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Leslie James's story

Leslie and his siblings ended up in care after their parents split up. His mother went to the Native Welfare office for assistance and they, ‘in their wisdom’, removed the children. Leslie and his older brother Claude were placed in a Perth children’s home, then sent to a foster placement when Leslie was four years old.

It was the late 1950s and the foster family had a teenage daughter who molested the brothers, thinking it was funny. She was quite surreptitious about this, and Leslie doesn’t think anyone realised what she was doing.

After this they were returned to the home. Even though Leslie was beaten with a strap and locked in a cupboard – ‘that was the norm’ – he mostly felt safe there.

There was one instance however, when he was off school for a couple of days. During this time, ‘the house parent came in with a bowl of cornflakes for me. The cornflakes were very sticky and very translucent ... He made sure that I ate every bit ... That happened for probably two days, while I was sick in bed’.

As an adult he spoke to his brother about this incident, and ‘we really realised what it was. It appears that the guy was ejaculating into the food’.

Leslie and his siblings were then sent to a Catholic Aboriginal mission. Things were okay when their mum was working there, as the children had some protection, but once she returned to the city he started getting bullied. Leslie ran away with his siblings and they lived with their mother for a short while, before he was returned to the mission on his own.

By this stage Leslie was 11, and had started challenging the authorities in various ways. He would question why the children were treated so poorly, and stand up for other kids when they were punished. As a result he was often strapped by the Brothers and priests.

The culture of violence at the mission encouraged the boys to be aggressive amongst themselves, and sometimes the adults would make them fight for their entertainment. On the weekends the boys went off into the bush, away from adult supervision. They would camp out, hunting kangaroos to eat.

During one such weekend Leslie was attacked by a small group of older Aboriginal boys, who pinned him to the ground and raped him. He ‘played dead’ in order to stop the assault, then jumped up and physically injured one of the boys. He knew he had to fight back to prevent further assaults. He did not report the rape to anyone, and the injury he had inflicted on the other boy was explained as an accident.

Leslie told the Commissioner that the older boys on the mission were highly predatory towards the younger boys and girls. He witnessed another boy being sexually assaulted by a group, but did nothing to stop this attack. This same boy was subjected to many additional sexual assaults. As an adult, Leslie ran into him and apologised for not doing anything to help at the time, as he still feels guilty for not intervening.

Leslie later lived at an Aboriginal children’s home in Perth. The children would be lined up along the driveway for random white people to take home for the weekend. He did not experience any sexual abuse during these placements, but was severely beaten by one family who took him in.

When Leslie was 14 he left care to go shearing with his father. ‘By this stage I was an angry, angry person. I was really, really angry at the world. And you say, how did we cope in the world? I coped by stealing – whatever I could get off a white person I’d take. I had no compunction hitting a white person with a hammer, it wouldn’t affect me if I was to stab a white person. I hated white people ... I got into all sorts of stuff, all sorts of trouble.’

Leslie ended up in reform schools, and later adult jail. Here he experienced a ‘rebirth’ and started being able to tell his story. ‘I said, “I’ve got to do something about my life. This can’t happen all my life” ... And since then I’ve been helping, helping, helping as many people as I can.’

He was in his mid-20s then and accessed some counselling, and a pastoral care worker from a local church visited him weekly. At this time he realised that not everyone was bad or out to harm him, and he started to trust people again. After prison he went to university and had a successful career.

Although angry at the white people who ran the institutions and abused him, being assaulted by the Aboriginal boys impacted on his ability to have faith in anyone at all. ‘The issue of being raped by one of my own tells me that I can’t trust anybody.’

This lack of trust has affected his relationships.

‘I don’t have any friends that I can call friends ... Even my relationships, my family and my wives, they’ve always said, “You seem to be hiding something all the time, you seem not to be here” ... The only person I can trust is me.’

He even finds it hard to relate to his own children. ‘Why have I had kids? I don’t know. I’m better off on my own.’

Around a decade ago, Leslie started thinking a lot about the abuse again. ‘At that time, I got into a bit of strife ... I started to gamble. I’ve never been a gambler, and I started to gamble on the bloody poker machines. Spent a lot of money ... To me, it was an escape. I was just escaping from life. I’d go and sit in front of a poker machine and not be involved in anything.’ This caused trouble between him and his wife at the time.

One of the hardest things for Leslie to deal with is not knowing why the people supposed to care for him were instead so cruel. ‘Why did they treat us like that?’

He wanted to share his experiences with the Royal Commission to ensure Aboriginal voices are heard. ‘There’s a lot of things that happened to Aboriginal people, and we need to get it out there and tell people exactly what happened.’

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