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Australian singer and entertainer, Sharyn Killens (1948-2014), was in and out of children’s homes and foster care as a child. 

Sharyn was born to a white Australian mother. Her father was an African-American man, a serviceman visiting from the United States. At that time, stigma and discrimination towards bi-racial children born ‘illegitimate’ was rife, and abortions were dangerous. Therefore, Sharyn’s mother, Grace, decided to keep the pregnancy and placed Sharyn into informal foster care as a baby.  

My mother was told about a type of babysitting business where couples took infants to live with them and care for them, as a form of unofficial paid foster care. It was this or an orphanage; she had to make a choice. A couple was found who had children of their own and lived on a farm past Liverpool, a Western Sydney suburb. They offered to care for the baby if Grace paid them an amount each week…(Killens & Lindsay, 10). 

Ellie and Dorrie, who were friends of Grace, travelled out to Liverpool in 1950 because they were concerned about the child. They were appalled to discover she was covered with lice and bruises. Ellie and Dorrie retrieved Sharyn and cared for her over the next three and a half years. 

In 1954 Grace took Sharyn from her friends’ care and placed the now five-year-old at St Martha’s Industrial Home. The home had been set up in 1888 by the Sisters of Saint Joseph to provide education and employment training. During the time that Sharyn was there the home accommodated about one hundred girls from ages five to eighteen. 

Living at St Martha’s was a regimented affair, with endless “household duties” and “swift, severe and cruel” corporal punishment. 

The damage done in these early years of my childhood has left deep scars and has continued to have an impact on me, for the rest of my life. The emotional and physical abuse was debasing and humiliating. It undermined my confidence and self-worth because I was constantly told I was wicked and worthless (Killens & Lindsay, 45). 

Grace visited on occasion, although not as regularly as she did when Sharyn was with Ellie and Dorrie. 

For a few years, Sharon stayed with her grandmother during the Christmas holidays. Then at age nine Sharyn began running away from St Martha’s until she was allowed to live permanently at her grandmother’s in 1960.

In 1961, Grace and Sharyn moved in with Grace’s husband, Lars. 

By this time I was a damaged youngster; traumatised, very insecure, with no self-esteem and smack bang in the middle of puberty. I think perhaps if [Lars] had come into my life earlier it may have been different (Killens & Lindsay, 72) 

Openly rebellious and defiant, Sharyn hung out on the streets until she was charged with “being exposed to moral danger” at the age of fifteen. She was then taken to the Glebe Children’s Shelter where girls were held while waiting for hearings in the Metropolitan Children’s Court. 

I felt I had been exposed to danger of every description my whole life, moral and otherwise. I’d been given to strangers at birth, then raised in a brothel, beaten by a sadistic nun, lived in a family with my raving racist grandmother as its matriarch, not to mention having been raped, so I held little hope for myself. I was placed on twelve month’s probation on a good behaviour bond and sent home with my mother who, as I’d predicted, berated me all the way home (Killens & Lindsay, 86). 

Eventually, Sharyn found herself locked up in the notorious Parramatta Girls Home with up to one hundred and sixty other girls who had been neglected and abused by parents and/or the state. She was later imprisoned at an even harsher prison, the Hay Institution for Girls. 

Sharyn raised her two sons, Jason and Stephen, while living in St George, a southern suburb of Sydney. She was a very hard worker who held a number of different jobs. She trained as a nurse and then later became an exotic dancer. 

Sharyn worked in musical theatre and “as a housekeeper and personal assistant” for twenty years. In 1985 she began working as an entertainer on cruises using the stage name Sharyn Crystal. In her later years, Sharyn became a publicist, booking agent, and entertainment manager. 

Eventually, Sharyn found her father’s family in the United States, who accepted her as one of their own. After appearing on the Gordon Elliott Show in the United States Sharyn met the sibling whose existence she only recently found out about. She described the experience of connecting with her American sisters Debra, Donna, Sandra, and brother, Thaddeus Jr, as “completing the circle.” Sadly, her father had died in 1981. 

At the age of fifty, Sharyn was diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome, which she believed she had inherited from her father. Sharyn’s condition began to deteriorate despite having heart surgery, and she passed away on 26 April 2014. Her funeral, officiated by Father Chris Riley, included over three hundred attendees from the entertainment industry. Sharyn was survived by her husband, Allan, her two sons, two step-children, ten grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. 

Sharyn is remembered as a successful singer and entertainer who was highly dedicated to her community. As a long-term member of the Australian Ladies’ Variety Association (ALVA), she helped fundraise to provide assistance to entertainers in need of medical and other types of support.  

Sharyn’s eulogy was delivered by Lindsay Lewis, her lifelong friend and co-author of her memoir, The Inconvenient Child (2010). 

A life laid bare in print, for all the world to see which in no small part, showed the sheer guts and determination of this amazing woman. Telling of those desperate times of her life has been her triumph because unsuspectingly, Sharyn gave a voice to thousands of women who had been through similar circumstances but have never had the opportunity or were brave enough to speak out” (Writers’ Voice, 2014).


Bowers, Jack. “One of Us”: Orphaned Selves and Legitimacy in Australian Autobiography.  Antipodes, vol.29, no.2 (2015): pp 393-405. 

Gallnovic, Maria. “Friends Support Singer who has a heart of Gold”. St George and Sutherland Shire Leader, 19 August 2010. 

“Institution for Girls, Hay (1961 – 1974).” Find & Connect, 2020. 

Killens, Sharyn & Lewis, Lindsay. The Inconvenient Child. Sydney: Miracle Publishing Pty Ltd, 2010.  

“Metropolitan Girls’ Shelter, Glebe (1923-1978.” 

“Parramatta Girls Training School (1946 – 1974).” Find & Connect, 2021. 

“RIP Sharyn Killens.” Writers Voice, The Fellowship of NSW Writers, Inc Quarterly Bulletin, June 2014, ed 244, p 14. 

“St Martha’s Industrial Home (1888 – 1969).” Find & Connect, 2021. 

Image available here.