Riley John's story

In the 1970s when Riley was placed in foster care, he was almost eight years old. He and his older siblings were handed into the care of a couple who lived in regional New South Wales. This couple also had their own child and fostered a number of other children at the same time. Occasionally as many as seven children would be living in the house.

The foster father began sexually abusing Riley early in the five years he spent with the family. Riley still has difficulty talking about the specifics of his abuse. In his written statement to the Royal Commission, he noted that his foster father ‘would always tell me never to tell anyone. This was to be a secret’.

The abuse would occur after all the other children were asleep and often when the foster mother was absent from the home. One incident stands out in Riley’s memory and it occurred when his foster mother was away on holiday.

‘There used to be an ad for AIDS … knocked people down with a bowling ball … scared the crap out of a lot of people. Why I remember that actual ad is because … early in the hours of the next morning … he got me out of my bed, foster dad … wanted me to go into his room and the TV must have been on … I just remember that ad [while he was being assaulted] … I was only about seven and a half or eight.’

Riley was a trusting and unworldly child and, as a result of the abuse, he suffered a major mental breakdown while still in primary school. His foster mother took him to see a psychiatrist.

‘I wasn’t coping with primary school and didn’t cope with high school.’

This would be the first of many psychiatrists and psychologists Riley has talked to in the years since his abuse.

His foster mother was also emotionally manipulative and physically abusive towards him and her behaviour estranged him and his siblings from their biological parents.

‘They used to hide letters … I found out years later that … she’d get the mail first and try to make us believe that our real parents hated us.’

Riley’s education was significantly impacted by the abuse he experienced and he left school when he was 15 years old with the result that his working life has been irregular.

‘I found it hard holding a job down, I had a few jobs.’

He had a second breakdown in his 20s and has found it difficult to form social relationships despite maintaining trust in the world. Riley has had periods of depression and at times has thought about suicide. He has also had lasting issues associated with his sexuality as a result of the abuse.

‘Growing up and being brainwashed into thinking it’s the right thing to do, the natural right thing to do … growing up having not real affection from my real dad and having affection from other guys and so … I’ve had girlfriends – it didn’t seem right.’

When Riley contracted HIV he kept it a secret from his family because he was ashamed and felt it was associated with his abuse. His general health has recently deteriorated due to HIV-related illnesses and he had to tell them about his ongoing health concerns. He is tired of secrets.

Riley went to the police in the 1990s and made a statement about his abuse, wanting his foster father to be held accountable. The police assisted him with his statement but he never heard anything further from them. He was eventually persuaded by family members to withdraw his complaint because there was no ‘proof’. He still feels as though people don’t believe him.

‘There’s no lie involved. My story’s the same as it was when I first told the cops … I remember my mum saying “Oh no, that it’s not your fault that this has happened”. She was more sympathetic.’

Riley laughs now, at how naive he was as a child but also when he spoke to the police some 10 years later.

‘I didn’t know anything about sex … in fact I didn’t know anything about when I was going to [charge] him that time. The police officer asked me “Did he ejaculate?” and I thought, “What’s the hell that mean?” I was that naive. I just didn’t know.’

Riley came to speak to the Royal Commission because he feels that the New South Wales Department of Family and Community Services need to undertake much more thorough checks of potential foster parents. He also believes that children in care need to maintain a relationship with their legal guardians. He wants to stop foster parents harming the children in their care.

‘You can’t really forget your past [but] … It’s taken years. I’ve seen so many psychiatrists … I don’t want to stay in the past. There’s no use.’

He is hoping to sue the department for compensation.

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