Erwin was the second youngest of nine children growing up in regional New South Wales. His father was a violent alcoholic who one day ‘put his foot straight through Mum’s face’. In attempting to defend his mother, eight-year-old Erwin hit his father and then ran off to hide in the bush for three days. When found, he was charged with being ‘uncontrollable’ and put into a boys’ home.
He arrived there in the early 1960s, and for the next two and a half decades was in and out of juvenile detention centres and adult jails.
At the first boys’ home Erwin was sexually abused by government worker, ‘Brother’ York.
‘He would come over to me with his prick in his hand and ask me to touch it’, Erwin said. ‘If I did not, he would cane me on the back of the legs. Sometimes I would refuse and get caned. Other times I would just touch his prick to avoid getting beaten. Sometimes, I would have to wank him off.’
This abuse continued for the three years he was in the home. ‘Anytime he felt like it. What could I do? You did what he said otherwise you got belted, so to save the belting you did as you did. I never told anybody. Actually you’re the second person I ever told in my life ... My mother never knew. My father never knew. Nobody knew.’
At 11 years of age, Erwin moved to another facility for juvenile offenders. There, he was severely physically abused by those in charge. In another three years he moved again and the same patterns of physical abuse continued in his new placement. The deputy superintendent would whip Erwin and make him stand in the corner with his hands tied to one leg.
As a result of a fight with another boy, Erwin was sent to isolation and in mid-winter given a blanket to use for one hour during the night (after which it was taken from him). When Erwin complained, the governor told him he was only allowed one hour of warmth and asked ‘who do you think you are?’, then made him scrub the concrete playground.
When he was 18, and after numerous attempts at absconding, Erwin was sent to an adult prison. For the next decade he committed numerous crimes and spent a lot of time in custody. He was imprisoned from the late 1960s to the late 1980s.
‘That’s the last time I walked out of jail’, he said. ‘I was a bad heroin addict in my time. I was a bad alcoholic, and just a different person. I felt more comfortable going in and out of the boys’ homes and the jail than I did being in society. In society you wasn’t accepted. In the boys’ homes and the jail you were accepted. It might be a strange way to look at it, but that’s the way I felt – more comfortable. I’d come out a couple of months and things’d go wrong and I’d say, “I can’t handle it”, so back in.’
Erwin decided he’d ‘had enough’ and ‘gave away the drugs, the alcohol, and the jail’. His criminal history made it difficult to get jobs and he drifted between towns and cities, spending 13 years living on the streets. It had only been in the last six years, he said, that things changed. ‘I met a lady and she’s helped me a lot.’
Finding secure housing was still difficult. He lives in a boarding house that had no external doors, so strangers constantly drift in and out using it as a squat and doss house.
Erwin didn’t ever report the abuse to police, and has not made any civil claim for compensation. His first disclosure of the abuse had come only recently when he met a worker in a community support organisation.
It was difficult though to talk about the abuse, he said. ‘It was horrible. I broke down. I felt a bit of relief and a bit of, wow that’s a lot come off my shoulder. Should I have said that? Should I have not said that? It was a lot of emotions, you know. It was a lot of relief because I spoke to somebody for the first time that listened. He doesn’t go, “Oh yeah, no”, and do nothing about it. He listens and he takes on board what you’re saying. He can’t know how I feel but he can feel the hurt in myself.’
Being in the boys’ homes and jail had ‘totally destroyed’ him, Erwin said. ‘But then I got on top of it and tried to become the man I was.’
He thinks the people who’d abused him were probably now dead, but hoped his story might help someone else. ‘There’s not going to be any of them people get in trouble or anything, but if there’s one person out of this can just get that little bit, even one little sentence out of my story, that’s good enough.’