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Damen John's story

At the age of 16, Damen was dinking a friend on his bicycle when another boy came up behind them on a bike that he’d stolen. Damen tried to get the boy to ‘get away’, but before he could, a police car pulled up and took both bikes and all three boys to the police station.

After a night in the watchhouse, Damen was taken before a magistrate who charged him and his friend ‘along the lines of being an accessory after the fact’. His parents weren’t notified about the arrest or court appearance, or told that Damen was sentenced by the magistrate to spend a month in a boys’ home ‘to be assessed’.

‘A month is like a lifetime anyway when you’ve never been incarcerated before’, Damen told the Commissioner.

From the mid-1970s, Damen spent nearly two years in boys’ homes because when he appeared again in court after three months, the magistrate didn’t apply a term to his sentence.

‘I was sentenced but with no date of release, just sent back till they think I’m fit to be released.’

During his incarceration, Damen was subjected to severe physical violence. When he was caught talking after lights-out, he and two other boys were forced to take off their clothes and do exercises outside throughout the night, while being punched and beaten. They were then placed in separate cells without bedding, blankets or toilet facilities and one of the officers sprayed them with water then told them to ‘sleep well’.

When the matron of the home saw them the next morning she asked where their bruises had come from. They told her they’d been ‘playing around’ but she persisted until they told the truth. Afterwards they were taken out of the home and questioned by Queensland detectives. Damen didn’t ever find out whether any action was taken against the officers and was unable as an adult to find any record of the complaint or any process that followed.

Damen was then sent to a Salvation Army home.

‘I think I was the smallest there and I was intimidated when I got there. And being a new boy you copped it. I was put in a dormitory there and my bed was right next to one of the officers and after being there a couple of nights he started calling me into his room. He’d make me a cup of Milo, and he gave me some lollies and biscuits, and started asking me what kind of music I liked – I don’t know, AC/DC or something, Elvis or something back then – and he started playing this music and I thought, “He’s a nice fella”.’

Damen was ‘pretty familiar with the Salvation Army’ and thought ‘they were nice people’ because he’d had friends who’d been associated with them in his home town.

‘I’d only been there probably three or four days and one night when he called me in there and made Milo and that for me, he put his hand on my leg and started rubbing up my leg you know, trying to fondle me. And I just said, “I’m not like that”, and I got up and run out of his room and went to my bed and just, I had about four or five blankets ‘cause it was that cold, and I just curled up underneath there and cried myself to sleep.

‘After that he just started to like, single me out and started to get me to do all these things, like use a toothbrush to clean the toilet and scrub, get on my hands and knees and scrub the bathroom and the shower block and that with a toothbrush.’

For nearly two years Damen didn’t receive any education. He worked long hours in the home’s dairy and doing farm work. Encouraged by some other boys, he once escaped but after a week gave himself up because he was cold and had nowhere to go.

When Damen returned to the property he got ‘laid into’ by an officer giving him ’10 whacks across the arse’ with a leather strap. The boys who’d encouraged him to abscond were part of the search party and he realised ‘it was all a set-up’ so that they would be rewarded for catching him.

When finally released, Damen was given clothes and a train fare back to his home town. His parents had separated and his mother had moved interstate. When his sister found out years later that he’d been in homes, ‘she broke down and apologised’. She thought that he’d followed the dream he’d spoken of and was on a fishing trawler at sea.

Damen didn’t report his experiences to Queensland Police, and his attempts to locate records weren’t successful. He received $21,000 in redress from the Salvation Army and was told by them that they’d had other reports about the officer who’d sexually abused him. He hadn’t sought compensation from the government for the abuse he’d experienced in the other boys’ home.

Until recently Damen hadn’t told anyone about the abuse, but told the Commissioner ‘it impacts on my life everyday’. He’d had difficulty trusting people and at various times had had problems with aggression. Before separating from his wife, Damen had never told her that he’d been in boys’ homes or mentioned anything about the abuse. He hadn’t told his children either.

For a long time he didn’t think he’d be believed.

‘I want people to know because people are only just believing us now. There’s thousands of people that went through similar things as me, and I mean we can’t all be liars. Some of us must be telling the truth. I thank you for giving your time to let our voices be heard.’

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