Born in the mid 1990s in Victoria, Sheldon was a ward of the state by the time he was 12 weeks old. His father was in prison and his drug-addicted mother was living rough, so he was shuffled between various foster families for a few years, before going to live with his father after he was released from prison.
Sheldon’s father used drugs and drank heavily, and singled him out from his siblings for physical abuse. Sheldon, who described himself as a ‘reckless’ child, said, ‘I can see why, because of the way I acted and what I did … But if I wasn’t abused in the way I was, I wouldn’t have done, acted the way I did.’
When Sheldon was about six he began weekend respite stays with foster carers Ernie and Yvonne Bartlett. Another little girl, Rosie, was also in the Bartletts’ care. Sheldon stayed with them every second weekend for six to 12 months; he and Rosie were sexually abused by Ernie during every stay.
‘He used to make us get naked and try to touch each other while he sort of played with himself.’
Ernie would also get the children to touch his penis. As a little boy, Sheldon does not recall feeling that what Ernie was doing was wrong. Nevertheless he said nothing about the abuse to his father when returned to his own home. He does not recall ever meeting a welfare officer attached as a case worker at that time.
Sheldon had a disrupted education because he was moved from school to school. He had severe behavioural problems, and recalls being diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, although no treatment was ever given.
‘I started stealing from shops when I was six, seven, and taking money from [Dad].’ The thefts escalated as Sheldon grew. He became known to police, and by age 14 was spending time in juvenile justice centres.
At 15, Sheldon was charged with arson and sent on remand to a juvenile justice centre in Melbourne. There he was sexually abused by one of the officers, Brad, who was in his late 20s.
‘When I got strip searched he used to rub up against me. He’d get me to bend over and rub up against me. And when I got into trouble and got locked in my cell, he’d come and he’d flop his thing out and say if I touched him he’d let me off. He’d let me back out in the unit.’
Brad used violence and threats to intimidate Sheldon. ‘One time he told me if I didn’t do it, he was going to bash me.’
‘When I’d get in trouble, they’d tackle me down and he’d start elbowing me on the back of the head or kneeing me in the head. He’d done the same to other kids.
‘The abuse got to the point there where I’d lock myself in my cell and refuse to come out.’
Sheldon did not report the abuse as he believed it would be a waste of time and make things worse for him. ‘I thought because they worked for them and they worked for the government, nothing’s going to happen.’
Now a young adult, Sheldon is again back in prison with a long list of convictions behind him. ‘One robbery of a person, the rest has been theft from cars, using bank cards, and it’s just got progressively worse.’
For Sheldon, crime has been all about ‘acting out’ and taking control. ‘For me it’s a way of letting go and once I have that money I don’t spend it on myself – I spend it on everyone else. It’s just a way of letting go. When I’m doing it I feel free. I don’t have to worry about anything. I can focus on the task at hand.’
Sheldon has not disclosed his history of abuse to lawyers or psychologists as part of any court cases. Nor is he interested in compensation. However, now that he has children of his own coming into contact with the foster care system, he hopes telling his story to the Royal Commission will make a difference.
‘I just want to know that I can help other kids, because the effects on me are pretty profound. I’ve never been able to put myself out into the mainstream units. As soon as I got to prison I put myself into protection, and at this point I put myself in a unit where I’m locked down 23 hours a day, 'cause I can’t trust being around other people. I just can’t do it. It scares me to a point … I don’t really trust males.’
Sheldon believes children in care need an independent person they can go to when they are in trouble. But they need regular contact with that person to build trust in the first place. ‘The more someone comes in and talks to certain kids the more they are going to let out, the more they are going to start trusting them. Not just a one-time, “Are you all right?” sort of thing.’