Dannie is a proudly Aboriginal man from Western Australia who loves his mum more than anything, who has family who love him, and who feels a strong sense of responsibility towards his people. But he spent a long time in the wilderness before coming back to this point.
His separation began one night on a dusty road, chasing after the tail lights of his family’s car as they drove away from him.
He was 11 years old in the late 1980s, and for the previous few years had been getting into trouble at school. Dannie said he was a smart kid so would get bored easily and start fidgeting and backchatting the teachers. He got suspended and the suspensions added up until he got excluded from school.
Thinking they were doing the right thing, his family drove him out to a Catholic residential mission school, where they hoped he would get a good education.
‘Mum broke her heart to leave me there. She didn’t want to leave me there, but she had no choice. I had no choice. I cried my eyes out.’
He was placed in a dormitory with other boys his age and Father Frank as their carer. Father Frank was a very strong man and Dannie said there was a rumour he’d been a boxer, as he still had those skills.
‘For something as minor as play fighting or not cleaning our room, he just rushed straight inside the rooms and give us a few nice upper cuts, man punches. We were only kids … He just used to lay right into us.’
One day Dannie’s roommate told him that Father Frank had taken him into his room, flogged him with a strap and sexually abused him. It happened many times.
‘Then he got me in there, flogged me with a strap and stuff and he tried touching me and messing around with my private parts and that.’
Dannie pushed him away and ran and hid in the bush until it was dark and he was getting hungry. When he got back to the home the boys told him Frank was waiting for him.
‘So I had no choice. I had to go in there and see him. Then he bloody flogged me again with a thick leather strap, just smack, smack, smack. We had to take our pants down. He slaps us and starts playing with us and that. We didn’t know nothing of it but I knew it was wrong … I thought it wasn’t going to ever happen to me but it happened to all us boys there. He just had control of us all.’
Dannie never reported the abuse.
Soon after, Dannie was accused of throwing rocks and got into a violent stand-off with a teacher who had roughed him up badly. Dannie went to Father Frank, hoping as his guardian he would stand up for him. Instead, Frank punched him and started sexually abusing him again. The incident with the rocks got Dannie kicked out of the school.
Life didn’t go so well for him after that.
He told the Commissioner he ‘pretty much went to the street’. He hung around with older cousins and uncles who drank all day so he got into alcohol and smoking dope. There were older females around so he became sexually experienced quite young. He carried on with girls, drink and drugs and moved onto stealing things, ‘not caring about anything’.
He managed to get some work on a cattle station, which he loved, but not long after he came back into town, he lost a member of his family.
‘That pretty much broke me in half, shattered the family. It took me about seven, eight years to even talk about that … I felt a huge responsibility over that.’
He began to open up about the abuse he had suffered, confiding in a trusted aunty, but the pain of loss was too much and Dannie’s life spiralled out of control.
‘I’ve been in jail for the last 19 years, every year. I’m [nearly 40] years of age now. Every year.’
He said he took his anger out on the world and he feels sorry now for the people he’s hurt along the way. He also knows that in some ways, prison saved him from himself.
‘I’ve never had no counselling. No counselling at all. I’ve just pretty much handled a lot of situations on my own. It’s way too hard. I feel like I’m a survivor. I come close to near death experiences heaps of times … I’m grateful I’m still here.’
But things are starting to change and Dannie said he feels a strong pull back to his family, back to responsibility, back to fill the big shoes left empty by his elders.
‘Somewhere down the line I’m going to have time to sit down with my daughter and son and tell them what Dad’s been through. If there’s anything they need to tell me, their father’s always going to be here. I’ve got too much to live for.’