Most of the Australian women who arrived in Port Moresby in the 1960s and 1970s came from working-class or middle-class backgrounds. Having a domestic servant wasn’t a part of their life experience. That all changed, often within hours of their arrival in PNG, with a knock on their door from an anxious local man, desperately looking for work as a house servant, or haus boi as they were called in pidgin English. There was high unemployment in Port Moresby and all of the regional centres. Once a colonial-style house or flat had been vacated, there were people watching and waiting for the next tenant to arrive.
In no time at all a new haus boi had moved into the vacant boi haus, along with his wife, any children, and a whole bunch of wantoks or relatives. They were very obliging and they left nothing for the housewife to do except go out and get a job. If you had a little pre-schoolie, that created another problem. Who was going to look after your child in a proper and professional manner? For many mums and dads in Port Moresby it was a case of: “Thank God for Dawn Deren”.
Dawn Deren was a trained teacher who ran the Konedobu Childcare Centre, operating out of some of the rooms under the grandstand at the Hubert Murray Stadium. It sounds like a strange arrangement but it actually worked quite well and the centre was run along typical childcare lines. There was a former nurse, as far as I can remember, and also young PNG assistants, training in early-childhood care. The centre was so popular that there was a long waiting list just to get in.
In the late eighties or early nineties I revisited the grandstand after the centre had been gone for a number of years. It did look sad and dilapidated with all the broken playground equipment but in its heyday, it was never sinister as some visitors subsequently suggested. On the contrary, it used to be a caring and cheerful place. When I came across this photo in one of my albums, I was reminded that for my daughter, these were good years. She has no recollection of the centre being anything other than what we supposed it to be. Others may have had a different experience but I am unable to comment on that.
In the late 1980s Dawn Deren and her husband Tony were defendants in the bizarre Mr Bubbles case, as it came to be called, and faced charges of running their Sydney north shore childcare centre as a paedophile ring, with abduction to motels, black magic and a witches coven thrown in for good measure. The charges were eventually dismissed after a six-week hearing. Some of the parents involved in the case against the Derens shared a $500,000 victims compensation, while the Derens got $948,558 compensation from the NSW government for defamatory comments made to the media by the NSW police.
These days the Mr Bubbles case is recognised internationally as a textbook example of how not to interview three- and four-year-olds, especially as possible crime witnesses. Unless their interviews, right from the word go, are handled by highly skilled and trained professionals, their evidence is likely to be too contaminated to be useful to anybody – and they surely deserve better than that. It’s an important lesson that had to be learnt the hard way. Maybe there is a rainbow glow over the old grandstand after all.