Abandoned at the hospital where he was born, Ryley has spent most of his life since the age of 17 in jail.
Now in his 30s and currently on remand for serious violence charges, Ryley said it was in jail that he learned to read and write, after receiving minimal schooling as a ward of the state.
Among his multiple foster carers was only one couple who had ever made him feel special and whom he still called Mum and Dad.
In rare contact with his biological parents while growing up, Ryley says he was physically abused. When Queensland child safety officers took him there for an unsupervised visit, his father’s then-partner, Lorinda, attacked him. Ryley was about seven at the time.
‘I grew up sniffin’ petrol and paint too, so my memory’s like, for age-wise, isn’t too flash.’
Ryley showed the Commissioner a scar still visible from when his head was split open by a broomstick wielded by Lorinda, ‘an evil person’ who also had lighter-skinned children by his father. The abuse was not reported to the department, nor his wound treated because ‘she cleaned me up’ and his hair covered the worst of it.
Around the same time, Ryley suffered another major let-down when his biological mother failed to attend an access visit – ‘it’s ripped my emotions away at a young age’. When he finally did meet her in his mid-teens, ‘she was trying to get me to steal Christmas presents for her’, he said.
‘To most people that come out of a home into a life like this they would struggle for ages but to me it’s been a part of my life where it’s just normal – growing up on the streets, not havin’ no one around and all that.’
A ‘fork in the road’ of his life came at a young age – he can’t remember when after at least a decade as a petrol and paint sniffer. He was asked by a family services officer in charge of his care to make a choice: return to the rules and support of his foster parents who ‘treated me like I was one of their own’, or continue staying at ‘the black boy youth camp’ to which he had been temporarily sent.
He chose the camp – a decision he now regrets. At the camp, although he could do exactly as he pleased, it was where it all began: ‘the fightin’, the drinkin’, the sniffin’, the smokin’, roaming around’.
Ryley was also viciously beaten by the man who ran it and left out in freezing weather after being doused with water wearing only underwear. After he was found smoking discarded cigarettes, he was thrown into an isolation cell for a week and made to inhale on cigars until he vomited. As well, he was sexually abused by older boys.
He acknowledges that he was too young to decide properly ‘and at the time family services didn’t really care what I said … They thought everything was alright’.
These experiences, which included having a fishing rod snapped across his back, seemed normal at the time as he saw other boys flogged as well.
‘Pain is only temporary’, he learned at the camp. It ‘made us who we are today, I guess’.
Ryley began living on the streets at about 15, despite being under the care of the Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability in regional Queensland until he was 18.
‘They never come out to visit me, to check up on me, to see how I was going. They didn’t come back to see the marks I was getting from the floggings … that could go on for days and days.’
Ryley felt more love from the other street kids than members of his own family with whom he later connected. Despite ‘being criminals’ the street kids were ‘still there for me, you know’?
He says the department failed in its duty of care to him as he had no supervision. ‘All kids in foster care have got a carer. I didn’t really know who mine was’, he said.
‘I used to walk straight past their building high on paint and drunk and stoned when I was like 15, 16, 17. They were out there smokin’, havin’ their lunch break. They seen me walk past, high as a kite, didn’t really care, didn’t think to pull me up and say “What are you doing?”’
Impacts of the abuse included using marijuana and petrol and paint sniffing ‘just to escape reality for a while’ as well as because other kids were doing it.
‘I was sniffing from the age of 13 all the way up until 25. And that’s almost nearly every day of my life for them years’.
Ryley has only one kidney now and no bowel control. He also has significant cuts to his body which he inflicted in ‘sympathy’ with a former partner who was self-harming with a razor.
In various ways he is thankful for his jail time. As he was already institutionalised, it wasn’t the same threat as it was to others. It ‘also saved my health too, because I used to drink every day as well down the riverbank … I got to the point where I’d used to drink and sniff ‘til, you know, I was that skinny you could almost see my bones’.
His recommendation to the Royal Commission is that the placements made on behalf of children should be double checked beforehand for suitability. Every move involves a readjustment ‘for a kid with no say in the matter’ and it’s what ‘turned me into what I am today’, Ryley said.
‘I can say I am institutionalised but I know there’s that time when I’m going to try my best, too, when I get out – not to come back again.’
One day, if he can ‘break away from the sniffin’, Ryley hopes he might live a normal life.