James’s mother had a psychological illness, and as a result when James was very young he was removed from her care and placed in a residential facility. He doesn’t remember being there. The first institution he remembers is the second one he was sent to, when he was six or seven, in the late 1960s. It was an Anglican-run facility in regional Victoria.
The home was run by an English couple, Phillip and Ingrid Robey. ‘They were just brutal’, James recalled. Punishments were frequent and severe. Boys were made to stand naked in the dormitory, or work in the garden for hours on end. Phillip Robey’s weapon of choice for beatings was his shoe, for Ingrid it was a strap or anything that came to hand. As well, older boys assaulted younger ones, physically and sexually. Staff knew, James believes, but did nothing.
As well as older boys, James was sexually abused by one of the workers, Gordon McConnell. He would hand out small treats and gifts and was a ‘father figure’, James said. ‘I liked him, but he made you feel that way, you know? He made you feel special, like you meant something.’
McConnell would take boys to his room at night, give them lollies and cigarettes and abuse them. As well, ‘He’d make us perform – have sex with each other. I didn’t know what sex was … What can you do? You’re only young.’
The abuse ended when James was around eight and he was moved to another facility, a government-run reception centre. After again being sexually assaulted by older boys, he ran away. ‘I had a bad habit of escaping – always running around. Whenever something would happen in the institution I’d run.’
This eventually led to him being referred to a psychiatrist, who put him on medication. James told the psychiatrist about his experiences of abuse, but no action was taken. ‘I remember being told that this is part of life. That boys do what boys do, men do what men do.’
Other residential facilities followed. At one, he disclosed again, to his cottage parents. They were concerned, he said, but did nothing.
James was in jail when he spoke to the Commissioner. He believes that if something had been done when he first disclosed, he wouldn’t be in prison now. ‘I spent most of my life in this institution. I’m considered a violent offender, now. I think I only got violent because … if you put your hands on me I would hurt you. You couldn’t hurt me without me hurting you back.’
In the past 20 years, James has only spent 14 months outside a correctional centre. ‘I’ve never really been in the community. I think the longest time I’ve ever spent in the community is three years, and all I did was use drugs, and crime …
‘I have nightmares, you know. Days where you want just to use drugs just to try and forget. That’s what my whole life has been …
‘The bad thing was being taken from one bad institution to another. Taken away from my mother. I never saw my family.’
James has had counselling in jail but hasn’t received any compensation. He is pursuing a civil claim but it has been stalled for a year because he has no way to raise the $10,000 he needs for the requisite psychiatric report. Once he’s released from jail he has no resources or support waiting for him outside – no home, no job, no family.
‘Sometimes you want to go back inside because it’s easier than living outside’, he told the Commissioner.
He believes the Royal Commission’s work will make a difference. ‘I can’t see in the future after this, after the Royal Commission, that institutions would ever get as bad as they were, in the 1960s and 70s.’
For himself, it’s not money he wants. ‘It’s not about the money. It’s about accountability. If I’m held accountable for what I do, why isn’t somebody else held accountable for what they did to me?’