‘Where I started off I was sent in a shoe box, in the space you’d have a pair of shoes … that’s how small I was.’
Cliff was still a tiny baby in the early 1950s when he was taken from his family and sent to an Aboriginal settlement run by the Methodist Church.
The mission in the Western Australian wheat belt was Cliff’s entire world until he turned 17. He never saw his parents again, though he was told they tried to visit him and were turned away.
Small children lived in cottage accommodation until they turned eight. At this age Cliff moved up to the ‘big boys’ dormitory, where up to 20 boys shared quarters.
The mission cook, Morty Wilson, lived next to the boys’ shower block. Wilson took an interest in Cliff and asked if he wanted to buy some lollies.
Eventually he lured Cliff into his room alone.
‘After a while he said, “Turn around and come over here”. He wanted me to sit on his lap. Not knowing anything – I thought he was giving me some lollies, you know, but then I realised he was just sort of playing, doing what he was doing, playing with my – I didn’t realise, I wasn’t aware he was doing that. Playing with my backside as I was sitting there. I got up and walked out and he kept trying to call me back …
‘I was a bit shy, a bit frightened and scared. I didn’t know what was going on.
‘The same thing happened again the next day … I had to stand there. He had biscuits for me this time. I still remember that biscuits, because it was the only biscuits I had there.’
The sexual abuse continued for about a year, until Cliff became anxious and refused to go into Wilson’s rooms any more. Shortly after that the cook disappeared from the mission. ‘He was gone in a flash. I didn’t realise – he was gone.’
At about this time Cliff suffered severe physical abuse from Mr Lawson, who ran the small school he attended. Lawson was frequently violent towards his pupils if they acted up in class or made mistakes with their work. Sometimes he was violent for no reason.
The worst assault Cliff received seemed to be unprovoked. ‘He punched right into me that bad that I had two black eyes, bunged up face, and I walked around with a stomach ache. I was really broken down.’
After this Lawson expelled Cliff from the school. ‘I think it was to keep me away from everyone and to hide me.’ This was the end of his education and he was sent to a nearby farm to work.
When Cliff was 17 he was sent to live in Perth with just a handful of dollars. He lived on the streets at first and sometimes wandered into some of the Aboriginal town camps. Although he was able to find work, life has been a struggle for Cliff ever since.
‘All that time I … I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to go and drown myself or hang myself, you know. I didn’t know how to hang myself – until I watched TV.’
Cliff suffered from self-esteem problems, which he traces back to his childhood as a mission kid. He married twice. His first wife died and his second relationship failed. ‘My life is a real mess now – all broken down.’
His own children are struggling with life as well. ‘My kids couldn’t get the dole or nothing. They’re all living on the streets. Nearly up to the begging point they are.’
Health problems now keep Cliff from work and fights to survive on sickness benefits. He was too frightened to complain about his abuse as a child to anyone, and as an adult he mainly kept the story secret.
A decade ago he disclosed his history to Redress WA and received compensation. Cliff spent most of this money trying to help his children.
‘I’m still no good, you know? Thinking about all these bad things – I go through a lot.’