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Ellis Stewart's story

Ellis came from a large family. At the age of four he was placed in a Baptist Aboriginal mission in regional Western Australia, spending a few years there in the 1960s. Discipline was harsh and the Aboriginal children would get into trouble if they ‘got caught talking lingo’ or otherwise practising culture, and weren’t allowed to mingle with their siblings.

With brothers at the mission, Ellis had some protection against older boys, but they could not protect him from the cruelty of the staff. He knew that some of the girls became pregnant to the workers, and that some of the babies died and were buried by the river.

When he was eight, he and some of his older brothers got into trouble for stealing. ‘Back then the name of the game was, the youngest takes the blame. I was taking the blame for stolen cars, thieving gangs, and I didn’t even know how to drive a car. That was the protocol between us boys.’

Ellis ended up in a juvenile detention centre which was run like ‘an army base’, and had very strict discipline based on a privileges system. He made his way to the top group, which meant he got the best food and conditions and was able to do jobs outside the centre.

One day he was out doing milk deliveries to other centres in a van, when the officer driving pulled into a park and ‘tried to force me to give him a head job’. Ellis was conflicted because he didn’t want to do what the guard wanted, but also didn’t want to lose his privileges. He had weekend leave and ‘I didn’t want to jeopardise that’.

So he took a gamble and told the officer he would give him oral sex, ‘but you got to give me a head job first’. The officer then backed off. ‘He didn’t want to give me a head job.’

Ellis suspects that other children were sexually abused by staff. He had a ‘little buddy’ who was a smaller boy and because of that, quite vulnerable. This boy was taken out on a job instead of Ellis and ‘came back crying’. His happy-go-lucky nature changed after that outing.

‘All I did was try to comfort him ‘cause I knew what had happened to him.’ The boys did not talk amongst themselves about abuse by the guards.

When Ellis was 14 his sister found him a job and he was able to get out of the centre. In his late teens he began drinking heavily. He sat down with his uncles and told them his history of abuse, and it was good to speak to his elders about the problems he had experienced.

When Ellis applied for the Western Australian redress scheme he did not discuss the abuse – ‘they didn’t ask the full story’ – and received $13,000. Had he received more money, he could have bought a cheap block of land which could have been a base for him for the future, as at that stage of his life he was homeless.

Some years ago Ellis ran into the guard who had tried to abuse him, and who had since changed careers. When confronted about the abuse the man denied it.

Ellis is currently in prison and has been able to tell some of the other inmates about meeting with the Royal Commission. Making art has been a great help to him throughout his life, but in jail he does not have access to many art supplies.

‘Some of my counselling is self-medicating with painting. I’m a natural sort of artist, I learned from my great-aunty ... She taught me from fire, how to use charcoal and chalks and that.’

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