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The South Atlantic Quarterly 100.2 (2001) 331-348

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Discursive Justice

John Frow

Someone must have been telling lies about Millicent D., because when she was four she was taken away from her family and made a ward of the state. Kept until the age of eighteen in Sister Kate's Home in Perth, Western Australia, she was forbidden to see any of her family or even to know where they were. She was told that her family didn't care about her or want her, but that in exchange she would be brought up as a white girl "in a good religious environment." That's what Millicent was told by the Protector of Aborigines and the Child Welfare Department; what she told the inquiry from whose report I am quoting was that "all they contributed to our upbringing and future was an unrepairable scar of loneliness, mistrust, hatred and bitterness."1

During her first year of high school, Millicent was sent to work on a farm as a domestic servant; she went back there in the next school holidays, but this time "it was a terrifying experience, the man of the house used to come into my room at night and force me to have sex. I tried to fight him off but he was too strong." Once back at the home, she reported this abuse to the matron, who, said Millicent, "washed my mouth out with [End Page 331] soap and boxed my ears and told me that awful things would happen to me if I told any of the other kids. I was so scared and wanted to die. When the next school holidays came I begged not to be sent to that farm again. But they would not listen and said I had to."2

Millicent ran away from the home in order to try to return to her family, but she was recaptured, punished, and sent back to the farm to work. This time, she says, "I was raped, bashed and slashed with a razor blade on both of my arms and legs because I would not stop struggling and screaming. The farmer and one of his workers raped me several times. I wanted to die, I wanted my mother to take me home where I would be safe and wanted." Instead, she was returned to the home. Again, Millicent reported the rape to the matron, and again she was punished: "I got a belting with a wet ironing cord, my mouth washed out with soap and put in a cottage by myself away from everyone so I couldn't talk to the other girls. They constantly told me that I was bad and a disgrace and if anyone knew it would bring shame to Sister Kate's Home." She ate rat poison to try to kill herself but "became very sick and vomited. This meant another belting."3

Some weeks later Millicent was examined by a doctor who told her that she was pregnant; again she was blamed and punished. After giving birth to a baby girl who was taken away from her, Millicent was told that she could have the child back when she left Sister Kate's. Some time later she asked the matron for her daughter's address and was told first that it was not government policy to give out this information, then that the child's whereabouts were unknown. The hospital claimed to have no record of her or of her daughter's birth; when she wrote to the Native Welfare Department, she was informed that no record of her family existed, the documents having been destroyed by fire. Ten years after giving birth to the child, Millicent returned to Western Australia and again asked the matron of Sister Kate's about her family; this time "she told me that my daughter was dead and it would be in my best interest to go back to South Australia and forget about my past and my family."4 A footnote to this story adds that Millicent was reunited with her child when the daughter was thirty-six.

Listen to the actions reported here:

—a child is...


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pp. 331-348
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Archived 2004
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