge, even though it could have so easily."
“I saw more things inside that place than I ever would have seen as a 16-year-old in my own home,” she says.
“I saw sexual abuse, violence, girls sticking pins into themselves and self-harming. I was so scared and I couldn’t trust anyone. Not the guards or the girls.”
But nothing could prepare Jenny for what was to come. Vague memories of the birth of her child still linger in her memory. No forms were signed nor consent given, and yet Jen’s baby was taken and placed with an adoptive family.
Today, her relationship with her daughter remains fractured as a result.
Jenny shared such confronting stories of betrayal, isolation, fear and abuse before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Sydney last month.
She was allocated one hour to recall memories that have provided a lifetime of personal grief, angst and trauma.
Since commencing in 2014, the Commission has heard stories with harrowing familiarity. Evidence of brutal discipline, inhumane treatment, abuse and humiliating behaviour at the hands of authority has stitched a story of immense suffering for those who were forced to experience it.
Amazingly Jenny considers herself to be one of the lucky ones thanks to the love and support of some amazing friends. Despite her traumatic experiences, she eventually studied at Teachers College and continued on to secure her Masters. Now, she is considering studying for a PhD.
“I thought to myself, if I was ever going to meet my baby then I wanted to be educated,” Jenny says.
Now 60-years-old, she provides support to those struggling rather than dwelling on her own past experiences.
“I didn’t let trauma push me over the edge, even though it could have so easily,” she says.
“People choose alcohol and drugs because it’s easier than facing the reality of their pasts, but things need to change.”
Jen’s fear is that institutionalisation and the forced removal of indigenous children have effects so severe that they continue the intergenerational cycle of oppression.
“If a child is removed from their home, they lose their identity and place in this world,” she says.
“No child should be forcibly removed or taken from their relatives’ arms.”
If circumstances become so dire that a child is no longer safe in their home, Jen believes there needs to be adequate support services for not only the child, but for the family who has lost too.
“It doesn’t matter your colour or your race, people are still people. We need to learn to take care of each other.”