‘I used to get flogged and accused of trying to wreck people’s lives. I wasn’t trying to wreck anyone’s life. My life was getting wrecked.’
At about age nine Smith was getting into a lot of trouble. He was declared ‘uncontrollable’ by the Children’s Court in Sydney. His mother was present and didn’t argue with the magistrate.
‘Me mother just said, “Take him. I don’t want him. He’s too much”.’ Speaking to the Commissioner, Smith described a home life that was unsettled and unhappy. Throughout his childhood he spent little time with his family and was in and out of state care.
Smith had no trouble at the detention centres he first encountered, but he was then sent to a cottage-based reception centre in Sydney’s west. His cottage parents were Jean and Arthur Vettori. The Vettoris were paedophiles who abused many of the boys in their care. ‘Some of us they did sexual things to. Some of us they made do sexual things to each other.’ Smith had no understanding of what was happening to him, but he knew he had no control over it.
‘And then I went to living hell.’ In the early 1980s, Smith was transferred to a cottage care facility in regional New South Wales. He was 10 years old. ‘I was locked in cupboards, battered, abused, not just one or two people, it was lots of different things there.’
A woodwork teacher sexually abused Smith at the home. He molested boys by a local swimming hole and in the back room of his carpentry class.
Smith escaped as often as he could. ‘I was a runner. And they thought I was making up stories to hide what I was doing. … The gist of it was, “Stop telling lies to cover your own doings”.’
He was often picked up by police. ‘A couple of times I told people in authority – and made things worse. I got accused of trying to cause trouble.’ The police always returned Smith to the home, where he’d be beaten.
‘I was locked in the cupboard there for four days once … They said, “We’ll stop you running away”.’
‘We were told, “This is to help you, this is to stop you being naughty”, and all this shit. Well it’s made me what I am today. What they did to me has affected me because I use drugs to hide what happened to me.’
When he was discharged from state care, Smith went back to his family. ‘The only person who ever listened to me was my grandmother, and she couldn’t do nothing.’ This was not a happy experience for him either. Smith spent most of his time away from home, fending for himself. He stole to survive.
At this time Smith’s stepfather was abusing his sisters. Smith reported the attacks to police and also reported his abuse by Mr Vettori from years before. He did not hear from the police again. Smith believes his stepfather may have been charged but doubts anything was done about Vettori.
Thieving and drug use landed Smith in jail. He has been incarcerated many times. Smith became trapped in a destructive cycle. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, he would self-medicate with illegal drugs. Smith would steal money to buy drugs, and this would land him back in jail.
Smith has had trouble finding help for his psychological problems. ‘I’ve told people little tiny bits here and there. But it just brings back too much and I go off the rails and end up back in jail.’
Smith missed a lot of school because he was always running away from the homes in which he was placed and then living on the street. He regards himself as reasonably smart, but he struggles with reading and writing and has trouble finding work. His drug use has affected his marriage and brought his own children to the attention of the NSW Department of Community Services.
‘I just want to put all this behind me. I want closure - to close that chapter and move on. I can’t, because I can’t find an end to it.’
Smith hopes telling his story will help the Royal Commission make a difference.
‘I just want people held responsible for what they did, not just to me, but to hundreds of young kids back then.’
‘When little kids are in care and they’re telling people that something’s happening, it’s got to be investigated, instead of just brushing it under the table.’
In future Smith wants to see much greater scrutiny of people who apply to look after children.
‘A lot of it’s about money, money, money, money. It shouldn’t be about money, money, money, money, who gets what. It should be about, “Is this kid smiling every day?”’