‘Some days I think I should sue the government for negligence and get big bucks … But it’s not the money so much, I want to get justice first. ’Cause they destroyed 40 years of my life.’
Harlan says the destruction began on a terrible night in Adelaide in the 1970s. ‘My mother couldn’t control me; I wouldn’t go to school. Then one day, when I was nine, a welfare officer came round, he was supposed to “talk to me about an issue”.
‘I was up on the roof – he got me down and my mum said he was going to bring me back home.’
Instead, Harlan and a friend called Gavin were taken to the remand section of an Adelaide boys’ home and left there. The pair were split up on arrival and Harlan never saw Gavin again.
‘That night I got raped by an officer – I don’t know his name, but he was white and had a distinctive face … He kept pulling me back on his lap on his chair.’
Harlan passed out and in the morning noticed that 11-year-old Gavin wasn’t at breakfast. ‘I just knew he was dead.’
There was an inquest that Harlan said was ‘total fabrication’: no charges ensued.
‘The abuse has destroyed my life, sexually, physically and mentally but the murder still plays a big part on my mind’, Harlan told the Commissioner. ‘I’ve been waiting a long time to come here … I told myself that one day, someone was going to listen. Because what happened was wrong.
‘I’ve got friends that talk to me about it, and one of them turned around and said, “It wasn’t your fault; you were just a little boy”. Which is good, because a lot of people blame themselves.’
Nobody else seemed willing to attribute blame. ‘I complained for years to the welfare. In the police statements it says I complained a couple of times – but it was more like a couple of hundred times.
‘I told them the information, they wrote it down – “See ya later, Harlan” – and they threw it in the bin.’ He wishes he could take the matter to a much higher authority: ‘Me being Aboriginal, we can’t leave the country and that’s what’s stopped me from going to the Queen.’
Harlan spent more time in children’s homes, like most of his siblings. He says a paedophile taxi driver kidnapped and raped him at age 12. Then at 21 he married another victim of abuse, a relationship that soon ended: ‘After you’ve been sexually hurt it’s very hard to trust anyone.’
An accident in the mid-1970s left him long dependent on prescription painkillers, and he remains a heavy drinker: ‘I’m a big alcoholic, I’m homeless – but I try to survive.’
He’s convinced his life was wrecked at age nine by that night in remand. ‘If that welfare officer had listened to me and brought me back home, I would have had a beautiful job. I would have been a billionaire – twice! I could have been an actor, a footballer, a piano player …’
Harlan says that he has felt suicidal a few times, ‘but what stopped me from doing it is thinking about the future for other people. We’ve got to try and make them strong. Nobody’s going to know justice at the end of the day if we don’t stay alive to talk about it.’