Apr 28, 2022

‘I witnessed truly appalling things’: a letter from a former resident of Esther House

‘I witnessed truly appalling things’: a letter from a former resident of Esther House

Melissa Camm attended Esther House when she was 14 years old. This is her letter detailing the alleged harm she survived while in their care.

Marxh 7, 2022

This is part 14 in a series. For the rest of the series, go here.

Melissa Camm wrote to Crikey this week with her recollections of life at the Esther Foundation’s rehab facility. “My anxiety popped up after reading the articles in relation to Esther House and it took me a bit to work through,” she said.

Here’s what she wrote: 

I first became a participant of Esther House when I was just 14 years old, after a family breakdown. Immediately I was told I was unable to contact any of my family, my friends or anyone in my support network. I had to immediately surrender my wallet and mobile phone. If I needed anything I’d have to wait for a “worker” on a designated shopping trip, who would stand with my wallet in a zip-lock bag and pay for me. Even if I needed something as simple as tampons. 

Claire Crawford went to hell and back at Esther House. Why isn’t it shut down?

Over the next two and half years, I would be completely stripped of anything that would have given me outer prospective and individuality from the program. I would be denied an education, despite the ages of 14 to 17 being some of the most important schooling years for a young person. Without that foundation it has really limited my career paths as a now almost 30-year-old adult. It’s something that still brings me a lot of shame, that my highest level of education is Year 9. 

Immediately upon entering the program, the idea of a Christian God is thrust upon you, whether you’re a willing and open participant or not. If any answer you give during any type of “group therapy” is not centred around God, it’s not an appropriate answer. If you don’t accept the idea of a Christian God then you are labelled as rebellious, spiteful, angry and dangerous.

You’re forced to participate in three to four church meetings a week. Some going for all hours of the night. If you’re unwilling to stand, suddenly a group of people will be yelling and trying to perform an exorcism for the demons forcing you to rebel. If you resisted this you would be forcibly held on the floor, having your stomach pushed on by Patricia [Lavater, Esther Foundation founder] as many “spoke in tongues” over you. The only way to make it stop was to comply and scream as if your “demons were being released”. 

We were denied medications that had been prescribed to us prior to Esther, claiming we had been “healed” by God. These medications were often for mental health, and yet there was no psychiatrist to oversee these stops in medication. In fact all the workers were either self-appointed “prophets” or ex-members of the program.

There were no trained counsellors, psychologists or psychiatrists to ensure these really vulnerable people were getting adequate care. In fact you only had one option to see a doctor. He was a doctor that visited the main house once a fortnight and would be there for a couple hours in the afternoon. If you didn’t get a spot to see him? Too bad. No options to seek your own private medical advice. 

I witnessed truly appalling things at Esther, all at the hand of Patricia who you dare not go up against or differ from opinion. If you disagreed with her opinion of you and your trauma she’d shame you into seeing it her way. I was a particularly anxious and introverted teenager. She told me I just thought I was better then everyone else (couldn’t be further from the truth). She sat me in a small lounge room in from of 30-40 other women who could say anything bad they’ve ever thought about me and I had to accept it as truth. She called it “the hot seat”.  

Everything about Esther was about complete control. Control over our minds, our faith, our money, our health, our sexuality, and for some girls even there ethnic roots. All of this while claiming to be saving our lives, and if we left (which I couldn’t because I was a minor), we’d be attacked by the Devil. 

The hardest part of all? You truly didn’t understand what was happening because you were so cut off from the world. No access to radio, news, TV, friends, and phones, and only very limited access to your family. So it’s not until you’ve left, and sometimes years after, do you realise what you’ve been through.

Sadly some girls lost their lives in that time and they will never get the redemption they deserve. 

Yours sincerely,

If you have any information about this story you would like to pass on please contact David Hardaker via dhardaker@protonmail.com.

Survivors of abuse can find support by calling Bravehearts at 1800 272 831. The Kids Helpline is 1800 55 1800. In an emergency, call 000. 

For anyone seeking help, Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue is on 1300 22 4636.

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