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Elmer's story

Elmer was born with an intellectual disability in the mid-1950s. At a very young age he was placed in a special home for children in regional Victoria, and at three years old he was transferred to a different facility 250km away.

Conditions at this facility were tough. One of Elmer’s earliest memories was seeing a nurse die when she fell off a chair while standing on it to change a light bulb. He was not removed from the scene but was allowed to watch as the ambulance carried her body away.

Staff at the home were physically abusive toward the children. Often without reason and in front of other children, Elmer would have his pants pulled down in the dining room and would be struck on his backside with a razor strap. In a written statement Elmer described this as ‘a humiliating experience’.

At times Elmer would wet the bed and this was punished with ‘cold showers for five minutes or rubbing our noses in our wet sheets’. Every Friday night the children were given Epsom salts ‘to make us go to the toilet. If we didn’t take our dose, we would be given double … At times the laxative effect of the Epsom salts was so bad that I would soil myself in the middle of the dining room. I also witnessed other boys do this. It was humiliating’.

‘When the superintendent, Mr Howard, found out that one the children had had a nightmare, the following night he would recall the nightmare to the child before he went to bed causing them to be afraid and on some occasions suffer further nightmares.’

Elmer was sometimes punished for talking at the dinner table, but this was ‘a different kind of punishment. They would make us rub their legs from their knees to their ankles and we would have to do this until they heard other staff members coming into the dining room. I felt strange when I was made to do this and I didn’t like it’.

When Elmer was around 10 years old, a staff member who worked the night shift, Mr Vickers, would often visit him while he was in bed.

‘During the night he would come to my bed and fondle my penis underneath my pyjamas. He ostensibly would do it to see if we had wet the bed, but I knew he was up to mischief … [He] would play with my penis even when I was asleep, and I would wake to catch him doing this. I saw him fondling other boys in the same way.’

Elmer told the matron about Vickers’ behaviour.

‘I complained about how Vickers was touching us boys during the night and he was taken off night shift and put on day shift.

‘He never got charged, that’s interesting about this. He never got charged. He came over and put his hand in a boy’s pyjamas and started plumbing that business. He wasn’t the only one that was doing it, there was another guy doing it too.’

Sometime later Elmer was moved to a different ward. As a newcomer to the ward, Elmer was subjected to an initiation process from the male nurses. ‘Two of them held me down in the passage way to the bedroom, and in front of all the other boys they painted boot polish onto my penis. It hurt and took about a week to get it off’, he said.

‘The boys in the home did not really discuss with each other the abuse that would occur to us. We were young kids and we already knew what was happening to each other.’

When he was 16 Elmer was moved to a different home, approximately 150km away. Before leaving he stole the superintendent’s razor strap and threw it out the window during the journey. He was never caught or punished for this act of rebellion.

‘During the course of the trip going over I wound down the window and I pulled out this razor strap from the front of my pants. [The driver] saw it going out the window. He said “What was that about?” I said “Well Mr Howard was getting heavy handed in the classroom so there’s one strap missing, it went out the window. When he goes back he won’t be able to use it on the boys”.’

Life at Elmer’s new home was no better than the one he left. He described it as ‘like a concentration camp’. One of the cooks there, Mr Pellen, frequently asked the boys for sex.

‘Mr Pellen had an HG Holden station wagon. I couldn’t work out why there was all the newspaper up against the window, had a bloody mattress in the back. One of the boys turned around and complained … and Mr Pellen got sacked over it. He should’ve been charged.’

As an adult Elmer has a history of alcoholism, suffers from insomnia and has trouble forming relationships. ‘I suffer from many sleepless nights. Most nights I wake up early. Often I think I must have had a nightmare because I wake up with a start.’

‘I used to drink daily to try to forget about my past and try to get away [from] life. I no longer drink alcohol.’

In the mid-2010s, with the assistance of a lawyer, Elmer took civil action against the state and received $100,000 in compensation, $26,000 of which went to his solicitors. ‘I put it to good use … paid bills, new clothes, the works.’ Elmer also received an apology letter from the Department of Health and Human Services, which he had laminated.

‘I was of the opinion the only reason they wrote that was ‘cause they were guilty in the first place. They tried to cover their tracks. I’m the only one who received it.’

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