Rhonda Trivett.
Rhonda Trivett. Tobi Loftus

Rhonda gets justice for state's "worst case of child abuse"

RHONDA Trivett was sitting on her bed in Kingaroy watching a movie on October 17 when she received a phone call she'd been waiting for since 1981.

"It was (Queensland Health Minister) Cameron Dick and (Child Safety Minister) Shannon Fentiman," Rhonda said.

They were phoning to apologise for what happened to Rhonda at the hands of successive state governments and to finally offer her compensation.

Rhonda Trivett was one of nine women still alive who as children were placed in Osler House, the adult female criminal section of Wolston Park, a high-security mental health facility near Ipswich.

Today, barbed wire fences surround the abandoned facility and the words Welcome to Hell are spray-painted on the outer walls.

For Rhonda, from the time she entered Wolston Park as a 13-year-old to when she left aged 21, that place was hell.

Wolston Park asylum is a house of horrors for those who remember the trauma they suffered there as patients.
Wolston Park asylum is a house of horrors for those who remember the trauma they suffered there as patients. Sarah Marshall, News Corp Australia

Rhonda was born to an Aboriginal mother in Cunnamulla in 1960. She was taken away from her birth family at three months old, part of the Stolen Generation. She was later adopted by the Trivett family.

"My adopted mum and dad couldn't have kids," she said.

"My mum loved me from that first day on, then everything went wrong. No one knew I had dyslexia and from this day on I'll swear to God I don't believe I did anything wrong.

"But then it got complicated as I was seen by authorities as just a runner, a juvenile delinquent. My crime in all of this was I ran away from school because I had dyslexia and went home to somebody that loved me."

When Rhonda's adopted father died when she was eight, Rhonda was in and out of a number of children's homes, before being placed in Wolston Park, as her mother was not able to care for her.

"My mum had a nervous breakdown, they put her in hospital and there was no one to look after me," she said.

"None of the extended family wanted to actually know me."

Rhonda was put into Sandgate Children's Home, which began a number of years of moving between living in State care and back with her adopted mother. She would regularly run away from the homes and from school to return to her mother.

One day in 1973, when Rhonda was 13 years old, authorities decided to take Rhonda to Wolston Park in Goodna.

"I remember that day well, they took me from a youth hostel in a police car and they had to move me to Wolston Park," she said.

"They asked me, 'if we put you in an open ward will you promise you won't run away?' I shrugged my shoulders and was put in Osler Park.

"I was put in there for eight years, all because I shrugged my shoulders. I should have said no and I would have been in an open ward, but then I'd have run away and gone home."

Over the next eight years in Wolston Park, Rhonda was brutally raped, sexually assaulted, tortured, isolated and subjected to humiliation, usually at the hands of male nurses and guards.

"(The guards) used to play games with you. Two would hold me down on the floor and the third would ask me questions we couldn't answer as none of us went to school," Rhonda said.

"They had a knife and every time we got questions wrong, they'd stab us until they got blood. They'd do it faster and faster. That is how sick they were."

A room similar to the one Rhonda was kept in at Wolston Park.
A room similar to the one Rhonda was kept in at Wolston Park. Contributed

Rhonda said when she was in Wolston Park she was helpless and terrified.

"On some nights I was dragged with a towel around my neck, or sometimes ankles, to my room and made to lie on a cold floor for two days or more," she said.

"If we were sick they would make us eat our own vomit.

"When I was 15, while drugging me they were saying 'time to play little puppy, come to daddy come on'. They used us for their power game."

At the facility Rhonda was forced to take paraldehyde, mellaril, valium and a number of other drugs, including a contraceptive.

"I used to get knocked out when I refused to have sex with (the guards)," she said.

"They'd push me into a brick wall and knock me out, I'd wake up naked because they had raped me.

"What were we doing on a contraceptive injection in there? Who was supposed to have sex with us? That ward was only for females. Who was supposed to rape us?"

On one occasion Rhonda said she was stabbed with a big knife by a male nurse which tore open her leg. As she lay bleeding she was raped by multiple men.

"My leg was hurting and really stinging, I was trying to fight them back but they were too strong for me," she said.

"I thought I was going to die.

"They didn't even stitch me up, it was left gaping open for three weeks and got infected. Snakes and mice got better treatment than we ever got."

Rhonda tried to escape from Wolston Park several times, though was caught by police on each attempt.

"One day I got out through the toilet block and swam the Brisbane River," she said.

"I didn't know there were sharks in the river until after, thank God.

"That place used to be for convicts… there were skeletons in the basement. Some of the nurses knew that because if we mucked up they threatened to put us down there; the dark dungeon they called it."

In the eight years Rhonda was in Osler House she said she saw a number of people die by suicide, though she also believed some people had been killed by the guards and the criminals kept there. She would question every day whether that would be the day she died.

Questions about why she was there and what happened inside the facility have consumed her thoughts ever since she managed to get out of Osler House.

"Kids died in that place, they were murdered. I still see it in my head," she said.

Rhonda left Osler House when she was 21 with the help of family advocate Lady Phyllis Cilento.

"She said to the head of the hospital 'if you don't release Rhonda in 24 hours, we'll expose you'," Rhonda said.

"They let me out officially the next day like nothing ever happened."

After leaving Osler House, Rhonda suffered from homelessness, as well a drug and alcohol addiction.

She said she used drugs and alcohol to self-medicate against the severe post-traumatic stress disorder she experienced after leaving the facility, a condition she still endures to this day.

"I remember the first day going home, there were cars and trains, I hadn't seen them for a long time. I was scared," she said.

"Fireworks used to send me berserk, any big noises set off my PTSD which is a terrible thing to have.

"You know what's going to happen, you know you're back in time, you know you're going to be raped again.

"They gave me a disease where I go back in time."

She said she had no other choice but to self-medicate.

"People can say 'sorry Rhonda, you shouldn't be drinking', but what else have we got?" she said.

"Sometimes I need to get drunk. That's why I was a drug addict and an alcoholic because I needed to be as no one would help me. I was let out and dumped."

Rhonda Trivett.
Rhonda Trivett. Tobi Loftus

Rhonda said through all of these struggles, from the birth of her two children to her addictions, her adopted mother remained by her side.

"She taught me to never give up, she taught me that one day everything will be okay," she said.

"When she died (in 1998), something inside of me died. I didn't see beauty anymore. I don't see the beauty in the trees, I don't see the beauty in the dolphins; everything I had ever wanted was killed then and there."

Despite this, Rhonda never gave up and kept fighting for justice for what had happened to her.

In November 2012, Rhonda launched South Burnett Peace of Mind (SBPOM), a support organisation aimed at helping residents with mental illness, those at risk of self-harm, homelessness and other issues.

She was inspired to launch the organisation after a discussion with a mental health worker on R U Okay Day.

"She told me to get rid of all that anger and hate and said 'there are so many people you can help out there'. I was thinking, 'what the hell would you know'," Rhonda said.

"That night I had eight dreams. The next morning I just wanted to help people. If I got rid of all that anger and hate, if you look at my dreams, I was helping people. I believed I could make a difference."

South Burnett Peace of Mind runs a special drop-in centre where people can go to have talk about their issues, as well as 24-hour emergency support which Rhonda facilitates.

"On a Saturday night I go to the park and, if there is anybody that needs help, I give them a pamphlet with numbers on it. I ring numbers that can help them," she said.

On top of her work with South Burnett Peace of Mind, Rhonda is actively involved in other community activities, including volunteering to sing to elderly people at retirement villages around Kingaroy.

The Queensland Government apologised to the victims of Wolston Park in 2010 and at the time promised a compensation and reconciliation process would begin. The process did not begin until the start of 2017.

After years of contacting politicians and health advocates demanding justice, including an incident where she approached then-Premier Campbell Newman at the Kingaroy Show out of the blue, on October 17, Rhonda finally received the call offering her what she said was a sizeable compensation.

"I was happy with what the government offered me," she said.

"These guys have been more decent to me, these guys have been the ones that let me go and say what I needed to say in front of everyone. I think that is wonderful that we have a government that really cares and is doing the right thing."

The government released a report into what had occurred at Wolston Park, describing what happened to Rhonda and other children as the "worst case of child abuse in the state's history".

Health Minister Cameron Dick said while the reconciliation plan could not undo the harm that was caused, it had been developed as a genuine commitment to reconciliation.

"I believe that this government has acknowledged what was done to us should never have been done to us, it wasn't right and it was terrible… it was worse than watching a monster movie," Rhonda said.

"I don't want revenge because they've shown me a way. There is hope. I've waited 45 years for it, but there is hope.

"They showed us there are decent politicians trying to do the right thing."

Rhonda's fight for justice was honoured at a special mental health awareness morning in Kingaroy on October 27.

Former Queensland Commissioner of Mental Health Dr Lesley van Schoubroeck, who played a strong role in ensuring the government investigated what happened at Wolston Park and survivors were compensated, presented Rhonda with a portrait of her done by renowned Australian artist Anne Wallace.

Dr van Schoubroeck said what had happened to Rhonda was appalling.

Rhonda Trivett was presented with a portrait of herself at the South Burnett Peace of Mind mental health awareness morning.
Rhonda Trivett was presented with a portrait of herself at the South Burnett Peace of Mind mental health awareness morning. Tobi Loftus

"Rhonda and her colleagues got into this as they were teenage girls who would not tolerate brutal authority, they stood up for their mates, they stood up for what was right and wouldn't you want your daughter to do that?" Dr van Schoubroeck said.

"Rhonda has the support of this community and has a large family around her."

Queensland Mental Health Commissioner Ivan Frkovic also paid tribute to Rhonda's resilience and her fight for justice at the event.

"I wasn't involved in this process, but I want to commend the Government for developing the reconciliation plan, the apology and the various redress options, though that will never be able to redress the experiences that Rhonda and her colleagues went through," he said.

"The mental health system has changed a great deal since the Wolston Park days. We have a much better mental health system, although there is a long way to go and there is a lot of work to be done."

Rhonda said South Burnett Mayor Keith Campbell was a strong supporter in her campaign for justice and had helped make numerous representations to the government on her behalf, and had also attended reconciliation events, such as a special art exhibition and concert at QPAC in June for Wolston Park survivors, with her.

Cr Campbell said Rhonda was a passionate advocate for mental health services in regional Queensland, which was something that inspired him.

"She is a very passionate crusader for enhancing the services available within this region," he said.

Rhonda said this would not be the last South Burnett residents heard of her, as she had plans to expand SPBOM and the services it offered, a plan that includes the creation of an indoor sports complex featuring a boxing ring, one of her greatest passions.

"If it was my birthday last week, it would have been the best birthday present anyone could ever give me," she said.

"I'm told I never cry, or get excited because I'm dead inside.

"That wasn't the case on the day the guys rang me up.

"I went a bit ballistic like I was on one of those cash product shows where they all win money.

"So yes, I can assure you I'm not all that dead after all... thank God."

If this story has raised any issues for you, you can call any of these numbers:

  • Lifeline 13 1114
  • Beyond Blue 1300 224 636
  • Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
  • Alcohol and Drug Information Service 1800 177 833
South Burnett

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