‘Our family has been a fractured family for a long time. We’ve kept secrets from each other that we didn’t want brought out. We are very resilient to get this far in life, to be able to hide a lot of that crap … and put up a nice persona of going forward and very strong.’
Coming to the Royal Commission has been a big step for siblings Tony, Tammy, Terry and Harvey, who don’t see each other often but keep in touch by phone. Until this time they had never openly discussed with each other their time spent in care or the sexual abuse they’d experienced as children.
Tony believes that their group session with the Commissioner ‘puts us on the one page and it all adds up’.
‘This [session] is just the outskirts of it … some of these abuses were more horrific.
‘The journey for us started back in the days of Children Services coming and taking children at will for being light skinned half castes from Indigenous families … That was the start of it all.’
For Tammy the session ‘unites us more as a family … we can communicate because we do find it very hard to communicate … I find it very hard to visit my brothers because I’m not used to them’.
When the siblings were all under the age of five, they were taken from their parents and placed in a Presbyterian home. Terry remembers that ‘It all started off about skin when we first landed’.
Harvey described the treatment doled out to them by staff. ‘Because of the colour of our skin … they made us use scrubbing brushes … not just on our arms or legs but our genitals … if they didn’t think we were clean enough they’d hit us in the genital areas with whatever they could find … we were bleeding from the private areas just from scrubbing’.
The siblings were constantly humiliated about their skin colour. As Tammy recalls, ‘We were classed as dirt and pigs’.
Harvey adds that ‘“Pigs were cleaner than us” – that’s what they were saying about us all the time … we were dirtier than pigs and we had to keep going until we turned white … every single bath time’.
Tony experienced extensive sexual abuse in the home from older girls, and all four siblings were taken to ‘visit’ friends of the people running the home. On these outings the children were sexually abused.
Tony has gained some perspective on these events. ‘In hindsight, I recognise that they were taking us around to grooming predatory-natured people … to visit them.’
Harvey related his experiences of abuse. ‘It wasn’t just the husband that was doing the abuse, it was the female as well. She was in on it too. Each house that we went to, they were both in on it … they were collaborating together.’
The children were left at these places for afternoons, overnight and, frequently, weekends. Tammy bears scars from the sexual abuse she experienced at this time.
Tony and Tammy were fostered out but still found no peace. Even as a little boy Tony was made to work hard as ‘slave labour’ for his keep, including in respite and holiday care.
Tammy was individually fostered out a few times. She was sexually abused in all of these placements, and was frequently forced to do the laundry and yard work for her foster families. She went back to the Presbyterian home where she stayed for many years. The mental, physical and sexual abuse continued across her 11 years at the home.
Terry and Harvey remained in the home for four or five years, except for some unsuccessful foster placements. Terry believes that it was his behaviour that meant the foster placements didn’t last. ‘I was very boisterous in the foster home I couldn’t go … I’d trigger off Harvey … and they couldn’t handle us.’
There was only one foster family who supported and cared for the boys – all the others were abusive. When they were about six or seven years old they went to stay with their father but wound up back in care, this time at a Salvation Army boys’ home. By chance, this was the same home that Tony had been moved to some months earlier and the brothers were reunited.
The Salvation Army home was brutal, and the staff strict disciplinarians. Harvey told the Commissioner that physical abuse he received was targeted and constant.
‘Not just one off – this was constant. Constant thing with me. There was something about me he [the Captain] just did not like and could not tolerate. And if Tony done something wrong I’d be the first one to get flogged for it. Terry done something wrong – flogged.’
Terry tried to escape with another boy.
‘We ran away from the home because the house parent at that time, he and his wife had just come from the boys’ home … he was used to just flogging people. And we were copping floggings off him, belittling and all that. And his wife would have to pull him up sometimes, “Come on, we’re not at the boys’ home now. These are the good kids, they’re just without parents”. And so we ran away and told my case worker at Children’s Services … they took us back there and the captain was all good and all that [in front of Children’s Services]. Soon as they went … [we] copped a flogging off him … went back to our dormitory and copped it off him again.’
The boys were routinely threatened to remain quiet about their treatment.
‘Back in those days you know, the child was not to be heard and if you were, you were a liar [so] you couldn’t say. ’
Each of the siblings had great difficulty when they left out-of-home care. Tony took up boxing in his late teenage years. ‘[The abuse] made me really isolated, a lot of anger had developed from all this … [boxing] allowed me to get beyond the anger. I got to flog it out of a lot of people … anger about what’s happened in the past … [boxing] relieved a lot of that yucky stuff. So I just pounded a lot of my anger out on those people there and then. After that, that gave me a new lease on life to progress forward.’
Tammy left the Presbyterian home when she was about 14 years old and returned to her home town. The complexities of her Aboriginal community, and the fact that she had been removed so young before she knew her family, made her return very difficult.
‘Once I come out of foster care … our relations, they just looked at us like a sex object after we come out of that … every night, after getting out of foster care going back home, it was rape, rape, rape. When I was in the foster care I was getting … choofed to different houses with their mates, sold off like sex victims there … then from foster care, straight out to our own relatives because they didn’t claim us, because they didn’t know us … so we were sexual victims there … then got flogged by our mother because [the abusers] was her mob.
‘We got tortured in the foster home and then it’s like, it kept carrying on through our lives. People could see that we were rape victims … we was an easy target all our lives till we become adults … They seem to know when you’re a victim, people know … We was too little to understand what was going on.’
The boys also experienced difficulties in returning home. Tony remembers ‘This is where we’ve had a rough time. We’ve fought over the colour of our skin. We’re down in the white system, the white people are calling us “black cunt” and then when we go home to our own people, we’re “white cunt”.
‘Once put back into our homelands and amongst our people we’ve had to fight with knuckles all the way up until we hit the top of the chain … that’s when the respect started to come because you had to back it up with knuckles. It was a very brutal way of fitting back in.’
Harvey added that, ‘It was years before we got … accepted … we still struggle with that’.
Tammy moved away in her mid-teens. ‘I still carried all them hurts and them burdens … how I tried to cope with my past was I ended up living in a [different place].’ She found there was similar violence and sexual predatory behaviour in the new town.
‘I lived in a very violent mission … people used to fight till they see blood and everything … I had to fight my way through too to live, [so] they’d leave me alone.’
Feeling accepted has taken many years and still presents challenges. Tammy finds going back to her community difficult too.
‘I had to fight my way in the town to live there and when I do go home, me and my children got to do same thing at home. So, we are still fighting our way to stand our ground, like who we are … still got to fight our way in to prove that we … belong to them people.’
Tony thinks about his and his siblings’ lives as part of the Stolen Generations.
‘This is where the Stolen Generation stuff comes in … That’s the way I look at it. Us four here are part of that Stolen Generation.
‘Mum’s life was a very hard life. It’s taken a long time, a lot of our family blame her for [us] being taken away and all that, but looking from what I know now to [back] then, I was just happy before she died that [I] had the opportunity to forgive and understand the time and era she was in. [She was] manipulated … the paperwork for why we were taken, I don’t look on it as true words at all. And looking at anything from the past now, I don’t look at them as actual fact or anything, I think they’re just bred up lies.’
Tony wants the Royal Commission to take note of the specific challenges that Aboriginal children face when they are placed in care.
‘The system needs to be thoroughly looked at … when [Aboriginal] children … are in [care] … I would like to see the Commission, whenever this [removal] happens to a family or an individual, before they’re sent back home, to allow time to understand their family … their family tree and give them their history to understand … we went back out into that system [and we didn’t fit anywhere].
‘The [child welfare] system is too sterile to understand … our children … They’re [government employees] coming from middle class upwards making decisions … on what they’d normally look down on.’
Harvey explained his decision to speak with the Commissioner.
‘The reason I agreed to come … was to put it on the table and just hope that future kids don’t have to go through what we went through. I know they’re still going through it … until they build the courage to actually come forward it’s not going to stop unless someone’s there to say … “This is exactly what happened to me”.
‘Some of them [victims] turn out to be abusers when they get older because that’s all they know. And it’s the ones like us that got it and tried to block it, who didn’t turn into the abuser or didn’t go and hang [themselves] and commit suicide, that actually want to make a difference – we need more people like that to actually stand up and say, “Enough’s enough”.’
All of the siblings feel this responsibility. Terry said, ‘We are here as the future generations. We’re mothers, fathers, grandfathers, grandmothers. We’re all grandparents and it is about that future generation’. They all experience challenges with personal relationships.
Terry has been left with anxiety and significant trust issues. He has great difficulty talking about his time in the homes. He contracted an infection when he was sexually abused and treatment included surgery. He has severe ongoing issues with intimacy.
‘Still to this day I got to watch myself. I don’t trust anyone. That’s why I’m still by myself.
‘I was a very violent person [in my 20s]. I chased everyone … things you do when you’ve got so much pain plus not being loved … If you don’t have one that loves you, you may as well not be in it [a relationship] anyway.’
Tammy added that, ‘He’s been a workaholic all his life … never really settled with anyone’.
When the children were in the home, Terry’s siblings tried to step in and save him from the abuse. ‘They’re my … heroes. But gee, there’s some bad times in [the home].’
Tammy has found that art is her way of dealing with her trauma.
‘There’s a lot of young people that talk about “silent rapes” [at the mission] … I was like the big mother hen of the mission for the young women … looking after the younger generations who’ve been rape victims, young mums and young dads that are struggling with their newborns ... We’re there supporting the young people … teach art and put a bit of peace in there … Art, that’s the therapy that I use … so that they can put their hurts out and no one knows their secret. That was my healing for the children and for myself and also to teach them to heal themselves.
‘It’s not my responsibility … but I sort of look after them … so we don’t see them getting hurt and there’s a better future for them than what we had.
‘My heart was always with the children … kids that were struggling in the classroom, struggling with home, can’t cope with society … if they needed someone to talk to, I was there … I was there to support and give them guidance. And that was helping me, to see them happy. I pushed all my hurts aside to see something better in the children today … I told them, “When you do your artwork that’s your story” … they was healing through their art.’
Her mental health is also greatly improved when she supports young people.
‘When I see another child happy, it pushed all the hardship back on me … I sort of leant on other people’s happiness … seeing a child smile, that put a smile on my face.’
She does all of this voluntarily, though, as she has found it difficult to hold down a job.
‘I can’t pick up a relationship. I can’t hold a job. But I’m out there for the children if they need me … It belongs to the heart. It’s for the children. That’s how I’m surviving.’
Harvey also has to work hard at maintaining relationships.
‘I’ve had issues with partners, older women … I’ve always gone chasing older women, I don’t know why … I’ve screwed up a lot of relationships because not being able to let go of the past. Something in the relationships just triggered what’s happened when I was younger … Massive anger issues … I went in all guns blazing. There was no holding back. I’d just go until there was blood. I didn’t care about me own blood, so long as someone else was bleeding I was happy.’
He, along with his siblings, experiences flashbacks to the abuse.
‘I still [battle] with the anger issues. I’ve got to be left alone if I start to get wound up … I don’t [forget]. I do not forget anything that’s happened. I remember everything in its place … and that’s when I have to go out and take off and if I don’t get time to myself I turn nasty as.’
Harvey isn’t the eldest but in care he took on the role of protector for the others.
‘It was a burden I had to carry … ‘cause that’s what I did in the home with the boys, I looked after them. I fought people twice my age just to save him [Terry].
‘I’ve never known a childhood so, from the get go … I fought tooth and nail to help my brothers and my sister out, to try and stop things. When I was a kid … I’d even throw myself in front just to see no one else get hurt … I always used to try and stop it happening to them.
‘It’s been hard. It’s only from loving me kids and my family, nephews and nieces and now my grandchildren, I’ve softened right up since they’ve come … To me family is family. That’s the only thing that sort of keeps me on the playing field.’
But the siblings still have difficulty relating to each other. It is only recently that Tony and Harvey have established a solid connection. Harvey said that it is now a ‘really, really good bond but it took a long time to get it back’.
After Tony finished boxing he returned to the community. He found a girlfriend and they grew close.
‘When I was in relationships, all the sexual stuff with the girls in the home progressed over into my relationships … as soon as any girl would come along and give me the eye I’d go off, I was sleeping around and doing all the wrong things by my partner. She was a strong partner, kept me in the picture [after they split up and] because I didn’t want my children going through the same pattern [as my childhood], I hung around and I give up a lot of stuff so I could be there.’
He is now a respected member of the community.
‘Because of those decisions not to follow any of that past shit … that’s why I sit very highly in the community. … From that it’s given me the ability to believe, have vision and foresight and the only reason I gained them is I replaced the shit in the past and that’s the way I’m moving forward.’
The four siblings have all gone on to forge productive and generous lives, despite their trauma. They are committed to helping future generations and see many problems with the child welfare system today. To their great sadness, a number of their immediate and extended families have been caught up in the system with sexual abuse of their young relatives a result. Terry’s children are some of these young people.
‘When we were being sexually harassed and all that, I didn’t want that to happen to my kids and when me and my wife split up she got with this fella who was actually one of them and he interfered with my kids … and I’ve been holding the hurt that long.’
Harvey sees trust and action as the significant factors in dealing with children in care.
‘Their trust is being betrayed … They feel that when they go to someone, they’re just being called liars, and they’re just making trouble for someone – “Keep your mouth shut”. So, the kids aren’t getting heard. They’re not taken serious. Like us, we weren’t taken serious at all. They were just sweeping us out of the way.
‘I [was] in and out of hospital that many times … for all different types of abuse and nothing was ever done. Children’s Services didn’t remove us from any of the homes because they virtually wiped their hands of us.
‘We need a body to be able to listen to the children and act straightaway for the children … it needs to be straight up … once you’ve got the trust of a child to tell you, it needs to be acted on straightaway. Because that’s what’s letting the children down. That’s let us down. And it will keep letting the future generation down.
‘If a child comes to you and says, “This is what happened to me in this home”, I want a full investigation straight up. Straightaway police called, everything. The police were never ever called on any of our cases. Even though we opened our mouths – nothing … police never come and investigated … the police never spoke to us. They never came and got us out of there to make sure we were safe … we were just put in the home … and [told] “Whatever happens in there we don’t want to know about it”.
‘Like the auditors, how they can come in and just audit a place? They need someone that can come in at any time, unannounced, talk to any kid without someone looking over their shoulders and making sure the kid is feeling so uncomfortable that they won’t open their mouth … that’s what’s been happening. There’s always been that person standing behind the shadow.’
Tammy has created a safe place for young people at her home.
‘My home is for young people to come and relax and be themselves … everyone’s got to be humble when they come in the home and respect. No one enters my yard to hurt no kids, no one comes there calling out for any children. No [adult] can enter my yard, they’ve got to wait outside my gate.’
Similarly, Tony’s house is a safe, respectful place for young people.
‘[Allows] these people [children and young people] to get out of common society and … where a lot of them do allow themselves to open up because you‘ve gained their trust, their respect, and not just respect, utter respect.
‘When they step in my yard … no one comes in there disrespecting me or my place and it’s a haven for a lot of … children … we build that respect. That’s when they ask for guidance. You don’t need to give them guidance, they’re asking you because they’re not seeing it in their families … around them.’
He believes that his experiences and that of his siblings give them another footing to relate to young people.
‘That’s why we gained this trust … we can easily see it in the ones that do have the problems.’
They all agreed. Harvey especially.
‘We can all notice that, we spot it straight away and it’s a gift and a curse actually. It’s a curse because we know what they’re going through … we’ve been down that sort of road and if we can help just one person, it makes me feel nice about myself … if they’re happy within their selves, I’m happy. That’s how I cope with it too.’
Tony worries about the capacity of the Royal Commission to effect change around institutions.
‘I look at the Black Deaths in Custody and the Commission on that and how long it’s taken to roll out some of those recommendations … It’s really disappointing with the Black Deaths in Custody … And … that has direct impacts on the lifestyles of some of these children … You go to jail that’s the end thing … If we can chop them off at the community level and catch them here and give them the proper incentives to go forward and advice …
‘It needs to be for the future generations, it’s about the future generations and how they’ll progress into the future with the way society is going.’
He believes that the child welfare system needs to operate with community involvement but has concerns about the ability of communities to self-regulate their organisations.
‘What I’ve found in a lot of communities, sometimes the predators are on those boards … Community groups, especially in Indigenous groups … the linking of families through families, you’ve really got to have a process of eliminating some of these people [abusers] that may be sitting on these community groups.’
Tony also thinks that more housing is required in communities as overcrowding is a problem that threads through young Aboriginal lives.
‘Sometimes that’s where a lot of this predatory thing starts happening. The whole lot is a thin line through the lot. They connect.’
Terry would like to see more cameras in care homes and Harvey recommends duress buttons. Tammy also wants more accountability for health services on missions and communities.
‘Most organisations, they all say, “We’re qualified, we got the money, we can do this, we can do that” ... [but they turn young people away] … My house is open to any person in need … they’re not doing their job … There’s a lot of work and it’s sad. All we can do is try to get them [young people] in a safe area.’
Tony said that, ‘I think … our family has been very resilient, through all this we maintained our secrets but we are still a unit. And we maintained that for the future generations that are coming after us … we don’t ever want any of this to happen to them’.
Harvey is reassured and comforted by his family.
‘All our hearts are pointed in the same direction … we could have went the wrong way … family is everything. You don’t lie to your family. You tell the family the truth. … You respect each other.’