Harry Lionel's story

Harry arrived as a 10-year-old child migrant in the early 1950s. He and his sister were sent to Australia because his mother had remarried and ‘her new husband … didn’t like me at all’. The children thought they were going to live with a family member.

Harry arrived in Perth under the care of the West Australian Child Welfare Department and was placed in a boys’ home run by the Church of England. He was deeply unhappy.

‘Going out to Australia … [mother] said, “Whatever you do, look after your sister”. So I promised [her] and I promised myself. As soon as we got there they separated us and I never seen her after that … it just worried me, it’s worried me all my life … I didn’t see her again until I came home.’

In a statement provided to the Commission, Harry wrote, ‘I missed my sister and all of my family terribly, particularly my mother. I was angry about being misled into coming to Australia. I felt that I had been let down and rejected by my family, and that no one cared’.

Harry began to routinely run away from the boys’ home, a ‘brutal’ and ‘harsh’ place, trying to find a way back to England. He had a number of illnesses and the authorities decided to place him in a foster home. The foster family treated him well and he had a short period of stability. When the foster placement finished, Harry tried to take his own life. He was 13.

Once back in the boys’ home he absconded and stowed away in a ship he hoped was going to England. When it docked in Melbourne, Harry was placed under the care of the Department of Child Welfare and sent to another Church of England boys’ home. After again trying to run away, Harry was taken for psychiatric assessment, where he was sexually abused by the doctor.

‘While I was there the psychiatrist tried to touch me … I was kneeling down … he put his hand up my shorts, I freaked out and then blacked out. I have no recollection of what happened afterwards.’

Harry was placed with a foster family, but this arrangement didn’t last long and he was sent to a second family. Initially, Harry liked the new foster parents. He was given a puppy and new clothes, and he felt as though they cared about him. However, he was made to sleep in the foster parents’ bed.

‘Not long after being with them, he started to touch me, he told me he would kill my dog. The touching progressed until one night he raped me. This continued two or three times a week. I feel so ashamed that I couldn’t stop him. His sexual demands grew … made me perform oral sex on his wife while he watched. I was their sex toy and there was nothing I could do about it …

‘I think … perhaps I could have struggled a bit more and tried to do something … I was too young … I find it hard to believe I couldn’t have done more. I don’t know why.’

The abuse continued for nine months until Harry ‘couldn’t take it anymore’ and he told his previous foster father about the sexual abuse. Harry then told the police, and the man was convicted of sexual offences.

But Harry didn’t report the wife. ‘I used to feel sorry for her … he made her life terrible … I never said nothing to them.’ Police never spoke to any boys who had been fostered with the couple before Harry.

Harry was repatriated to England where he lived with his mother before getting a job and beginning his adult life.

The impacts of the abuse have been significant. Harry’s education was severely disrupted, limiting his career opportunities, and he still has trust and intimacy issues. Despite having a long and supportive marriage, Harry didn’t disclose his sexual abuse to his wife until they had been together for 20 years.

‘I find it uncomfortable to show affection, I feel tainted by what the man did to me and carry a never-ending sense of shame. It has affected my relationship with my children and even as a grandfather, I don’t feel able to be relaxed or spontaneous in showing affection … with my grandchildren I can’t not think about it.’

As he’s aged, the memories and trauma seem to ‘bother me more and I sometimes find it hard to keep everything in perspective’. Harry now understands that he was an ‘incredibly vulnerable child’.

‘There is almost an inevitability, given the lack of supervision, that I would fall into the hands of a sexual predator … Throughout my time in Australia there seems to be a reluctance for anyone to take any responsibility for my care and wellbeing.’

Harry has received redress from the Western Australian government but ‘felt the trauma I experienced as a child was just dismissed … and the payment ended up feeling tokenistic, rather than true compensation’. He is currently preparing a civil claim against the Victorian state government that incorporates redress for its lack of screening and oversight of the foster placement where he was sexually abused.

He has been supported by the Child Migrants Trust in the United Kingdom and, with its help, has been able to access his child welfare records in both states.

Harry wanted to speak to the Royal Commission, ‘to let you know what I know, perhaps it could help you and other children … to understand what happened to me, how it happened, why it happened and why didn’t somebody check it all before it happened … I can’t understand why nobody couldn’t see it’.

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