Carlson was born into a broken family environment. His father was in hospital ‘from the war’, and he doesn’t know where his mother was. Throughout his childhood in the 1950s in Melbourne he was fostered out to different places around the city; ‘passed around like a parcel’, he said.
When he was 10 he ran away and ended up in Sydney, where he was picked up by police for vagrancy and placed in a remand centre. This started a succession of stays in and out of juvenile justice institutions in New South Wales and then, after he went to South Australia in search of his mother, a remand centre in Adelaide until his release at age 18.
Carlson told the Commissioner about the horrific treatment he received at various homes. He was sexually abused by older residents during the early years of his detention, as well as older male care workers in most of the homes over the years. He reserved particular venom for the final centre, in Adelaide, describing it as ‘a sadomasochist dungeon for children’.
‘Those in charge of the institutions are the ones that did it. The supervisors were the ones perpetrating it … What happened at that home, you couldn’t have worked there and not known what was going on …
‘Sexual abuse was in your face from the first five seconds you were in the institution. You couldn’t not see it. Any decent person resigned and a lot did. A lot of good people just walked. They reported it and stuff and said this is the reason they were leaving …
‘You were immediately warned of what’s going on. And you saw. You were probably sexually abused within the first five minutes of being there.’
He described boys as young as five being made to walk around naked, bleeding from their anuses from sexual abuse.
‘This was a state institution. This was the remand centre. You were taken from the children’s court by the police and handed to your perpetrators.’
He also talked of the extremely harsh physical punishments – he called it torture – that were standard procedure at the centre, including the use of whips, canes, and electric shocks given with a type of cattle prod.
‘I got out on my 18th birthday … They took me to Adelaide Hospital and more or less dumped me, I was nearly dead. Dehydration, hunger, abuse, whippings, canings, you know.’
In the late 2000s, the remand centre was mentioned many times in an investigation into the abuse of children in care in South Australia, known as the Mullighan Inquiry. Carlson talked about the report that was tabled in the South Australian Parliament, following the inquiry.
‘I take the other boys’ testimonies what they’ve said here, about electronic torture, rape, all of it, I identify with it strongly and all I can do is concur with the other boys …
‘My story fits with theirs right down to the electronic torture. I didn’t expect to be believed when I talked about electronic torture and whippings and canes and that. And then they gave me this book afterwards and it’s exactly how I described it, shocking. Worst case scenario. And this went on for decades.’
Carlson described the ongoing effects on him as ‘absolutely devastating’. ‘Just take even coming here, in the last month or two, has ruined my whole existence as I know it. I got post-traumatic stress bad. It affects my interpersonal relationships big time.’
He’s been married ‘two or three times’ and has two children who are now adults, and said, ‘for a few years there I did alright’. But during the Mullighan Inquiry things unravelled badly. His current symptoms include nightmares, sleeplessness, flashbacks, anxiety and stress. Over the years he used alcohol and drugs to cope, and got involved in criminal activity.
During his years in detention, Carlson’s education also suffered, leaving him illiterate as an adult. He is now unable to work and is on a disability support pension.
In the early 2010s, he claimed redress from the State of South Australia but only received a very small payout and, after payments to lawyers and administrators he was left out of pocket and angry.
‘I’m done over with electric shock, torture, whipped, caned, what have you, and I got less than nothing. All I’ve seen from this is other people and bureaucracies growing up and feeding off me, feeding off my misery.’
He decided to come forward to the Royal Commission because he was worried he’d regret it if he didn’t. He also came with a plea for recognition of children who have died while under the care of the state.
‘I’ve identified a cemetery down here as a historical site of significance for me because this is where the orphans and that are buried. There’s probably a graveyard down there with hundreds, maybe 500, maybe 700 children, state wards buried there and I would like some sort of recognition, just like a little marble statue or something, some sort of memorial.
‘I’ll never be able to move forward. I want the names of all children that have died as state wards, up until yesterday. I see no reason to keep it a secret, none at all. Other people’s sensitivities I’m not worried about. I think it’s in the public good that if anyone dies as a state ward it shouldn’t be a secret for a hundred years, and that’s how it is at the moment.’