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Russ's story

After committing more than 20 break-and-enter offences, 11-year-old Russ was sent to a psychologist. The authorities wanted to know why he did what he did. Russ had a simple answer for them: ‘survival’.

Born in Queensland in the late 1950s, Russ grew up quickly in a volatile household where he was neglected by an alcoholic mother and physically abused by an alcoholic father. He committed the break-ins to feed himself and his little brother.

After visiting the psychologist, Russ was sentenced to six months in a Salvation Army boys’ home. When the sentence was up the authorities tried to contact Russ’s father and found that he’d split from his wife and moved interstate. They made a cursory effort to contact Russ’s mother, then gave up and left him at the home for another 14 months.

During this time Russ suffered many incidents of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Salvation Army Captain Derek. ‘He was a beast of a man,’ Russ said. ‘A force to be reckoned with.’

On a daily basis Captain Derek dished out severe beatings to Russ and the other boys. The beatings were so regular and brutal that Captain Derek forced the boys to wear trousers to school rather than the regulation shorts so as to cover all the bruises and welts.

Then there was the sexual abuse. Derek would make the boys play with each other’s genitals while they were watching TV or showering. At night he’d stalk the dorms, conducting his ‘midnight inspections’.

He extended his reach into the boys’ emotional lives as well, controlling the amount of contact they could have with their parents.

‘He was just a parasite’, Russ said. ‘He didn’t want to see people rekindle their love in relation to each other.’

The other Salvation Army officers and their wives knew what Derek was up to but never intervened. Russ believes that most of them were good people who were intimidated into silence by Derek’s ferocious character and superior rank.

The one man at the home who outranked Derek was Brigadier Martin Tully. One day after witnessing Captain Derek bash a boy half to death, Russ went to Brigadier Tully and reported the incident. Tully reprimanded him for leaving the dorm without permission, gave him six belts with the strap and sent him back to bed.

‘And when he did come down and seen little Robbie there with a towel wrapped around his mouth trying to suck up all this goddamn blood, he still done nothing about it.’

Convinced that he could rely on no one at the home but himself, Russ started catching and selling pigeons to make a little cash. He used the money to phone one of the pubs where he knew his mum liked to drink and was lucky enough to catch her. ‘I told her where the hell I was. She thought I was with Dad.’

Russ’s Mum immediately contacted Welfare, but it still took her over a year to cut through all the red tape and get her son back. By then, Russ was a different boy. The Salvation Army had promised to rehabilitate him – in fact they did the opposite, and made him into a criminal.

‘I’ve never been out of trouble with the law in my life, ever since then, believe it or not. I’ve been in jail half a dozen times. Maybe more, I suppose.’

Russ spent decades drinking and smoking and breaking the law. Then one day he got a wake-up call from his daughter.

‘“What’s the most important thing in your life, Dad?” And I said, “That’d probably be you”. She said, “You could probably prove that”. I said, “How could I do that?” She said, “You could probably give up smoking and drinking, Dad”.’

Russ did as his daughter asked and has felt better for it. ‘About time a man sort of started to turn his life around. And I don’t miss the alcohol. Every time I drink I get in trouble. Just had enough of it.’

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