‘It was the wrong place at the wrong time for me, I think – you know that six months, the first six months of being 13 when I’d started physically maturing you know and maybe mentally maturing, but too much changed for me at that time … all of these things happened. I mean, if that had happened maybe a year earlier or a year later it may not have had the same impact but it was like what we might now call a perfect storm: my autism; my attitude; the lack of parental support; all of these things … It all hit me.’
Barney immigrated to Australia with his family as a 13-year-old in the 1960s. Upon arrival, he and his siblings were initially placed in a government-run residential facility in Western Australia while their parents found housing and settled into their new life.
In the six months Barney was in the facility he was sexually abused in separate incidents by two staff members as well as by older boys whose behaviour was encouraged by the institution.
‘I’m autistic and I don’t really make connections with people’, he said. ‘If anything I make connections with things – they make more sense to me and people are just something strange.’
Before coming to Australia, Barney had been in a school environment that encouraged academic learning but in the residential facility, physical activity was given prime importance.
‘I was studying university maths and physics as a 12-year-old and you know, I didn’t have to interact with other kids. It was great. I was left in a library with a stack of books and told to go and read. It was wonderful. I came out to [the facility] and I had to play bloody football. I had to learn boxing. Don’t be so fucking stupid. I told this guy, I said, “I don’t do this … I don’t do sport. I don’t hit people”. They had absolutely no idea.’
As a response to conditions in the facility Barney ‘learnt to be defiant’. The physical abuse worsened and other boys were encouraged to hit, punch and kick him and some of the attacks ended in sexual abuse, including rape.
The staff member in charge of sports used to punch Barney in the groin and then fondle him under the pretence of checking his testicles for bruises. Barney also recalled being called to the office for punishment and being pinned down and raped by another staff member.
Returning to his parents, Barney made no mention of the abuse. He enrolled in the local school but he became more defiant and thought the teachers ‘thick’, leaving at 15 to ‘hit the streets and became a druggie’. Occasionally he’d return to his family for a visit but otherwise there was no check on where he was living or what he was doing.
At 18, he started working in a restaurant and then eventually went into a career in information technology where he’d done well. ‘The urge to interact and live a normal life and do things is quite strong’, he said. ‘As an autistic person you don’t always understand a lot of the motivations of other people but you can learn to mimic behaviours.’
He had a successful international career with ‘a hundred addresses in a dozen countries’, working as a freelancer, ‘never able to be an employee of anyone else’, and feeling like he didn’t ever connect or belong anywhere.
In 2007, news of the Western Australia redress scheme brought a flood of memories for Barney. He had ‘a nervous breakdown’ and was diagnosed with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. He’d intended applying for compensation but his counsellor encouraged him to fill the forms out and then ‘meet under a full moon and burn them and release the energy into the universe’. Barney did so and ‘for a couple of days felt really good’, but in hindsight thought it probably wasn’t a great idea.
In the two years before coming to speak with the Royal Commission, Barney made several suicide attempts. He’d recently been seeing ‘a good psychologist’ to start ‘unravelling some of the PTSD related to the trauma’, and this had been helpful. Working with the psychologist he was learning to ‘unpack some of the various things’ in life that had affected him. However, he hadn’t had meaningful work for years and sometimes didn’t go out of the house or answer the door for three or four weeks because of his anxiety and depression.
‘Sometimes when anxiety and other things gets [bad], I just close down and I’m trying to learn to open up and share my story – that’s partly what this is about, this learning to talk about these things and learning to … face them and hopefully diminish the hold they have on you or the ability to produce anxiety.’
He’d never thought of going to the police to report the abuse in the facility. He thought the staff members were probably dead and thought the boys who raped him were victims themselves, ‘doing things they were forced into’.
‘I think with all of these things it’s not the people, it’s the system, it’s the environment. I mean, I don’t think any people are intrinsically bad or evil or good. Most people just respond to the circumstances they’re put in.’