Marshall’s mum always struggled to take care of her six kids. Looking back, he believes she probably had mental health issues. She was also an alcoholic.
The family lived in a New South Wales regional town. Marshall’s stepfather had up to three jobs at a time trying to keep the family afloat. But they never had enough money, and lived in very poor conditions. A neighbour reported their situation to the Department of Community Services. Marshall remembers a caseworker from the department coming round for a visit.
‘We were taken away, soon after’, he recalled.
It was the mid-1980s, and Marshall was 12. He and his siblings, now wards of the state, were placed in a state-run residential facility in another regional town.
Early on in his stay, Marshall was sexually assaulted by an older girl at the home. He was asleep in his dorm room and she came in and lay on top of him, putting his penis inside her.
‘I didn’t know what was going on’, Marshall said. ‘I was quite frightened and I kept my eyes closed. And that sort of haunted me because I had problems with sleeping for a number of nights after that … I felt ashamed and I didn’t know what to do.’
As a 13-year-old he was assaulted again, by an older boy at the home. They were staying at a rural property, and the older boy made Marshall masturbate him. He wanted oral sex, but Marshall managed to get away. Again the experience made Marshall feel dirty and ashamed, and he told no one about it.
The boy didn’t sexually assault Marshall again, but his presence in the institution was constantly threatening, and contributed to the stress and anxiety Marshall experienced there.
‘It was very uncomfortable to be around him. He made my time in [there] quite unbearable. He bullied me. He went through and stole some of my things and this continued till he was transferred out of [the institution].’
It was a tough environment in the facility. Punishments included being made to stand for long periods in the hallway and being sent to bed without food. As the oldest of the siblings in the home, Marshall felt responsible for the younger ones and constantly worried about keeping them safe. He now knows at least one of them was sexually abused there.
Marshall’s school work suffered and learning disorders went undiagnosed. He was teased at school and found himself caught up in fights, there and at the institution.
Such incidents were not managed well by staff, he believes. ‘I felt like the people who were managing [the home] weren’t as experienced as they could have been in situations such as that’, he said. ‘So for instance fights would break out … and they weren’t stopped, people weren’t segregated; things weren’t under control. They’d have workers come in, do their shifts and go home. To me there was no real structure.’
As a 14-year-old, Marshall and his siblings were moved to a foster home. The psychological abuse he was subjected to here by the foster parents, Jeff and Davina Reynolds, made his problem behaviours much worse and crushed his self-esteem. Sent to see a psychologist, he shared his troubles only to find all his confidences passed straight back to the Reynolds, who used them as a way to punish him further.
It was a betrayal that he still feels very deeply. ‘You need to be able tell your story and you need to be able to have that thing of trust’, he said.
He also feels that children in foster care should have regular interactions with other responsible adults. ‘Things would be different if there was outside visitors that came to inspect the ways things were, such as an official. And as children if we had independent caseworkers who checked up on us to see if we needed any extra care or counselling.’ In his case, no such contact occurred.
Marshall left the Reynolds as soon as he could, at the age of 18. As an adult, the impact of the abuse affected his ability to work and settle down, and to maintain relationships. ‘I just drifted from place to place, job to job, not really settling down anywhere.’
‘It would play out in relationships with other people and other women. I couldn’t keep a stable relationship for a long time.’
Marshall has never reported the abuse to the institution, or filed a complaint with police. ‘I didn’t even know where to start.’ He first spoke about it to an ex-girlfriend, about 10 years ago. Since then he has told his psychologist, who he’s been seeing regularly for several years. He now sees a psychiatrist as well. With their help he has more insight into his experiences and better skills for dealing with their impact. He has begun to forgive himself, he said – ‘Because I felt that especially with my brothers and sisters, I could have done a lot more to protect them.’
He is in a stable relationship now, and grateful to his partner and her extended family for their ongoing support. But depression, anxiety, ideas of suicide and other issues still affect him.
‘I thought I would grow out of it. Even today – I’m 41. And I’m still dealing with things that happened to me when I was 12 or 13’, he told the Commissioner.
‘It’s a process … It’s not like an overnight thing. I’ve noticed from when I first started going [to the psychologist] till now, I notice that I feel differently in a lot of ways – I feel better in a lot of ways – more positive about things in a lot of ways. I just think I’ve got a long way to go though – that’s how I feel.’