Derrick was born in northern New South Wales in the early 1940s. Soon after his birth, his unmarried Aboriginal mother became sick, and he was placed in a foundling home near Sydney. When his mother died a few years later, he was sent to an orphanage, also near Sydney.
Derrick was next sent north to a government-run Aboriginal boys’ home. Once there, he was known by a number, not a name, and required to do chores. He attended primary and secondary school while he was at the home. Punishments included caning and being sent ‘down the line’ where he was made to walk along a line of boys who punched him as he walked past.
One day, Derrick was anally raped by an older boy who had been waiting inside a toilet block. A staff member found him injured and bleeding and took him to the hospital. ‘What they done is they laid me on the table and sewed me up’, Derrick said. ‘I think I was there for a week. I couldn’t do a poo or anything like that.’
Derrick was highly traumatised by the rape. However, no staff at the hospital or school asked him about his injury, called the police, or offered him support or counselling. Derrick returned to the home, tried to avoid the culprit, and kept the incident a secret for decades.
When Derrick was old enough to leave the home, his port was packed, and he was sent to live on a mission. A few years later, he left to do farm work and spent the rest of his life working with his hands. Whenever the rape played on his mind, he tried to cope by keeping busy.
‘I just dealt with it and kept going’, he said. ‘I thought, if I kept on working, I’ll just forget about it. I can’t forget about it. I’ll never forget it.’
Having grown up in a home, Derrick lacked life and relationship skills. He ‘never knew how to handle family affairs or money’. He would drink drive, and drink until he blacked out and consequently neglected his children. His daughter Dawn, who accompanied Derrick during his private session, now understands that much of her father’s behaviour stemmed from his abuse and upbringing. However, she did admit that ‘I didn’t have a lot of respect for Dad growing up, unfortunately’.
In the 1980s, while reading her father’s files, Dawn found out about the rape. ‘It was just written there, and I read it, and I said, “Dad, did this happen?” And he just hung his head and said, “I never wanted youse to know”.’ Dawn was a teenager at the time and she didn’t fully comprehend the gravity of the situation. ‘I don’t really think that we spoke of it for many years’, she said. ‘We just sort of knew that it had happened.’
About 20 years later, Derrick found the courage to speak up when he began to attend reunions organised by an association of former boys’ home residents. He remained silent at the first reunion, because the perpetrator was present, but over time, the safe and supportive environment enabled Derrick and the other men to tell their stories to each other. At the time, Dawn knew that it ‘was doing him good’ because Derrick had told her that ‘it was like getting something off your back’.
About 10 years after the first reunion, a news item prompted Derrick to reveal the name of his abuser to Dawn. Finally, he could talk to his family. ‘I got the biggest shock of my life’, she said.
With his story out in the open, Derrick followed the lead of other former inmates, and made a civil claim against the New South Wales Government. He received financial compensation, a perfunctory apology, and an offer to attend counselling sessions which he did not take up. More importantly, he had been able to describe the long-term impact the abuse had had on himself and his family.
Derrick never met his mother, and had only minor contact with his siblings in his 20s. He grew up without his Aboriginal community and culture and never felt that he belonged in either the white or the Aboriginal world. Dawn had assumed that the authorities did not know that baby Derrick had had family he could be placed with. So when she read Derrick’s files and discovered that they did know, she was furious.
‘Instead of focusing on taking kids away, I think there should be more focus on empowering families and maybe working on them individually’, she said. ‘Just growing up with Dad, you can see that taking him away didn’t do any benefit.’
Dawn expressed regret that her father’s long silence delayed the positive shift in their relationship. However, she spoke highly of the ex-residents’ association which created a space in which her father could talk and heal, and a means by which she could come to understand him better.
Derrick wants child sexual abuse stopped ‘because it scars the kids’. He no longer drinks to excess, and instead, loves nothing more than a good cup of tea.