When Rowen’s mother remarried, Rowen did not get on with his step-father. ‘He was very cruel … He used to try and break my ankles, step on my ankles.’ His step-father didn’t have a job so Rowen started to stay away from home to avoid him. ‘I had to thieve to eat.’
His minor crimes eventually came to the attention of the police. Rowen ended up being declared an uncontrollable child and was committed to state care at 11 or 12 years of age. He was admitted to a reception centre in Victoria where he was told they’d wipe the smile off his face.
Discipline there was very harsh. Rowen shared a cell with one other boy who told him you had to talk very quietly at night because the guards stood at the door and listened. The rule was, if you wanted to go to the toilet, to call out your cell number. But the boy warned Rowen not to do it or he’d be sorry. He told Rowen to relieve himself out the window.
Not long after he’d been moved to the centre Rowen needed to go to the toilet one night and called out his cell number. Rowen was taken to the toilet and on the way back was abused by the guard accompanying him.
‘He had me by the back of the neck, very hard. He placed me just by the door of the cell, grabbed me by the hair and turned me around. He forced me to have oral sex … I was terrified. I choked. I was sick. He said if I say anything I’ll never get out. Then I was pushed into the cell.’
On Saturdays the boys were kept in their cells. ‘Everybody was peeing out the windows.’ The guards made the boys wait, but if they urinated on the floor they were made to go down the yard, grab their ankles in a crouch position and frog march. ‘We thought it was fun but it wasn’t fun after an hour or so. It hurt a lot.’
Rowen was sexually assaulted a second time when the guard came into his cell and ordered his cell-mate to face the wall. ‘He just sat me up in the bed and did it again.’ He was unable to identify the guard at either time. ‘All I’ve got is visions of a dark figure in that hallway.’
After the assaults Rowen got sick. He was told it was tonsillitis. ‘I can assure you it wasn’t tonsillitis. I was very, very sick. I thought I was actually going to die.’
In his first year of high school Rowen was sent to a Catholic school in rural Victoria. He was treated very well there. The boys were friendly and the Brothers were kind. But Rowen suffered night sweats, ‘night horrors’, that were so severe he thought he’d wet the bed. ‘I asked if I could sleep on the floor of Brother Edmund’s room, I was that frightened.’
Although he heard rumours about some of the Brothers liking boys, Rowen never experienced any sexual assaults there. That year he was sent back to his mother and step-father’s house. He was very sorry to leave the Catholic school. He went to the local technical high school but didn’t like it. He left as soon as he could and got a job at the local abattoirs.
He was then in his mid-teens and drinking heavily. He got into fights and went to court a few times on the charge of grievous bodily harm. He was never violent to his partners but to people who’d touched children.
He used alcohol to relieve the anxiety. ‘I drank that much I was hospitalised. A lot of times.’ He also tried drugs. As Rowen got older the panic attacks increased and he saw a psychiatrist. He didn’t tell him about what had happened to him ‘because I didn’t trust blokes’.
Rowen disclosed the sexual abuse to a psychiatrist years later. He’d been wary about telling people, especially men, and he got a less than sympathetic response. ‘The psychiatrist said “You can’t sue the government so I don’t know what you’re worried about”. I said I just want it cleared up. I said you don’t do that to kids.’
In his early 20s Rowen got married. He hasn’t talked to his wife about the sexual abuse. ‘My wife knows something is bad but she doesn’t want to know about it.’ She is supportive however. After a suicide attempt, which Rowen says he was too drunk to carry out properly, she had him admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Rowen knows former detainees of the reception centre who have suicided. ‘Which I’m sad for. They were good friends’.
Rowen gave up drinking but he still had panic attacks. ‘I was sitting up in bed all night.’ At 40 he was put on anti-anxiety medication. Rowen kept on working until he was seriously injured in a car accident and medically retired.
As a result of his anxiety Rowen was referred to the Open Place counselling service. They eventually gained his trust and he disclosed the sexual abuse to them. He now sees a very good psychiatrist. Open Place also helped him to connect with a half brother and sister. It’s been a positive experience for Rowen to meet them and establish a relationship.
Rowen now still does the odd bit of work out in the community, which helps him stay connected. ‘It just gets me out there.’
About the work the Commission is doing, Rowen said ‘I just hope it’s not pushed to the back of the pile and forgot about’.
‘What really made me angry, they’re all sayin’ this about other people but not one thing has ever been said about the government, their institutions.’