An Insight into Adoption Practice in 20th Century Australia
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'The Little Mongrel' is the fourth child adopted into a family already in a crisis of dysfunction. She lives with her family in an affluent suburb, where the secrets of the family are hidden behind a veneer of respectability and within the attic bedroom she shares with a growing family of adopted and fostered siblings, a colony of bush rats, and the eerie spectres of her troubled mind.
Merlene spends her childhood in a struggle to understand who she is and what her place is within the family, as she seeks refuge in the fantasy of her birth mother’s return, and in her quest for invisibility against her adoptive mother’s rage against life. In this environment she learns the tools for survival, finding resilience in humour and survival through quick wit.
At thirteen Merlene is sent to live with a family in another town; another household of internal secrets and oppressive silence. She is sent home in disgrace, as a result of false accusations made by her would-be abuser, and the die is cast. She spends most of the next three years in institutional care, which includes the notorious Mt St Canice, Convent of the Good Shepherd, in Hobart Tasmania, and Winlaton Youth Training Centre in Victoria. It is in the latter that she is subjected to a regime of physical deprivation and psychological abuse that tests to the limit the survival skills she has practiced throughout her childhood. She absconds over the barbed wire fence and for two months, she lives by her wits on the streets of Melbourne and the highways of Victoria before her apprehension and return to the institution.
At sixteen, Merlene is released to her home in Tasmania, with only her determined attitude and a defiant optimism that she will never be deprived of her liberty again, to stand against the whims of her adoptive mother.