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Ellis Owen's story

‘They take your kid off you, and put them in the homes and do whatever they like with them. Brutalise them, raping them you know. They still call us savages.’

Ellis first arrived at the New South Wales government home for Aboriginal boys in the mid 1960s, aged nine. The manager, Mr Becker, immediately hit him and told him to behave. Becker then ‘stripped me off, and you know he locked the door, and started fondling with my privates ... I couldn’t say anything. I was just frightened’.

Ordered to forget his family – ‘Your family’s gone now, they don’t want you anymore’ – and dressed in different clothing, he was informed that he was no longer called Ellis. ‘Look at your clothes, there’s a number on it. That’s you.’

Ellis and several siblings had been removed from his family in regional New South Wales, and charged with being neglected. His sisters went to an orphanage, while he and his brother were sent to the boys’ home.

One day when his father came looking for them, they were tied up and hidden in a shed until he left.

‘We could hear his voice. We could hear our father’s voice. He said, "Where are my kids?" He was there for about two hours ... He came looking for us, he knew where we was. It’s his country, see, it’s my father’s country.’

Becker continued sexually abusing Ellis. On weekend nights he would go drinking, and ‘you could smell the grog in the small dormitory’ when he returned. Dragging Ellis down to the medical area, ‘he started fondling me again, and wanted me to do it to him. You know, and he kept saying, "If you don’t do anything for me, I’m going to just belt it into you".'

Ellis had no choice but to comply. ‘Masturbate him, and other things – he told me to put it in my mouth. And he just kept going on.’ Later on Becker began anally raping him. ‘He had a wife, you know. I always thought, "Wasn’t the wife enough?"' These rapes were excruciating, and afterwards ‘it was that sort of pain that used to wake me up’.

At times Becker would take another boy instead. ‘I was thinking, glad it’s someone else, but I shouldn’t have thought of that.’ Other staff witnessed Becker removing boys from the dormitory, but did nothing to prevent it.

This abuse ended after about two years, when Becker left the home. Ellis suspects he was fired, though does not know this for sure. Becker died without facing justice.

As a young adult ‘alcohol was my biggest thing’, and Ellis experimented with drugs. He first felt suicidal in the boys’ home, and still does sometimes. ‘All I had was hatred when I first come out.’

Angry at white men, he would beat them up. ‘I was really mad. I used to go belting people up just for no reason at all, if they was white. I thought it was the natural thing to do ... I was thinking of doing sexual stuff, but I didn’t really like what happened, so I said no, no I’ll just bash him ... And just take whatever he’s got, take his wallet or whatever.’

Believing his parents had sent him to the boys’ home, he hated them too. It took him a long time to understand that they were not responsible for what had happened to him.

Ellis went on to have children of his own, but has ‘no relation’ with them. Until recently they did not know his story.

‘They just kept saying, "Why didn’t you tell us?" ... I didn’t want to tell anyone.’

His children have struggled in various ways, including with drugs. One daughter killed herself after her children were removed. Her children are being cared for by their white grandparents now, with no connection to their Aboriginal culture. Some of his grandchildren are now using drugs too.

Ellis first disclosed the abuse a few years ago to a group of men from the boys’ home, after hearing the older men sharing their stories of sexual attacks. He can’t think of anything that would have made him tell anyone when he was a child. ‘It wasn’t going to happen.’

This group would like to turn the home’s site into a museum and find ways of healing. There have been some smoking ceremonies conducted, ‘but a lot of the boys don’t actually do smoking, their country don’t do smoking’.

Some men think of the old home as their country now, after being displaced from their own people and culture. ‘A lot of the older fellas that haven’t got families want to go back [to the site] and live their life out.’

Getting together to ‘talk about the old things’ is helpful. Some of the men have dementia, but still remember the numbers they were given. They also recall ‘violent memories – that’s what they go back to straight away. How do psychiatrists help out with that? Do they shove tablets in them? ... I don’t want tablets, I don’t want to be a drug addict’.

Ellis told the Commissioner that mental health professionals ‘need more education, and not from books. Talk to the people. That’s where a lot of us get the shits with a lot of people, they think they know everything about the Stolen Generation because they read about it’. He now gives talks about his life in schools and jails. ‘They should have more Indigenous people in there, to actually talk about culture ... And make sure that you still remember your people.’

Around 15 years ago, Ellis obtained his welfare records. ‘When I opened it up, it was all blacked out. What are they hiding? They still hiding things ... If they want to get on in this world, make it a better country, they should open up and face the truth themselves. Start admitting what they did. Sorry’s nothing.’

He recently made a civil claim against the government. This entailed discussing the sexual abuse in front of numerous people and did not feel very private. The settlement included an apology, which he didn’t care for much, and a financial payment which ‘wasn’t enough ... compared to what shit we went through’.

‘I was a little bit happy in ways, I’m getting money. And sad in another way, because I started crying, broke down in front of them.’ He had to sign a confidentiality clause – ‘a silencing thing ... That’s ridiculous’. Counselling was offered, but he felt ‘why sit down and talk to people? You’re repeating yourself’.

Mostly Ellis has coped with his experiences on his own. He has made artworks since his childhood, even though ‘they busted my knuckles’ for it at the boys’ home. ‘I used to scribble everywhere, scribble on the walls with chalk ... That was a normal thing to do even before I was taken away, I used to watch my old fellas ... They painted rocks and anything. That was that Indigenous part of me coming out.’

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