‘Thirty years is a long time. Thirty years before I even opened my mouth. I was going to die with it … but I thought “Don’t do that”.’
In the early 70s, when he was only a few months old, Jeremy was taken from his mother and fostered by a white family in Perth. His family life was stable until he began primary school.
‘If you were found to have any Aboriginal blood you ended up on the bad end of pretty much everything … which I couldn’t understand for a long time … It led to a lot of problems with the family … [My foster mother] found it hard to understand racism and the impact it has.’
From a young age Jeremy started getting into trouble. Other parents complained and he was taken out of school at 12. About a year later Jeremy left home and began living on the streets.
‘Child services didn’t contact me … No one ever asked me, “Why aren’t you at school?” … I did get picked up [by police] a lot of times living in squalor and drinking … they didn’t ask me any questions.’
Jeremy finally found accommodation with a hostel that worked to find Aboriginal children their biological families. The manager made enquiries and, after a short time, he said he had found Jeremy’s ‘blood family’. Jeremy travelled many hours from Perth to live with them.
‘Wasn’t my blood family. They were strangers and alcoholics. It was a curse on a curse. I couldn’t believe it because I was only 13 … It destroyed me inside. It was just an alcoholic environment … seven days a week … I didn’t have anyone … There were days I wouldn’t get fed.’
Jeremy went to the local office of the Department of Child Protection to ask for help, but they gave him no alternative except to become a ward of the state. He understood this as a threat and stayed with the ‘family’. After two years, the local welfare agency determined that another woman, who lived interstate, was his mother. They forced Jeremy to go and live with her and her children.
‘I was made to feel like a criminal … they gave me money and cigarettes and told me to go to [the woman] … I sort of trusted this situation because [it was] a mother and a daughter.’
One night, one of the woman’s friend’s sexually abused him.
‘I was asleep and I woke up and he was taking advantage of me. When I woke up he told me to shut up and I was scared too – he was a fully grown man … It destroyed my spirit.’
The man tried to abuse him a second time but Jeremy created a scene and he stopped. He threatened Jeremy so he would keep quiet, and made sure that Jeremy knew he had physically and politically powerful friends in the community.
Jeremy ended up on the streets, and in and out of jail, for the next 20 years. He has struggled with an alcohol addiction.
‘It destroyed me because after that I never felt safe … I drank more. Took drugs, tablets, a few times … A lot of times I’ve tried to get my life together and a lot of times it all just collapsed … Even people who resemble [him] … would scare me …
‘I never told anyone … It never … went out of my mind for long … It always made me feel dirty. I mean, I used to get angry … I tried to kill myself only just a few years ago … I’m learning now not to take it on board. I do feel distraught from it.’
As well as coming to the Royal Commission, Jeremy is ready to report the man, who he knows is still alive.
‘When I was young I was never taught to trust the police … I’ve got nowhere to go, no one to tell … I thought “I can’t do a thing” … people use fear as a tool to not only dominate but to fear the law … people use those tricks.’
Jeremy has studied to be a counsellor but aspects of the course re-traumatised him. ‘I kept it up – I stayed strong for a year and a half and six months out I was almost dead … I got back on the grog.’
He now realises that all the institutions failed him. Without properly screening the families he was sent to, not just for biological connection but also for suitability for kinship fostering, welfare placed him in dangerous and unstable environments without any support or regular contact. Police had countless opportunities to intervene and offer alternatives to living on the street.
‘I didn’t get unemployment until I was 16 and a half … I went through those years of not even getting a cent. It was hard ... I got angry about [it]. I could have gone to TAFE. I could have had a future. Instead of being in and out of living on streets … Maybe I could have got a trade. Maybe I could’ve got an education … it damaged me.’
Jeremy feels that compensation is important and an apology from the Department of Child Protection and the other institutions would be significant. He is also going to work hard at staying alcohol-free.
‘I get angry knowing these people who could have intervened didn’t … Going around on the self-destructive [path] drinking grog every day is only going to hurt the people that care about me too … I’m starting to grow up a bit and realise now …
‘Once I heal this, I’ll be able to further help other people with grog problems, maybe put somebody in the direction, if they mention something along the lines of what happened to me I can help them too.’