'The local bully basically kidnapped me, kept me for several hours and tortured and raped me.'
John was 12 years old when he was abused by an older teenager in the early 1980s. The assault changed his life. John told no one about it at the time, and at home in Melbourne with his single mother he became an 'uncontrollable' child.
'I wasn't breaking the law', John told the Commissioner. 'I was running away, which is normal when you think that someone 10 houses up the street did that to you. And that became a habit, so whenever I got into trouble … I'd run, but I wouldn't just run to the other side of town, I'd hitchhike to Queensland and that.'
John's mother placed him in a group home when he was 13, but when he and some friends ran away together he was picked up quickly. 'I was sent back home, no support, no anything. Four days after that I was made a state ward because I just demolished my mum's house.'
For the next three years John was moved between various state-run institutions. Some of these were juvenile justice centres. Although John was never charged with a crime he was frequently housed with young offenders who had. In those years John was subjected to physical and emotional abuse. Sexual abuse was also frequent, from both staff and older inmates.
In one home John lived in an 'assessment' unit for a few weeks. At night the residents would watch TV in the common room while staff kept an eye on them from the back of the room. At this time John was targeted by one of the workers, Rupert.
'So he'd come and grab me from the TV room, walking past these other three staff members, who never ever said anything, never did anything. [He'd] take me down to the dorms … you could scream as loud as you want, nobody at the other end of the unit's going to hear you.'
'Now the first couple of times he had me he just gave me porn magazines and watched me masturbate. And then it got worse: next thing he's raping me. I resisted the first time. The second time … by this stage with this thing happening in my life I just shut out.'
'Those three staff members must've known what was happening.'
'I told the staff about me getting raped, I was getting touched by Rupert. Within minutes, I mean like 10 minutes, I was escorted from assessment … to another unit. While I'm getting walked by staff members to that unit I'm told, "You have caused us so much fucking paperwork. Have fun where you're going".'
'I was put in a cell with [an older offender] … I never knew he was a sexual offender, but they knew. They fucking knew. My punishment for saying what I said … was to go down to [the new unit], being put in a cell with a known sex offender and a very violent person.'
John believes the level of violence and sexual abuse within the system was well known and condoned.
'You're in a system where everybody knows what's happening. It's right there underneath the surface and it's used by everybody who has control of you as a form of punishment. So if you have involvement with the police the first things the police are gonna say is "You're going to [this juvenile justice centre], you're going to get fucked up the arse".'
'They know what's happening, right, because they get it from the kids that come in screaming "Please don't charge me I don't want to go back". So they know exactly what's happening. Your social workers know. Your social workers use it as a standard threat. The whole system in the 80s … sexual assault was a way of controlling us as children.'
During his time in that system John was frequently assessed by mental health professionals.
'I was messed up because I was raped outside by a bully, and I now know that those signs are clear clinical signs. If anyone presented with these symptoms you'd have to ask the question. Nobody ever asked the question. Now I'll never, never know if I was asked the question whether I would've said yes or no.'
'They could've treated me, but they never asked.'
John has spent much of his life on a disability pension. He has used drugs to self-medicate and struggles with suicidal thoughts nearly every day.
'I make myself a victim. I don't know how not to be a victim because this has happened to me.'
'Since I've been a ward of the state I've moved into bad relationships. Friends who'll exploit me, bosses who'll exploit me, because I don't know how not to be exploited. I'm working at it, I've been working at it for years.'
John has developed his own strategies for coping. 'I stay away from my triggers … I live in my own prison cell. I live in a bedroom. That's it … I created my own little prison.'
'I've done pretty good, considering. Everyone else I know, most of my adolescent friends, have spent most of their life in jail. Just doing things like stealing things from shops.'
John believes the welfare and justice systems need an overhaul. Children should not be locked up with serious offenders, 'because that just criminalises them'. And John is worried by the move towards the private sector training of social workers. 'These people are training people for profit. They don't give a shit about the kids these people are going to be looking after in 10 years' time. It's a problem you can see coming.'
John is optimistic about his future. He has found a psychologist he can work with and she is helping him confront his fears and move on. And John is studying again, resuming an education that was interrupted when he was 13.
'I have moments when I see daylight. This education's helping me because it's helping me get to school. I'm forced to sit in a room with people. I might be having anxiety attacks internally all day but I'm at least confronting it.'