By the time Harry was seven years old he had been diagnosed with a hyperactivity disorder, and was constantly in trouble at school. His dad was an alcoholic who was rarely at home, while his mum favoured his younger sister and had little time for him. They took him for an assessment in the late 1980s, and it was advised he spend some time in care to give them a break from his behaviour.
The placements he was put in didn’t work, and he kept running away. As a result he was sent to a government reception centre in Melbourne when he was eight, staying there for around six months. There was system of rewarding good behaviour with privileges, including being allowed to stay up and watch videos in the TV room.
This activity ‘was supposed to be with supervision ... There was no supervision, the workers would basically lock you in that room’. The TV room was isolated, and it was hard to get attention once locked in, since banging on the door could not be heard by the workers.
One time Harry was locked in this room with two boys, who he thinks were brothers. After they’d watched a program together, the boys wrestled him to the ground, and one of them raped him. He tried calling for help but nobody came to his aid.
Despite being sore, and bleeding, he didn’t say anything about this incident at first. A while later a female staff member noticed he was very quiet, and asked him what was going on. He eventually disclosed the abuse to her, and she was supportive.
A few days later the worker arranged for Harry to meet with the superintendent, who was initially suspicious that he was making up a story to get out of the centre. When, after great interrogation, Harry stuck to his account the police were called. The brother who committed the sexual assault was charged, and Harry thinks he received a community-based order.
After leaving the centre, Harry returned to his family home. His parents didn’t do much to support him, and he kept getting into trouble. At around 11 years of age he was sent to a Catholic children’s home in Melbourne. He didn’t like it there, so he and another boy absconded.
The two of them ended up in a house where friends of this boy lived. Here Harry was lured into a bedroom by a man, who locked the door and tried to ‘sexually penetrate’ him. His friend came to his rescue, kicking the door open, ‘and stopped it getting any worse’.
Later, back at the orphanage, Harry was questioned by police about what had gone on at the house. He told them what the man had done, but he does not know if he was ever charged.
A couple of weeks later Harry ‘was in a really bad way ... distancing myself from people’. A priest asked what was wrong, and he told him about the incident with the man. The priest said something about it being ‘okay to be confused about your sexuality ... I go, I’m not gay, I’m talking about what happened to me ... He put his hand on my thigh, starting to go towards my groin’. Harry ‘broke down’, and the priest ‘freaked out’ and apologised.
A short while later the police were called to the orphanage, as other kids had complained about the behaviour of this priest. When Harry was questioned, he denied the priest had done anything bad to him, ‘from misplacement of trust I’d say ... and was really defensive about it’. He didn’t report it to anyone afterwards.
As he got older, Harry was placed in a number of hostels and children’s homes, where he was sometimes treated roughly by male staff. He became rebellious and angry, and his criminal offending escalated. With little education, he started an apprenticeship in the food industry.
He also began using drugs, including marijuana, amphetamines and heroin, and drank heavily. He self-harmed, sometimes requiring hospitalisation, and also attempted suicide. Workers from a community centre would check up on him, but he doesn’t feel they really cared.
As an adult Harry was in and out of jail, and his relationships with his family suffered. The only person who seemed to care about him was his grandmother, who died while he was in custody.
After this, he vowed to straighten himself out. ‘It’s given me a strength in a sense, where I’ve been able to overcome drugs, and little by little step, jump off methadone, not be opiate dependent. And not have to have the fear come up from the abuse that happened to me, and run straight into a drug frenzy. Which is quite difficult, believe me, even to this day.’
Harry hopes that he might be able to access some post-release programs once he’s back in the community, and find adequate accommodation and support to help him not to re-offend.
He spoke passionately with the Commissioner about the need for greater services to support people to break the cycle of trauma, drug use, crime and imprisonment. Current services are fractured and insufficient. ‘When one door opens, another door shuts, another one opens, another one shuts. It’s a constant thing. And then one day, you get trapped in the middle. Both doors are shut and you’re trapped. The next thing is, you go back into old habits.’
Harry knows that many people consider those like him ‘institutionalised. They sort of categorise us, and they name us and label us as being unworthy of rehabilitation’.
Starting to open up about the abuse has been really hard. ‘I had thoughts of suicide as a result of this stuff, I think the pressure of it. It’s like a bag suffocating me from the inside out.’ However, he wanted to share his experiences with the Royal Commission to try to protect kids who are currently in care.
‘There are so many kids that are in state care now, I feel that, in that dark and closed environment and space there that I was in, that feel shut out from the world, so to speak. Believe me, it’s probably the worst, darkest place you could ever been in. In a country that’s so rich ... We tend to look at our children that are in care like a Third World country. It really breaks my heart that it’s still happening now.’