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Sean Bruce's story

‘Out of my whole family I’m the whitest one, I was the fairest one … when I was growing up in the boys’ home, by the Department of Community Services and also by the Salvation Army, I was denied my Aboriginality, right through. And even still today some of the people that work for DOCS and also work for the Salvation Army, they still deny me.’

In the late 1960s, Sean and his two older brothers were taken away from their mother. Sean was only about four or five years old, and his brothers Lionel and Bruce were just a little older. The boys were made wards of the state and placed in a regional boys’ home run by the Australian Salvation Army.

‘There was some good Salvation Army officers and some real bad Salvation Army officers.’

The boys experienced harsh and humiliating treatment throughout the time they were at the home. Sean was in the home until he was about 16 years old.

‘We used to get hit with steel rulers, feather dusters, garden hoses, and one time … I copped the back end of the pool stick across back my legs. And I went to report it to the Department of Community Services. They just looked at me, laughed at me, rang the boys’ home, come picked me up and I got another hiding when I got back to the home.’

Sean would go home to his mother for school holidays and at Christmas but his mother had a new partner.

‘My stepfather and I never got on and Mum thought she’d done the right thing by protecting me [so] when I used to come home [for] the school holidays … I used to do casual work at a shop.’

His holiday job meant he wasn’t often in contact with his stepfather but it brought him into contact with the man who ran the shop. This man sexually abused him for years.

‘The two weeks I used to go home from school, [he abused me] always nearly every day and over the Christmas period a fair bit of time … Right up until I left high school … He said don’t say anything to anybody, don’t tell anybody blah, blah. Started bribing me with things and stuff like that.’

Sean knows that his two brothers experienced the same physical abuse as he did in the boys’ home but he also believes they were sexually abused by Salvation Army staff. Both had troubled lives and have now died.

‘I think it needs to be told. It needs to happen. Something needs to be done about it. Even still today … anything comes up involving the Salvation Army now I don’t have any time for them. No time at all.

‘I wanted to get my record and my two brother’s records because when we were at the boys’ home, we got nothing … I didn’t really know that I was a ward of the state until I actually left the boys’ home and I was told.’

Sean wants to be able to pass the records on to his brother’s children and grandchildren but the Salvation Army has been unhelpful in his requests. What few welfare records Sean has been able to obtain have left him disappointed and upset, particularly in relation to how his mother was described.

‘I’ve asked a few elders in the community about Mum and they said Mum was the dearest woman going, “Your mum was never like that”.’

Sean never told anyone about his abuse until recently when he was encouraged to talk to the Royal Commission about his time in care.

‘To me, from the boys’ home, besides Community Services and the Salvation Army, there is mental, there’s physical, there’s spiritual, because you had it [religion] rammed down your throat.’

He also believes that the Salvation Army had low academic expectations of Aboriginal children and that his life has been significantly affected because of his lack of schooling.

‘I was in the low grades right through kindy, primary and high school. Even to apply for jobs, I don’t have the ability to do emails and stuff like that. Like, as I was growing up going through high school I used to love being in the school cadets and all I wanted to do when I left school was be in the army but couldn’t get in.’

Sean believes his resilience comes from his Aboriginal identity which he has come to know through deep friendships in the community.

‘Since I’ve found out who my true identity is, who I am, and finding out who my family is through Link Up and also … learning from elders and respecting the elders … I’m pretty strong through that way.

‘I’ve never been in jail. Never been in trouble by the police. I don’t take drugs. I’m only a social drinker – I’m not an everyday heavy drinker.’

He has stayed in the town and he and his wife became kinship carers to a number of children. He has frequently run into former staff from the boys’ home working in Community Services.

‘I shake my head or look down and keep walking … Some of the old … workers I’ve actually seen around too and I’ve felt like saying something to them but nah, it’s not the time and the place. I wouldn’t achieve anything. This [the Royal Commission] is the place for it.’

Sean finds Community Services support and management of kinship care arrangements bureaucratic and handled in culturally inappropriate ways, even by Aboriginal staff.

‘The reason I became a foster carer was because I didn’t want children today to go through what I went through when I was a ward of the state.

‘Being Stolen Generation I’ve been through it so I know what it’s like … the whole department they need to [do a] cultural awareness training course … They really don’t understand, especially Indigenous employees, a lot of them don’t understand the culture, a lot of them don’t understand Aboriginal law.

‘I think they need to do more courses on the Indigenous culture and identity.’

The man who abused Sean has been charged with a number of child sexual offences, including the ones perpetrated against Sean. He has sought legal representation and is waiting for the man’s conviction before proceeding further with a compensation claim against the Salvation Army and the state government.

He has found support in a victims of crime counsellor and is optimistic about his future.

‘You got to move on … Even knowing that what you’ve been through is going to hurt you for the rest of your life, you’ll never get over it ... talking to a counsellor and talking to some people – it will help.’

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