For Lawrence, institutional abuse he experienced in his early childhood has affected his whole life. ‘You can never redress what happened to me’, he told the Commissioner, but ‘it is important to me to say what happened to me wasn’t okay’.
Lawrence was abandoned by his mother and left with his grandparents when he was an infant. He was later placed in care at a Victorian government-run boys’ home in the late 1960s when he was 10 years old. He was one of the younger boys in the home at the time and he told the Commissioner that the boys’ home was a physically brutal environment. He was sexually abused by older boys in the communal showers.
‘If you said anything about it, you’d get a whack in the head.’ He was also ‘locked up in a room to sleep in’ as punishment. ‘The staff knew everything that was going on. They ran it.’
When he was 11, he left the boys’ home and was reunited with his grandparents. He attended a private school where he was routinely bullied and physically attacked by students and a teacher. He grew very despondent and attempted suicide and was diagnosed with clinical depression. At this age he also began running away from home and from school.
‘I started to get into a bit of trouble … I went from school to school to school.’ Lawrence’s education was disrupted significantly. ‘My life fell apart’, he said.
When he was 12, he travelled to Sydney with another boy where he was picked up by police and entered the juvenile justice system. He was released into the custody of his stepfather, a man he didn’t know, and ran away again. He was charged and convicted of a crime and sent to a juvenile justice centre where he spent 12 months. Again, he was a younger boy in a population of older boys.
Lawrence told the Commissioner that the culture of the centre allowed physical, psychological and sexual abuse to be perpetrated by the older and bigger boys on the younger, smaller boys. He found he was on his own with no support.
‘Generally, if you got out of line, one of the bigger boys would have you … you had to fight … you just had to fight.’
In the centre, Lawrence was raped by one of the older inmates. He told one of the officers about his abuse and it stopped. ‘He must have said something to him [the perpetrator] about it … because I didn’t get any trouble.’ The older inmate was soon released but Lawrence’s physical abuse by staff, including solitary confinement, continued until his release.
Lawrence received no support or counselling from the centre or from any children’s services after the abuse.
At 14, he was released from the centre and lived with relatives in Sydney but his home life was difficult and he suffered further sexual abuse.
‘I was relieved of my childhood’, he said.
Lawrence couldn’t continue his education and was too young to find useful work. He survived by selling marijuana but came to the attention of police and was charged and convicted of possession. He re-entered the juvenile justice system for a short time but once out, managed to pull his life together for a couple of years.
By the time he was 18, though, Lawrence had a heroin addiction and was in trouble with police again.
Lawrence has only received sporadic counselling and he never reported his abuse to the police as he has a deep distrust of both the police force and the judicial system. He often thought about suicide and at 19 he attempted suicide again. He spent the next 20 years in and out of jail.
He was severely injured in a car accident as a result of a police pursuit and took many months to recover. He still lives with chronic pain and has been recently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
He described for the Commissioner how his grandmother ‘was my saving grace’ and had supported him throughout his life until she died. He is in a supportive relationship now and has found some solace and understanding. Lawrence told the Commissioner that the relationship has been ‘transformative’ and that ‘I only needed to be loved, to be believed’.
Lawrence chose never to have children because of his experiences but he was able to reconcile with his younger brother before his brother’s death which helped him move forward in his life.
He found the procedures to access his welfare and juvenile justice records were difficult for him to negotiate. Once he was provided with his files, he became very upset to discover how officers and welfare workers had described him on paper. He felt that negative descriptions recorded when he was very young had been passed on through the system and affected his later treatment. He wants there to be recognition of the harm done to him from his earliest years.
He also worries about children in care today. ‘I’m saddened when I hear that children are being molested in our detention centres … children need to be educated and empowered particularly around their own personal space.’