Stephen doesn’t remember living with his family. ‘I was made a state ward at a young age’, he told the Commissioner. In the late 1970s, when he was about seven, he was placed in a government-run home in a New South Wales regional town. Kids at the home lived in cottages, with house parents. ‘It wasn’t a very good place’, Stephen said.
He remained at the home for about 10 years and attended the local school at first, but after a while was expelled. ‘They said I was uncontrollable. They couldn’t handle me and stuff. Looking back on it now, it was because of all the stuff that happened.’
That included sexual abuse. Stephen was first molested when he was about nine, by one of the youth workers, Wes Pinter. ‘He used to take us away … Just a lot of touching and stuff like that.’ He was also molested when he went to the local church and to the scripture lessons taught by Marist Brothers who lived nearby.
‘They used to segregate me – get me away from the other kids. I know other kids have been abused there too.’ For a few years, it happened often, he said. ‘Once I got a bit bigger and stuff, it sort of stopped.’
He only ever told one person, a staff member at the home, about the abuse he was experiencing. ‘They basically said I was imagining it … Afterwards I was just – what’s the point?’
The only way he could deal with the abuse was to run away.
‘Me – myself and another person, we used to run away a lot from there. It was only a little town and the same police used to pick us up. They used to ask us why we run away all the time and we couldn’t even tell them.’
Sometimes he’d be placed in a juvenile justice centre, until someone from the home turned up to collect him. ‘When the people from [the home] used to come and pick me up to take me back I didn’t want to go; I’d rather stay locked up. And people couldn’t understand why.’
As a 14-year-old, Stephen was sent out to work on a rural property. ‘Because me head was all messed up I started sniffing glue on the station and that … I was pretty bad at the time.’
Still in his teens, he started using amphetamines as well – ‘to escape reality’, he explained. ‘Like, no drugs are good but it’s probably one of the worst drugs I’ve ever used, because there’s the high and then there’s the comedown and all the rest of the shit that comes with it.’
His drug use led to jail time, mostly for violent assaults. ‘I’ve spent the last 25 years in prison, from drug use and from all … It’s just caught up with me.’ He was in jail when he spoke to the Commissioner, nearing the end of his sentence. He hadn’t been able to participate in a drug rehab program, he said: ‘This is the problem in the jails. If you’re in for a violent crime you can’t use a lot of the programs.’
But he had been able to access other support. He was seeing a psychiatrist – ‘She seems pretty good’, he said. Through his parole officer he had been put in touch with a service that would work with him after he left jail, to help him find accommodation and set up his life. With the help of Care Leavers Australia Network, he had accessed his welfare file and handed it over to a lawyer, who was going to pursue a compensation claim on his behalf.
‘This is first time I’ve been in prison and I’ve got support networks. Before I never had the support networks.’
Stephen has bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and borderline personality disorder. He takes medication for those conditions but is yet to find a way to control his impulse to self-harm. ‘When I was young I used to cut myself a lot – like, really bad. But then last year I started swallowing stuff for some reason.’
He’s needed several operations as a result. ‘They can’t operate on me no more because it’s too dangerous so there’s still stuff inside me at the moment that’s causing a lot of issues. I only come out of hospital yesterday again’, he said.
Stephen’s lawyer has told him his compensation claim has a good chance of success. ‘It’s not about money for me’, Stephen said. ‘What it’s about is I can’t change the past but maybe I can have a future.’
He had come forward to the Commission because he wanted to be heard. ‘[My] memory of when I first told someone and they didn’t believe me – you know, I’ve carried that through my life. When the Royal Commission came about I thought well, now’s the chance to tell my story and people will believe me …
‘People just need to listen. When people are telling them stuff, they need to listen and investigate it for themselves. This could have been stopped years and years ago’, he said.