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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Child Migration Programmes Investigation Report

Marcelle O’Brien

Marcelle was born in Worthing, Sussex, from an English mother and a French Canadian father, who was a serviceman stationed here. She had three siblings and was placed in a foster home at an early age, around two years old. Around four years old she was migrated to Australia by the Fairbridge Society – she remembers turning five while travelling on the ship.

She gave evidence of abuse at various stages of her time with the Fairbridge Society, which regarded children as their responsibility until the age of 21.

Marcelle went to the Fairbridge Pinjarra School and describes the cottage mother there as “a bitch”. She was sadistic and cruel both physically and mentally.

Physically, Marcelle was slapped a lot, pushed in the back, made to take cold showers and locked in a cupboard:

“with no lights or anything until they saw fit for you to come out”.

The cottage mother also hit her with a ruler and others used a cane. At school, girls would be hit with a big stick in front of the class, and Marcelle felt the Fairbridge children were punished more than others.

There was a lot of verbal abuse at the school too: Marcelle was called a “bastard” and a “bitch”, told that she was from the gutter ( a “guttersnipe” ), she was nobody, had nobody and had no parents – that they were all dead. This was not true. The children were made to feel worthless.

Children who wet the bed had their noses rubbed in it or were made to wash the sheets and hang them for others to see. Periods were not explained to the girls and they were only allowed one pad a day; this could be embarrassing and humiliating at school. Boys and girls were not allowed to mix or talk to each other, and were punished if they did so. They had to work cleaning the cottages, including where the staff lived, and in the laundry after school. The children were not given time to do their school homework and Marcelle left in the third year of high school because, she was told, “she was dumb”, which she still recalls. Marcelle describes very poor food and always feeling hungry. Sometimes she would go to the piggery and eat handfuls of grain meant for the pigs, or take fruit from the orchard – but that could mean a caning or “being chucked in the cupboard” if you were caught.

Marcelle gave evidence that she was sexually molested by CM-F35, the deputy principal at Pinjarra at the time. She recalls that he was mostly nice to her, but would give her hugs that didn’t feel right and would sometimes touch her bottom. She couldn’t say anything because she felt privileged to be in his house. She doesn’t know how far CM-F35 would have gone, but she started to avoid going to his house.

Marcelle left Pinjarra aged 16 and was sent to work on a farm. Here she helped look after the family’s baby and with the cooking and cleaning, but she had free time too and found the family kind. She described how a friend of the farmer took an unhealthy interest in her and started touching her sexually, although this developed quickly into a lot more. She was too ashamed to tell the farmer and felt that nobody would believe her, so she wrote to CM-F35 and asked him to get her out of there. He did not help and, as the assaults increased, Marcelle felt that she had no choice but to leave. She recalled that at another placement she was raped by three young men, but she did not report this because she did not think she would be believed.

Marcelle told us about the effects of her experience as a child migrant on her life.

A poor education damaged her prospects in life. She tried learning nursing but could not manage the written work, she thinks mainly due to her poor education.

Both physical and sexual abuse have caused her problems in relationships. She felt pushed into marriage by the age of 18 so that she was “off Fairbridge’s hands”. She had four children but, because of the abuse, she has never felt comfortable being touched by men and her marriage didn’t work out. She has had a mental breakdown and manic depression, and has been on medication for years.

“Having stuffed up my childhood, they then wrecked my early adult years.”

From 2009, Marcelle had support from the Child Migrants Trust whose staff she says have been really helpful. This was the first time she had talked fully about her abuse. They supported her in applying to the Western Australia Redress Scheme and helped her find her family. Marcelle is now in touch with her mother and sister in London and with her Dad’s family in Canada. From her own four children she has a total of 43 grand and great-grandchildren.

Marcelle also discovered that her move to Australia took place despite the wishes of her foster mother to adopt her, apparently because Fairbridge UK considered it would not be appropriate to contact her birth mother to obtain legal consent. Evidence indicates that the local authority at that time considered adoption to be the best option.

At the end of her evidence, Marcelle explained that she had travelled all the way from Australia to give evidence:

“... to wake up the British government, the British people, to exactly what happened to us all.”[1]



  1. O’Brien 28 February 2017 1-64; CMT000335_001-003, CMT000336_001-003, CMT000336_007-008, CMT000336_012-014, CMT000336_017, CMT000338_001-003, CMT000339_002, CMT000339_005-007, CMT000339_016, CMT000339_018, CMT000339_022-023, CMT000339_025, CMT000339_028, CMT000339_031, CMT000340_001, CMT000341_002, CMT000342_001, CMT000343_001.
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