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Garth John's story

‘My mother was too young to have me. Back in the 60s and that, it was taboo for a young Aboriginal woman to have a fair child, as you know. I could have been stolen. But my grandmother took me.’

Garth mostly grew up with his grandmother in regional New South Wales. ‘Then I ended up going back to my mother, and she married another fellow, and he was too cruel to me. And I kept going and getting out late and just getting into trouble. And eventually I ended up in the boys’ homes.’

When Garth was around 12 he was sent to a juvenile justice facility in western Sydney. It was scary ‘coming from the bush and that, big city’. He told the Commissioner ‘It was alright there ... in with the other young Koori fellas’.

One of the staff members, Mr Harper, ‘used to take us on trips, and he used to like touch us and whatever’. Garth didn’t know at the time that Harper was also abusing other kids, but later met some of his other victims who disclosed ‘he’s done it to them too’.

At 14 Garth was placed in another juvenile detention centre. This was a very hard time for him, as he experienced a lot of sexual, physical and emotional abuse from staff there, which caused him to feel a great deal of shame.

After turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with his experiences, he has struggled with addiction for over 30 years. ‘That’s what it done to me. That’s the only way to block out the pain, I thought ... It doesn’t work, and I’ve got to stop it now. Because I’m just thinking, I want to live to see my grandchildren grow up.’ Now in his 50s, he is surprised he has survived this long. ‘I’m still shaking my head, why am I still walking on the planet?’

Garth did not receive much education, and it was hard for him to find a job as he could barely read and write. He did get work teaching arts and crafts through an Indigenous organisation, until it was shut down. This closure was disappointing for him and the other workers there.

Before speaking with the Royal Commission Garth had not told anyone about the sexual abuse, and he has never received any counselling. ‘I’ve kept things bottled up inside me for so long, I just don’t know how to talk about it.’

It was very hard for him to talk to the Commissioner about the abuse and the impacts it had on his life.

‘I’m a very proud Aboriginal man, and I don’t share these things. I just want to take it to the grave with me, but I don’t think I can do that now.’

Garth feels that he needs to start dealing with his childhood experiences, as they badly affect the way he interacts with his family. ‘I sit at home, and my mother and my children, they don’t know what’s wrong with me. I sit in the room by myself, and I can’t talk, I don’t talk to people ... I can’t tell me mother, and I can’t tell me daughters what’s wrong inside of me.’

It is tough knowing that the people who abused him will likely go unpunished, as time and his extensive drug use mean he does not remember most of their names or many other details. ‘I just wish that something could happen to them people. I don’t really want to curse them and that. But ... they deserve punishment, because they mucked a lot of lives up. And the effects, it’s like a chain reaction, dominoes ... It hurts people’s lives, and it just goes down the line.’

Garth is currently serving jail time for an old offence, and looks forward to being able to return to his country when he is released. When he is away ‘I get a bit crook sometimes. I used to wonder why my mother couldn’t go out of the country and that there ... She wouldn’t stay away for too long and she’d come home and she’s be happy as Larry. And that’s the way I start to feel’.

As well as the importance of his Aboriginal culture, family, and country, Garth finds peace and solace in making traditional artworks. ‘I’m a painter, and I carve eggs, and more or less I’m and artist. And that’s the way I sort of sit down and heal myself. I could teach people and that. I could carve your face on an emu egg.’

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