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Stephen Robert's story

‘Negativity is too hard and it’s self-destructive. I’ve been there. I can’t drink like I used to, so I can’t do that, can’t take drugs – my liver doesn’t let me. So I’ve got to be positive.’

Stephen was born into a large family in 1950s Sydney. Both his parents had mental health issues and his father was an alcoholic. All the children were in and out of state care from an early age. When Stephen was 10, he and his siblings were declared ‘destitutes’ and made wards of the state. Stephen spent most of his young life in boys’ homes or foster care.

At 11, Stephen was living in a children’s home in Sydney’s south-west. He was allowed to join a cub scout troop. He was sexually abused by one of the male scout leaders while sharing a tent with him on a camping trip.

‘I remember the whole thing’, Stephen told the Commissioner. ‘Him asking me to take my clothes off and get in his sleeping bag with him, and touch him and that ...

‘Then he said, “Get back in your sleeping bag and put your pyjamas on”.’

Stephen was moved to another home and was immediately assaulted by an older boy. He was forced to masturbate the boy, and was masturbated in turn. The boy told Stephen he had done the same to Stephen’s brother, and that they would both be in trouble if Stephen told anyone about it.

The abuse happened more than once. ‘I was 12. He was probably 14, 15, maybe older, but even one year makes a big difference when you’re that age.’

A few years later Stephen was in a scout troop in Sydney’s north. The entire group caught a train one weekend to attend a jamboree out of town. On that trip Stephen was abused by a scout leader he had never met.

‘I just remember my two scout leaders talking to this bloke and then, when we were on the train, he asked me to go with him. I didn’t know what was going on but I remember people looking at me, and then going into there and that happening. And finding it quite bad.’

The man masturbated Stephen and performed oral sex on him, then made Stephen masturbate him.

He did not report the incident to any adults – Stephen believes his scout leaders were aware of what was happening to him at the time. ‘But I didn’t go back to the scouts after that.’

Stephen has not forgotten the abuse, but he did not disclose it to anyone for many years. As an adult he referred to it only in a joking manner.

Stephen has obtained his old file from the Department of Child Services (DOCS) regarding his years as a ward of the state, and described what the district officer had written about him.

‘They said I was basically an arsehole in primary school, that I was too smart for everyone and treated them badly. And as my counsellor said, “You’re pushing everyone away”. They just describe your behaviour or whatever, but never understand your behaviour.’

Stephen wishes more people had questioned why he had become such an ‘angst-ridden’ teenager with so many attitude problems. He admits he struggles to separate the impact of the sexual abuse from the influence of his family troubles and life in residential care.

‘I tried to think about the long-term consequences, and I think they’ve coloured the choices I’ve made about school and relationships – and even work and people in authority and all these things. Relationships especially, it plays into that; but then so does my family background, and being a ward of the state and all those things.’

Stephen also struggled with his sexuality as a young adult. ‘It takes a long time to get used to your sexuality, it took me a long time to be comfortable.’

Throughout his 20s Stephen was restless and could not find his ‘place in the world’. He became very depressed and tried to take his own life on one occasion. The next day he saw a counsellor, and the day after that. The visits became regular.

‘It was a turning point for me, and from then on things became a lot more positive.’ But even then Stephen avoided discussing the childhood sexual abuse.

Stephen can see a way forward for institutions in the future. ‘You put processes in the way to stop people being in a situation where they can cause harm … Just put barriers in place and mechanisms.

'Like supervision – like when my father comes, a known alcoholic, and they let me out with him to go walk up the street, for God’s sake. He’d turn up drunk sometimes and they’d still let me go out with him.’

Stephen believes his DOCS caseworkers in the 1960s were well-meaning, but they lacked training, and were massively overworked and underpaid. ‘They need to chuck more resources at that, if they’re serious about it. They need to have more resources in place, don’t they?’

His decision to approach the Royal Commission in recent years has brought Stephen’s mental health issues to a head. He decided he had to properly address the abuse with his counsellor. ‘I was in tears and it was very hard.’ But that, too, has been a positive experience. ‘She even said, “Look, Stephen, you’re not mentally ill, you just need someone to talk to about these issues”.

‘It’s been good to speak to you and I appreciate this …

‘Knowing yourself is an ongoing thing, and it’s good and it helps me to share it. It helps me to understand myself even better than I did before.’

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