Until he was 16, Len Rathbone believed his father was dead. Len had been living in a boys’ home in Tasmania for 10 years by then. He’d been told by staff that his father had been killed fighting in World War II.
But in the mid-1950s, as Len was preparing to leave the boys’ home for good, he learned from a staff member that his father was alive and had been in touch.
‘This came as an enormous shock’, he told the Commissioner.
Len’s mother had died shortly after he was born, and he’d been made a ward of the state. He was sent to live with one of his mother’s relations, a widow. She died soon after Len started school and he was placed in the boys’ home.
He arrived there with his few belongings, including a tricycle, and was led inside to meet staff. By the time he came out again his things had been taken by other boys. ‘When I tried to retrieve them I was bashed. Apparently this was the culture of the home, where it was survival of the fittest.’
On his second day at the home he was sexually assaulted by an older boy. A couple of days later another boy sexually assaulted him. The abuse continued over the next eight years. The assaults were ‘often violent and generally traumatic’. They finally came to an end when Len was strong enough to defend himself.
The assaults took place within a broader culture of physical abuse and sexualisation.
‘Masturbation was very common practice and physical violence was very common and encouraged by the superintendent who for his own personal pleasure would direct boys to fight each other.’
Boys weren’t punished for physical or sexual assaults. On the contrary: the superintendent, Arthur Clough, would tire himself out beating a boy and then enlist other boys to finish the work.
‘I learned how to adapt to the environment by hiding in cupboards and keeping my head down to avoid arguments and conflict’, Len said.
He never reported his assailants, at the time or later. ‘It was just the culture of the place where you lived. It was the environment. It was the way things were.’
When Len was 16, a job was found for him in the nearby town. At the same time, he was given the news that his father was alive, and wanted Len to go and live with him in a remote part of the state. Len had to make a choice. His father was a no-hoper, he was told. In the end, he decided to take the job.
Len’s experiences at the home left him suffering from depression. He attempted suicide several times in the years that followed. ‘I’ve missed out on a lot in life’, he said. He married in his early 20s and had children, but after nearly 20 years the relationship came to an end. ‘Since then I’ve just taken it day by day and lived it the best I can.’
After his marriage ended he moved eventually to a small remote town in Tasmania. He hadn’t been there long when ‘I ran into a woman who said “You look like a Rathbone”. I said “I am a Rathbone”. She said “You wouldn’t be Len Rathbone, would you?” I said “Yes”. She said “Oh, well, I’m an aunty of your father’s”'.
It turned out Len also had a half-sister in the town, along with other relatives. His half-sister, Daisy, gave him news that touched him deeply. She told him that for years their father used to travel regularly to the boys’ home where Len lived, in the hope of seeing him.
‘And then he’d come home, he’d sit on the side of the road and drink a bottle of beer and cry his eyes out, because they wouldn’t let him see you.’
Len’s father had died by then. ‘I never met the man. I never had the chance to meet the man’, Len told the Commissioner. ‘But at the back of his mind he was always concerned about me.’
Len learned much more when he agreed to participate in a government inquiry into the institutional care of children. As part of that process Len received a visit from two government officers, who brought with them Len’s social welfare file. Looking through it Len discovered letters – ‘I mean there’d be over 100 letters in there’ – written from his father to the department, seeking custody of Len, and the department to Len’s father, seeking weekly payments for Len’s care.
‘When they showed me the letters from my father I just broke down. I had to leave the room and I didn’t come back to talk to them for about 10 minutes, because that really knocked the stuffings out of me.’
Len’s father was ‘half caste Aboriginal’, and the department’s refusal to give Len up to him may have been prompted by racism - ‘to a degree’, Len said. ‘But mainly I think [it’s] because he was in and out of work all the time.’ He often didn’t have enough to make the weekly payments, and the letters in the file showed the department hounding him for the money. ‘He had a pretty tough life as well’, Len said.
Len said that this new knowledge made dealing with his past more difficult. He believes participating in the inquiry ‘was probably a bad mistake in a way, because although I found out a lot of truths and I found out a lot of things I didn’t know, I also was hurt very badly'.
He received compensation as a result of the inquiry but gave it away to his by-then adult children. ‘I’ve got no use for money’, he said.
He told the Commissioner he copes with sadness and depression by keeping busy.
‘There are times when I do get down, but as I said the best way to overcome that is get up and get in your car and go somewhere or do something. Rather than sit around and let it consume you …
‘Most people have had the good fortune of having family around them, and always somebody to turn to. I’ve been on my own since I was born. I’ve always struggled’, he said.
‘Everything I’ve got in life I’ve had to work hard for. Nobody’s given me any handouts or anything, apart from the government but that was too late in life and I’ve got no need for anything now.’