In the early 1960s Jonas lived with his mother and siblings in a NSW regional town. His father had died when he was very young. But when he was seven, Jonas was taken from his family and sent to a government-run residential training school for Aboriginal boys about 600 kilometres away.
The reason for his removal is a mystery. ‘I don’t know why I got taken away. 'Cause I’d been going to school every day – clean clothes, home-packed lunch’, he told the Commissioner. ‘I just don’t know why they took me.’
He’d had a happy childhood till then. In a written statement, Jonas said, ‘I remember helping my mother with chores. The boys collected wood for the fire. My sisters collected water to boil. We all helped one another in my family.
'I knew about my Aboriginal culture, as I was taught by my aunties and uncles who were my elders. I remember them always telling me that I need to go to school so I could learn. I also was taught how to fish. Before I was taken, I knew where I was from and who I was: I had an identity.’
Jonas lost that identity at the training school. On arrival, boys were issued with a number, and that’s what they were known by. ‘It felt terrible to be called a number. I was just a number and nothing else … It made me like less of a person.’
Jonas lived at the school for almost three years. His older brother Gordon was there too, though in a separate dormitory. Gordon looked after Jonas. ‘He told me what to do and I listened to him. He always told me to make sure I did my chores and did not argue.
'I believe he protected me from bullies and older boys. Older boys sexually assaulted younger boys and I needed to be watching over my shoulder in case someone tried to assault me. I think because my brother was there he did his best to make sure it did not happen to me.’
Jonas was bullied by staff and other boys because he wet the bed. He was regularly beaten, sometimes for not listening and sometimes – well, he didn’t know why.
‘Sometimes I remember being punished for no reason at all. It seemed as if I was being punished for just being an Aboriginal child.’ One staff officer, Lance Michaels, was particularly brutal. He belted Jonas ‘randomly and without reason. I was always scared and always being hurt by Mr Michaels. He was always drunk.’
One day when Jonas was walking alone back to the training school, he encountered an older boy from the local high school. The boy took Jonas to the nearby river, dragged him into the bushes and raped him. Jonas was ‘helpless, frightened and scared stiff. I will never forget the pain afterwards'. The boy told Jonas he would ‘get it’ if he disclosed what had happened. Jonas didn’t say a word to anyone – ‘I was scared’, he explained. He kept the assault a secret for decades.
Jonas spent several years in foster family placements and was then returned to the training school. Other institutions followed. When he was 18, he was finally returned to his mother’s care. Meeting her again after so many years of separation was ‘an incredibly emotional experience’. Sadly, she died not long afterwards.
Jonas was also reunited with his aunts, uncles and siblings. They all had questions about his experiences. He found it impossible to respond. ‘I would say to them words to the effect “I just cannot answer your questions” … I just wanted to move on and I did not want to share my pain.’
Even now, many years later, he is yet to share details of his experiences at the home with his children or grandchildren. ‘Kids ask, “What happened when you were young, tell me” – I say, “No. When you get older I might tell you one day; not now”.’
The first person to whom Jonas disclosed his story was his lawyer, who helped him seek compensation from the government. ‘It felt good … No dark clouds hanging over my head now.’ In his statement of claim he described many impacts arising from his youthful experiences. Anxiety, anger and depression are among them. He also had problems with alcohol, which led to trouble with the law.
‘When I was young I drank too much. I drank to get rid of the pain. I just wanted to drink so I would forget that I had no mother or father. That I was taken. That I was raped … I did not know how to deal with my emotions, so I drank.’
Issues with his sexuality, and with intimacy more generally have also been a problem. ‘For such a long time I thought I was gay. It's still very hard for me to be open with women … I'm scared they might find out what happened and what they would say if they did. I've never talked about it. I have trust issues and I find it very hard to be close to people.’ He also greatly regrets the loss of connection with his culture.
At the time of his visit to the Commission, Jonas was yet to hear the result of his compensation claim. He was also seeking an apology, for himself and his family.
‘I still do not know why I was taken and why I deserved to be treated this way. I was treated poorly and I was not prepared for coping with society … For so long in my life I have felt like nobody. I have had to tell myself over and over again that I am a good person, although it is hard because I do not believe it.
'I never wanted to burden anyone with my problems because that was how I was raised in the homes … I wonder what my life would have been like if I had grown up with my mother and siblings. Would I be a more confident and outgoing man now?’