Woman tells of abuse at Parramatta Girls Home

By Emma Reynolds

Inside 'The Dungeon', the old Parramatta Girls home. Photo / Craig Greenhill, News Corp Australia
Inside 'The Dungeon', the old Parramatta Girls home. Photo / Craig Greenhill, News Corp Australia

The walls have voices, names are scratched into every surface, echoing the endless screams of girls locked up, raped, beaten and abused.

Jenny McNally can still hear them, decades later. For a while, she couldn't escape them, and wanted only to die as she listened to their cries mingling with her own.

Jenny was just 15 when she discovered she was in prison. It had every mark of a prison, at least - the marching, uniforms, drudge work and punishments that involved hours scrubbing floors with toothbrushes.

There was even solitary confinement, isolation cells where girls were locked up for 24 hours for "crimes" such as plucking their eyebrows or talking back.

Jenny McNally was only recently able to confront the memory of her rape and abuse by male officers. Photo / News Limited
Jenny McNally was only recently able to confront the memory of her rape and abuse by male officers. Photo / News Limited

In fact, this was Parramatta Girls Home in Sydney's west, established to care for children without families. You might not realise that walking into the bare-walled underground "dungeon", where specially chosen children came in for the most sadistic treatment - starvation, beatings and sickening sexual abuse.

"Girls who didn't get visitors were sort of earmarked and I had no family to speak of," the 62-year-old told news.com.au, when we met her at the very place she spent so long running from in her head.

"We'd be put into the dungeon and if the women were on, it was OK, but if the men were on, it wasn't OK. Anything could happen in the dungeon.

"I was sexually attacked in the dungeon. It took me a long time to say rape, I couldn't say the word ... I knew it happened, but if I said the word, it made it true.

"There were other times where they would have sexual relief in other ways with me."

Former resident Bonney Djuric, who set up support group ParraGirls, has heard the same story from other women over and over. Photo / News Limited
Former resident Bonney Djuric, who set up support group ParraGirls, has heard the same story from other women over and over. Photo / News Limited

"She was screaming and screaming and screaming"

One day, after Jenny was attacked in an isolation room, she started crying for help and "never let up." After the male officer had left, a female officer took pity on her and snuck her out.

"I just couldn't be in that black room any more because there was no light," she said. "And I remember there was a girl in the dungeon and she was screaming and screaming and screaming and I knew what was happening.

"She was an indigenous girl, the indigenous girls from far west really didn't have much of a chance."

Jenny turned to the female officer. "I asked her, why can't you stop this? But they didn't know how, it was just the way it was.

"We didn't have anyone to help us so it was more or less you took what happened and you had to move on from it. But you can't move on from it, it stays with you forever."

The teenager was soon to discover that fact. She got out of the home after six months, but within two years she approached child welfare for help after finding out she was pregnant while living on the streets.

The dungeon at the former girls home in Sydney's west. Photo / Craig Greenhill, News Corp Australia
The dungeon at the former girls home in Sydney's west. Photo / Craig Greenhill, News Corp Australia

They took her straight back to the home, where Jenny immediately came face-to-face with her most brutal abuser. "I looked at him with all the fire that I had and I was almost explosive because of what he'd done to me," she said. "I said, at least you can't hurt me this time, because I'm pregnant.

"He signalled me over and I went over there ... and he punched me in the stomach.

"I just started this screaming, just this screaming and not one officer asked why. I had to be almost apologetic to him so I could get away from him, I had to be nice for the rest of the time that I was going to be in there."

Luckily for Jenny, she fell ill and was taken to hospital. There, she told the nurses about what had happened to her, so she would never have to go back.

It wasn't so easy to escape her past, however. Twenty-five years after she entered the home in 1970, she had a breakdown. "When you finally allow your mind to remember its very destructive," she said. Two years ago, she decided to come back.

"I had a complete blackout coming back on to the grounds for the first time, I could hardly walk, my legs felt like lead.

"It was like if I started to talk, I don't think I would have stopped."

Jenny did talk, giving evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, along with other abuse victims from the home, who received compensation and an apology from the NSW government. One described having her face smashed into a sink and then being forced to clean up her own blood.

Jenny had someone else read out her words, but now she feels stronger. "Just recently I've found my legs and now I'm running and I feel well enough now to talk."

One woman described having her face smashed into a sink by an officer and then being told to clean off the blood. Photo / Craig Greenhill, News Corp Australia
One woman described having her face smashed into a sink by an officer and then being told to clean off the blood. Photo / Craig Greenhill, News Corp Australia

"You either sank or swam. So many ended up suiciding"

Bonney Djuric, ex-resident and founder of support group ParraGirls, has heard such stories time and time again.

"You came out of this place completely done in," she told news.com.au. "You had no confidence, you had no support, you had no one to tell and you either sank or swam. So many ended up suiciding or turning to drugs or going into abusive relationships."

Her co-founder of the group, Christina Riley, died earlier this year from bronchiectasis - something she maintains she contracted from scrubbing pigeon droppings in the laundry loft room all those years ago. You can still see Christina's number and surname scratched into the wooden floor of the segregation room where she was "beaten black and blue": Riley, 78.

Bonney's oldest ParraGirl is 93, but her experience was different to most. "She'd come from such a deprived abused background that Parramatta Girls Home was her safe place.

"She got three meals a day, she got clothes, people spoke to her - that's the nature of the abuse she had come from. she'd never slept in a bed until she was picked up by the child welfare department at the age of nine."

The residents would have to show off their bodies and underwear to officers during shower time. The toilets also had no doors. Photo / Craig Greenhill, News Corp Australia
The residents would have to show off their bodies and underwear to officers during shower time. The toilets also had no doors. Photo / Craig Greenhill, News Corp Australia

Every day at the institution was the same for 15-year-old Bonney: wake up, clean the 36-person dormitories, eat the same weevil-infested porridge and clean the building or make their own clothes. Every Saturday, the girls would be locked in a room where they scrubbed wax off the floor, rewaxed it and then polished it by hand.

The toilets had no doors and looked on to the quadrangle, so male officers could watch the girls as they used them. The shower routine was "absolute humiliation, unspeakable," she said.

Worst of all, some girls formed predatory gangs, and would attack and rape their peers.

"You've got girls coming here who've been subjected to incest or terrible sexual abuse through childhood. We are all victims, but some were more exposed and hardened to abuse before they got here. They'd been through the system for longer.

"There was nothing to stop that here. It was a nest of predators, a school of predators."

Most girls say returning was terrifying. Photo / Craig Greenhill, News Corp Australia
Most girls say returning was terrifying. Photo / Craig Greenhill, News Corp Australia

"You scratch the wall or you scratch your body"

The girls would wash their underpants, show them to the officers and hold their towels out and lift their breasts while their bodies were inspected.

"That was the whole nature of the operations of the institution: complete control, repression, discipline, power," says Bonney, also 62.

"It was the male officers who had the keys to the institution. They would carry them and you would hear always these keys rattling ... the most brutal punishment would always be administered by a man.

"You weren't spoken to, you were just signalled most of the time. I actually have no recollection at all of ever being called by my name in this institution.

"We were just nothing, we were just completely nothing."

The girls were locked in their rooms and not allowed to go anywhere without an officer. "The minute you come through the door and you go through the holding room and then out into the inner yard it fully sinks in that you're actually in a prison," says Bonney. "There's walls, there's the sound of footsteps on concrete marching, everybody's dressed the same, any bit of individuality is completely taken from you and you're given a number.

"That's what happens, you come in and you're processed like a prisoner and yet you've committed no crime. The first message is very clear: you are a criminal."

She calls it the beginning of a journey of "shame and silence" that these women have carried with them for their entire lives.

"You just live in a constant state of fear," she said. For many years. Bonney was afraid to tell anyone she had even been in the home, because she believed they would see her as a criminal.

"You start looking at the walls and it's everywhere, the room is so full of words, so full of yearnings: 'I am here, I am alive,'" she says now.

"You've got nothing to do, you're completely overwhelmed and there's a cry for help. You scratch the wall or you scratch your body.

"If you just be silent for a moment you can hear it all, all the voices inhabit these buildings, the places where girls were abused, physically and sexually abused out of sight."

Where to get help

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

- news.com.au

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