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‘Every time someone came of authority to see my mother about myself or my brother, my mum would move and run, leaving furniture, and she would run … in fear of losing us children.’

When Austen’s divorced mum stopped moving around and settled with her young kids in an alternative community on the New South Wales coast, it was Austen’s turn to start running.

Born in the mid-60s, Austen had never coped with school. He had literacy and social problems, had been called ‘spastic’ because of his disability, and was now getting into trouble for wearing cheesecloth instead of a school uniform. So he’d wag his Year 2 classes, and go to the beach.

That year, Austin and his brother ran away to search for their father. They spent time on Sydney streets, before being picked up by the police. ‘And that’s pretty much where the institutionalisation started to occur’, he said.

Austen spent the next 10 years in and out of about 20 institutions which provided scant care and attention. He ran away so often that he became known as ‘the perpetual absconder’. ‘Some of these places, no had ever absconded [from] before, but I found a way’, he said.

Austen was sexually abused in the first institution he was sent to. In a boys’ home run by the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, a grey-haired priest noticed his love of the water, and took him on fishing trips. ‘He used to give me five dollars for telling him a dirty joke. That’s really how it started. And then it led to him wanting me to touch him and vice versa.’ He was told he’d be thrown overboard from the boat if he didn’t perform oral sex. He was punished by a nun for trying to report the priest. He frequently ran back home to his mother.

After a couple of years in and out of the boys’ home, Austen was moved to government-run training school where he was sexually abused many times by the male houseparent. Again, he ran away to escape abuse, but was always caught and returned. Eventually, Austen lashed out.

‘I was wild towards him, so they put me in the big boys’ wing,’ he said. ‘I remember wearing khaki. I remember the boots being heavy, and the work around the farm being hard.’

In the mid-70s, Austen was sent to live with a relative in Victoria, after which he was sexually abused in another government-run facility. ‘It first started with a group of boys, first night I was there’, he said. ‘It seemed to be something that was happening between younger newer boys … It was rampant.’ Austen was also raped by at least two male officers he described as ‘sexually aggressive’. He remembers losing his temper in the kitchen and he ‘just hit out’ before doing another runner.

Barely in his teens, Austen ran away and lived on the streets of Melbourne where he was ‘groomed … into male prostitution’.

‘I suppose after a while it got to a point where it just became normal’, he said. He never caught the men slipping him anything, but knew from how he felt the next morning that some of them must have drugged him.

Austen ‘smoked some marijuana and tried the odd pill’, but avoided hard drugs for fear of what might happen if he lost control of himself. He did however rely on alcohol, went to AA in his mid-teens, and had his movements restricted when the police placed him on a ‘non-drinking list’.

By his mid-teens, Austen had left care and was living away from home. He shoplifted and broke into houses, and spent time in both juvenile and adult prisons. On occasions his overlapping probation and parole conditions disrupted his laboring jobs and traineeships so that he couldn’t see them through.

Austen later reported the abuse to the institutions and police. He went to lawyers and even called Parliament House. However, it was a case of ‘a too hard basket’, or ‘the victim line’s down there, hop in it’. He also had no joy with the Queensland Redress scheme because ‘they found no paperwork … nothing, not a single piece of paper’.

In the late 1990s, Austen admitted himself to a psychiatric ward where he made a disclosure, received correct diagnoses for his disabilities, and entered therapeutic programs which began to turn his life around. He hadn’t had much therapy while in care, but did recall having electric shock treatment to quieten him down. ‘I think I dribbled for a week or two’ afterwards, he said.

Since that time, Austen has been active within a network of people who have experienced abuse in institutions. When speaking about his own experience, he can ‘fall in a heap’, but when he advocates for survivors, or runs programs which mentor or empower them, it helps him and keeps him focused. ‘So I try and pay it forward’, he said. ‘Supporting each other seems to be the thing.’

Austen’s wellbeing was also enhanced when he became literate in his 30s. ‘Once I learned to read and write, it was like a new world, you know. It’s like books are my addiction. He subsequently received financial assistance from a charity to enrol in a university degree in which he was doing ‘really well’.

Health issues and medical procedures have meant Austen has had to defer his studies. He has multiple disabilities, arthritis from ‘some incredible knocks and hits’ he received in institutions, and takes ‘psych medication’ for conditions which include ‘night terrors’ from the boys’ homes.

‘I can’t sleep … They just won’t leave.’ He has a long-term carer, and receives the disability support pension.

Austen believes his hard won resilience will see him through. ‘I had to build up my own morals. I had to build up my own structure, my own laws’, he said. He has reframed his sense of self from victim to survivor, and developed a clear picture of what is important in life. ‘Someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to. And be good to yourself.’

He also continues to love the water, especially the beach which is like his ‘church’, and to express himself through his prize-winning artworks. ‘I do put my anger on my art and that’s a beautiful thing.’

Austen’s work with survivors has convinced him that survivors make the best counsellors for people navigating the processes of redress. ‘Those who have been harmed in care, if anyone should be trained in the counselling processes, it should be those individuals, because they know.’

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