After their parents split up, Cary and his brother went to live with their father, a heavy drinker who’d often go to bed with suicide notes he’d written so the boys never knew if he was ‘going to wake up or not’. From time to time he would go away and not come back for a while, until one day, ‘alcohol got the better of him and he disappeared for good’.
In the late 1970s, Cary and his brother arrived in a boys’ home in Melbourne and over the next few years they moved between the home and foster care placements. Cary was nine when he arrived and at first found the place ‘terrifying’ because it looked like a prison. ‘But after a while it became home so you got used to it’, he said.
As well as inflicting beatings, staff would regularly make boys take off their clothes in a search for contraband. ‘It was more along the lines of being made to stand around naked for lengths of time’, Cary said. ‘I was allowed to smoke, so I had cigarettes when they gave them to me. They used to allege that I had some, so they’d strip search me to make sure I didn’t have them, and I’d be made to stand around for 10, 15 minutes at a time naked. And when I complained about it, I’d get caned across the back of the legs.’
Cary recalled being taken on excursions by one staff member who would offer to give the boys massages after physical activity. ‘At the time I didn’t think nothing of it – but knowing what a massage is now, it seems like inappropriate for a nine, 10 year old. He would have been about early 20s. It started off ordinary but then he’d reach around past my hips and touch me in the groin area; he'd run his hands up between my legs and touch me near me bum. It was stuff that shouldn’t be getting done as a normal massage.’
For two years Cary and his brother lived with Kevin and Norma, a husband and wife who fostered children. Norma was ‘nice’ but Kevin was violent and Cary remembers being punched so his nose was nearly broken. One of the other foster children, Glen, was a few years older than Cary and ‘took it upon himself’ to teach Cary to masturbate.
‘I thought it was normal’, Cary said. ’I didn’t think there was anything of it.’
At 13, Cary ran away, then was found by his mother and returned to the boys’ home. ‘I was a completely different kid second time around’, he said. ‘I had to learn how to fight to protect my brother. And because I was getting belted by Kevin in the family group home a lot, I became very argumentative and aggressive, and when I went back to the boys’ home, I think that’s what kept me safe from any more sexual activity. It just became more physically abusive as opposed to sexual.’
When he was 15, Cary was allocated a flat, but without money and support it didn’t last. ‘I was on special benefits and that was my whole rent coming out, so I was basically stealing to survive. Then I got a girl pregnant: our baby died a cot death and I took everything really bad. I started using drugs and just ended up spending the rest of my life in institutions.’
Cary spoke to the Commissioner from jail where he estimated he had spent 30 of his 47 years. His crimes went from theft from cars to aggravated burglaries to armed robbery. Prior to his most recent sentence he’d been out for three years and had been working in a good job until he injured his back. Taking pain relief medication led to a relapse in drug use and ‘me coming back to jail’.
He was seen as ‘an old-school prisoner’ and said he tried to help and direct younger inmates. He had done courses addressing drug and alcohol use as well as parenting programs, which he thought would be helpful for his relationships with women who had children.
‘I’ve found that in the past I became very, I suppose you'd call it authoritarian with kids. I was demanding, probably due to my upbringing and institutions, and I was very strict in the way I brought up kids. Not violent, just as in, “Do what you’re told”.’ He said he realised now he could ‘never be someone else’s child’s parent’.
‘My life’s been spent around drugs and drug addicts, and the people and the women involved, their kids tend to run amok. So trying to keep them out of this lifestyle, I try to direct them in the way that I thought would keep them out of trouble, and just became too strict on them, I suppose. They weren’t used to it.
'[The parenting program] was interesting. It showed me ways of dealing with kids that I never thought about. Showed me things that I was doing that was wrong. Even though I thought I was right, I was wrong there.’
He’d also started taking methadone. ‘I never would have thought I’d be on [it] because I didn’t like the stigma that went with it. But due to my back injury and needing medication for that, and the fact that I have a history of drug abuse, it’s probably the only thing that’s going to keep me from coming back to jail.’
Cary said he’d recently received his child welfare file and had found the contents confronting. Most of the notes cited his anti-social and aggressive behaviour, even though he didn’t recall ‘being as bad a kid as they made out’.
As well as being on the methadone program while in jail, he has also done a lot of counselling.
‘I think it’s a case of the methadone helps because I don’t need drugs, so I don’t have that constant thought about using drugs. I can actually take time to analyse whatever is going on.
'But as far as what helped me most, it was not fitting into the environment anymore. I no longer fit into prison so I had to find a way to break the shackles, so to speak, and I had to change my whole attitude to make sure that I don’t keep coming back. So it was about being sick of jail more than anything.’