In the early 1970s, Kellen was in his mid-teens when he went into the juvenile justice system.
He recalled a police sergeant ordering two constables to deliver him to the government-run boys’ home. ‘He told them to give me a free ride’, which meant they drove ‘round all the back streets of South Melbourne throwing me into the sides of the vehicle like maniacs. So I turned up and I was already bruised from the car trip.’
After lights out on his first or second night in the home, another boy, Len Vaskey, tried to drag Kellen out of bed. Vaskey said he was going to rape Kellen and threatened him to keep quiet. ‘If you make any noise, if you try to resist us, we’ll just cut your throat in your sleep.’
But Kellen did resist and, eventually, Vaskey went away. Kellen remembered thinking, ‘He’s going to get the knife and he’s going to kill me’. But after a few minutes Vaskey returned with an older boy and they both tried to grab Kellen. ‘They were clearly having a sexual relationship … so they ran the whole place like it was their sexual playground.’
Kellen said he fought as hard as he could, lashing out with his arms and legs until he ‘seriously connected’ with one of them. At that point ‘the mood changed’, and they left him alone.
But the two weren’t finished. ‘Two minutes later they’re dragging this other kid out of bed who wasn’t as strong as me … and they dragged him into the toilet cubicle.’ This boy was repeatedly sexually and physically abused by Vaskey and his older mate.
‘And it wasn’t just those two. All the beds that surrounded their beds, would’ve been six or seven of them, all started to join in.
‘And he was just going through hell.’
Kellen said, by the time guards came to investigate, the abuse had been going on for hours. ‘I seriously wonder whether anybody could not hear the commotion.’
But he thought, at roll call the next morning, ‘at least there will be justice. The kid’s going to look like a wreck’.
But the guards couldn’t have cared less. They didn’t pay any attention to the bruises Vaskey had left on Kellen’s face and ‘the other poor kid, he’s staring at the floor, he’s just shaking like a leaf, he is completely … dead.
‘He’s still bleeding, his face looks like a watermelon. Like, he’d been severely bashed and his face was swollen, unmistakably a victim of extreme violence. And the screw just walked past him and went, “Yeah, yeah, righto, next”. Just got completely ignored.’
Kellen said this was the moment when his capacity to trust other people disappeared forever.
After the gang rape, Kellen was moved to a different dormitory where another boy actually had a handgun hidden in the wall.
‘And he showed it to us. And he was, it wasn’t directed to anybody in particular but, “if anybody messes with me I’m going to shoot them”. I’m thinking – what the hell kind of a place is this?’
Kellen told the Commissioner, ever since those days, he’s carried an enormous amount of guilt that the other boy was so terribly abused instead of him.
‘But the biggest guilt was feeling like a coward that I hadn’t done anything … I hadn’t cried out, all I had to do was cry out once and bang on the windows …
‘You know that white feather thing, in the Boer War in England, when they sent out white feathers to cowards? And I feel like I’ve got a box of white feathers. Not sent to me, but me putting them in that box for my own sense of failure because if only I’d been stronger ... ’
His time in the home left Kellen with other scars, too. ‘Forty years later I live in a house with all the doors and windows locked.
‘I’m hypervigilant. I’ll go into a cafe and I’ll sit there with my back to the window so no one can get behind me.
‘It severely damaged my sense of self-esteem, so in life in general I feel like I’ve failed when most other people would be celebrating their success, because I didn’t do enough.’
Kellen finally decided to talk about what happened only recently, after hearing a media report about the boys’ home. ‘It just hit me like a brick between the eyes: “This is reawakened, and this now has to be dealt with and I need to tell my story”.’
And while he’s never been able to trust psychiatrists or psychologists, Kellen believes speaking to the Royal Commission will truly do some good. He said that juvenile justice should be much more about rehabilitation and education than simply detention.
‘What happens is that people go in there and stew. And that stew becomes a fermented mixture of hate and resentment … and they come out with a toxic system.’
He also wants to see proper care taken of young people in the system, with independent oversight of detention centres and better opportunities to report problems.
Despite the damage to his mental health, Kellen said that when he left the home, ‘I was determined to make something of my life’.
He devoted himself to studying music and has made it his career. ‘It’s the only time, when I sit down and play – it’s the only time that I’m transported away from all that other stuff.
‘There’s got to be something in you that says, “I’m not going to be crushed.
“I am going to find my place.”