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Tom Alexander's story

‘He’s still alive. I’m probably a lot more forgiving than I probably should be.’

At the age of three Tom remembers men in uniform pulling him and his many siblings out from under a bed and taking them into care. He thought they were police; years later his brother told him they were Salvation Army officers. It was the late 1950s. Tom was separated from the others and placed with foster parents Ernie and Miriam Cooper in a town on the New South Wales south coast.

The Coopers fostered two other children. Ernie and Miriam were strict. ‘We used to get flogged with the ironing cord’, Tom told the Commissioner, but he considers the discipline ‘not excessive’ for the time. The Coopers were also devout Anglicans. Tom was made to attend. ‘Church, Sunday school, choir, all the little fiddly things. I hated it.’

The Coopers sexually abused Tom until he was about seven years old. ‘Kids sort of get into bed with parents and things like that. You don’t realise what was going on until you turn 13 or 14. As a boy growing up, you know, you find your own stuff and you think, “Huh, that was what I was doing, masturbating him”, and stuff like that. You don’t realise that until later on.’

Miriam Cooper was in bed with them at the time Ernie was abusing Tom.

The Coopers formally adopted Tom when he was 12. Tom remembers the trauma of having to attend court over the adoption. He was coached by the Coopers and welfare officers to ignore his natural mother. ‘And they said … “If your real mother offers you any toys don’t take ‘em, if she wants to show you anything don’t look at ‘em, and you get out of there when you can”.’

The Coopers kept Tom on a short leash. He believes that was to prevent contact with his real family. ‘I wasn’t allowed to leave the backyard, I wasn’t allowed to play outside sports. That was because me real brothers were in that area and I could’ve played sport against ‘em. And we all sort of look the same, we all talk the same.’

Tom was in his mid-twenties before he was reunited with his mother and brothers and sisters. He found out then that as a child he had been lied to by workers from the Department of Community Services.

‘Everything I’d been told was bullshit. I was told my mother was a prostitute. Father was in jail, me brothers were in jail. That was bullshit.’ Tom’s mother had fought to get her children returned to her. She had failed only with Tom.

Separating the impact of the sexual abuse he suffered from his distress at the loss of his family has been impossible for Tom. ‘You can’t get back growing up with brothers and sisters.’

‘I’m dirty about why didn’t I grow up with my own family. Mum got all of them back – why did I have to go through this?’

Tom struggled at school. He didn’t like authority figures and was on a short fuse. ‘I was always in fights at school and shit like that, nothing of a criminal nature, more of just a chip on my shoulder.’

Tom left school early for a stint in the Australian Defence Force, then tried a few apprenticeships, but found he couldn’t take orders. ‘As a judge once said [to me], “You don’t take authority very well”. And I didn’t.’ Tom eventually made a career in lonelier work, operating machinery.

He married and built a family of his own. Tom admits he was overly vigilant with his children. ‘I was too strict in a lot of ways.’ Tom disclosed his sexual abuse to his first wife, who was not very sympathetic. She responded by warning their children to keep away from Ernie Cooper, though Tom continued to see his foster parents from time to time. Tom maintains good relationships with his now adult children. He has remarried and is strongly supported by his current partner.

Tom has not yet had counselling for the anger and upset he still feels.

He is keen to see change in the child welfare sector. He believes more oversight is needed. ‘I think before you take that kid there needs to be a bit more of a group. Not just one person with, “I like this, but I don’t like this so I’ll take the kid and put him over here”. And I think that’s what happened in my part, more than anything else, just one person made the judgement. You need a couple at least.’

Tom has considered seeking compensation. ‘I had thought, “You owe me, you friggen owe me big time”. Then I say, “What can you do about it? You can’t give me what you took away”. What do you do? You can’t give me a lifetime of growing up without my family.’

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