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Frank Russell's story

Kids should be taught that they’re special, Frank told the Commissioner. ‘Empowerment is such a strong word and concept. They must believe in that concept.’

Frank’s own childhood in the 1950s and 1960s was far from empowering. His mum left his father when she discovered he was seeing another woman. Frank’s dad’s family would have shared the kids between them but his mother didn’t want a bar of them.

She now had no job, home or family and her husband gave her no financial support. The welfare department considered that her children were impoverished and neglected, so they were made wards of the state.

From the age of four, Frank rode the merry-go-round of foster family and children’s homes. Every 18 months or so his home environment changed and he believes now that his brain deliberately blocked a lot of childhood memories: ‘I don’t want to know this. I won’t remember’. He even forgot that he had sisters.

Frank moved into the Whitby foster home in Sydney at the age of eight. David, the biological son, was heavily favoured above Frank. ‘He was given anything he wanted.’ David refused to even attend the same school as him. For the next seven years Frank was emotionally and physically abused by the Whitbys. ‘I truly felt that I didn’t belong … To me the Whitbys were not family. It was a place to stay, better than [the home].’

His foster parents prepared him for visits from welfare workers. They told him his parents were ‘in prison all the time. They just want to you to go back and work for them’. So he told welfare workers he didn’t want to go home.

When he was older Frank started playing up and mixing with a bad crowd. When he was 15 he was sent to a government-run halfway house.

One night, one of the other residents climbed into Frank’s bed, pulled down his pyjamas and started to rub up against him. Frank squeezed his legs together hard.

‘Some other old bloke come out and then said “Oh you friggin’ poofter”. And I just felt so belittled, you know? We had a gang goin’ around, excuse the … It’s not correct now but “punch a poofter”. That was a thing in the day, you know? … We were just not educated.’

That night he was too scared to say a word. But soon afterwards he made an escape attempt with a gang of other boys. A policeman who later lectured Frank about his waywardness said something that changed his life.

‘Why don’t you join the army?’ he asked him. And so Frank did.

‘Best thing I ever did.’ And for once being a state ward was in his favour because it was easier for him to join up.

But his troubles weren’t over. At infantry training school when he was 18, Frank was in bed asleep when he was woken by a hand pushing his head into the pillow. He was then raped by a man he didn’t see but whose accent he recognised.

Frank didn’t report the rape. ‘I just thought it was a part of things in those days. The amount of things we did wrong you wouldn’t even get away with today.’

It wasn’t till he was 24 that Frank started to become more assertive. He realised he ‘wasn’t really that dumb’ and went on to finish school and university. ‘When I grew up I believed I was a second-class person … I was introvert, definitely not extrovert.’

Frank was ‘restored’ to his mother when he was 16. It was an emotional moment for her but he’d been through so much that he felt desensitised. ‘Emotions, especially love … were hard for me to bestow.’

Frank went on to find a supportive partner, marry, and have children. He found fathering hard, he said, because one impact of being a foster child is that you don’t learn how to be a parent. Foster care had exactly the same effect on his siblings, he said.

One night years later, not long before he came to the Commission, Frank broke down and disclosed his sexual abuse for the first time. He’d been tickling his grandson when the two-year-old said very clearly and firmly ‘No, granddad’.

‘I just went to pieces that night.’

He told his wife about the sexual abuse. It confirmed what she’d suspected for a long time.

Frank goes to a psychologist regularly. He refuses to be bitter about his childhood and believes he wouldn’t be who he was without his background. He’s just who he is, that’s all.

‘You can write this in capital letters, parentheses and exclamation marks: There’s always somebody worse than you. People got to remember that.’

Frank believes there must be opportunities for children who are being mistreated in care to break the downward spiral.

‘There must be designs within the system to break the trend. This is a must.’

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