Deeply wounded but now fighting back, Aboriginal survivors of Darwin’s Retta Dixon Home tell their stories to the royal commission into child sex abuse. By Clare Martin.

Retta Dixon children failed by the system

A dormitory at the Retta Dixon Home in Darwin, 1958.
A dormitory at the Retta Dixon Home in Darwin, 1958.

In 1980, after 34 years of operation, the Retta Dixon Home in Darwin closed its doors for the final time. The buildings were demolished and the land was handed over to the newly established Northern Territory government. Today, all that can be seen of the former home is some concrete slabs. But the ghosts of its ugly past linger. 

The land is now called Karu Park – karu being a local Aboriginal word for child. It’s a fitting name because hundreds of Aboriginal children were placed in the Retta Dixon Home. The children were mostly of mixed descent – at that time referred to as half-castes – and many had been forcibly removed from their families, made wards of the state and put into institutional care. They are part of Australia’s Stolen Generations.

But many of the children at the Retta Dixon Home were more than stolen. They now say they were also physically and sexually abused by some of the adults charged with their care. 

For the past two weeks, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has been sitting in Darwin and its focus has been the Retta Dixon Home: on hearing from the former residents and house parents; from the Aborigines Inland Mission (AIM) that ran the home; and from the Commonwealth government whose policies placed the children in that home. 

The Northern Territory government was also under the microscope, forced to explain why charges of sexual assault against a house parent were dropped on two occasions, and then interrogated on current policies and practices around children in out-of-home care. 

The former residents of Retta Dixon and their families welcomed the inquiry with an enormous sense of relief. Finally, they had an opportunity to speak publicly about what had been hidden for so many years. Nine men and women came forward to tell the commission of the physical and sexual abuse they had experienced as children.

But the telling took courage. Each witness read a prepared statement but often struggled just to get the words out. Voices wavered, tears were frequent. Often there were long pauses as the reader was overcome by emotion. Some bravely put their own names to their stories; others didn’t want to be identified. Just telling the story was enough of a challenge. The commission respected their wishes and pseudonyms were used.

The witnesses talked about life at Retta Dixon. Going to school, endless domestic chores, Sundays at church. They remembered some kindness, but not often and not much. 

Two consistent themes emerged in their stories. The first was the physical abuse experienced by these young residents. It was constant and cruel and, they claim, administered both by house parents and the superintendent of the home. The children talked about being chained up at times, being yelled at, humiliated and often beaten by whatever was at hand – a broomstick, a cane or a belt. Not finishing a chore was punished, wetting the bed was punished, all manner of minor misdemeanours were punished. 

Witness AKV recalled going to school with welts across his back, hidden under his shirt. “The teachers never asked about the bruises. I didn’t think to tell them about the abuse. I just felt it was normal and all kids must get flogged.”

The second theme was sexual abuse, the focus of this royal commission. Witnesses told of the sexual abuse they had experienced, some as young as five years old, of the fear they felt every day living at the home and the ongoing damage caused to their lives. 

Sexual abuse was widespread at Retta Dixon, the commission heard: house parents were perpetrators, older boys were perpetrators and they preyed on both boys and girls. 

Lorna Cubillo, now in her 70s, told of being both physically and sexually abused by her house parent, Mr Walters. Sandra Kitching by her house parent, Mr Pounder. But it was house parent Donald Henderson, at Retta Dixon from 1964 until 1975, who was the focus of most of the allegations. 

Witnesses spoke of the physical and sexual violence towards them by Henderson. His stalking, tickling, touching, rubbing and rape. They talked of the size of his penis and the nicknames they had for him. They told the commission how they did their best to avoid the places where that abuse would take place – the chook shed, the banana patch, the swimming pool, the front seat of his car, or his bedroom when his wife was out. They said all the children knew what he was doing. Some said the other house parents had no idea but the evidence to the commission suggests that was not the case. 

As a young boy, Kevin Stagg tried to tell Superintendent Mervyn Pattemore about the Henderson abuse but told the commission he was not believed and was caned until he retracted his allegations. Other witnesses said they were too afraid to report Henderson.

But it was not just house parents in positions of trust who allegedly sexually abused children; many of the older boys at Retta Dixon were also perpetrators. Veronica Johns told the commission an older boy raped her when she was just seven years old. She says she lived in fear of further sexual assaults. The commission heard that Johns reported
a number of incidences to Pattemore but “nothing ever changed”.

Pattemore was the superintendent of Retta Dixon from 1963 until it closed. He was an AIM pastor and charged with the day-to-day running of the home. Pattemore featured constantly in the accounts given to the royal commission by the former residents. Sometimes he was spoken of as a kind man, but mostly the witnesses claimed he administered beatings to the children in his care and refused to believe those who said they were being sexually abused.

Mervyn Pattemore is still alive, living just outside Darwin. He did not appear before the royal commission.

Donald Henderson is also alive and one of the commission’s tasks is to examine why sexual assault charges against him were dropped on two occasions. 

The first was in 1975 when, on the urging of a young house parent, Henderson was reported to the police and charged with a number of counts of indecent assault on young boys. The charges were subsequently dismissed at committal, but the details of why that happened 40 years ago are difficult to uncover. Although Henderson didn’t go to trial, he subsequently left Retta Dixon. 

The next time Henderson was charged was in 2002. Then, four former residents alleged numerous sexual assaults. Eighty charges went to committal, with 15 going through to a trial date in December of that year. However, just a month before the trial was to go ahead, the Northern Territory’s director of public prosecutions (DPP) dropped the action. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is determined to find out why this happened.

The current DPP, Jack Karczewski, arrived to defend the decision made by one of his predecessors, but within a short time was agreeing with counsel for the commission that the charges against Henderson were strong in law and should have gone to trial. Karczewski also admitted that in 2002 the DPP’s own guidelines on the arguments that needed to be presented if a matter was to be discontinued were not followed. The DPP’s processes in this case were clearly flawed and an important opportunity was lost for the men and women who claim to have been victims of sexual abuse as children to have these charges heard in court.

While redress for these alleged victims was lost in 2002, the royal commission is now examining what redress is possible. The Commonwealth government and the AIM – now known as Australian Indigenous Ministries – were jointly responsible for the operation of the Retta Dixon Home and representatives from both appeared before the commission.

Neither was impressive. Most of the documents from those 34 years of the operation of the home have disappeared or never existed. There is no useful paper trail of what official oversight there was of the operations or what care was taken to ensure that the hundreds of children in this religious institution were properly treated. 

The former residents of Retta Dixon told the commission all they want is an apology and compensation. While some say financial compensation would not give them back their childhoods, at least it would be a serious recognition of the wrong done to them. 

The past two weeks saw the start of a healing journey for many of those who claim to be the abused children of Retta Dixon. They showed great courage in speaking out. With the conclusion of the hearings on Wednesday, all will be hoping that the royal commission matches that courage with its final recommendations.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 3, 2014 as "Failed by the system".

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Clare Martin is a Darwin-based journalist and a former chief minister of the Northern Territory.

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