Vernon Lewis's story

‘Every morning when I wake up, I wonder what the day will bring. Will I feel good, angry or depressed? Who knows? I may be even happy.’

Vernon’s childhood days were ‘lonely, sad and horrible’. He was taken into the care of Western Australia’s Department of Native Welfare in the late 1960s, when he was around five years old. The Department placed Vernon into the care of his aunty and uncle, and they were paid to look after him.

There were lots of children in the house already. Vernon looked up to one of his male cousins, who was around eight years older than him. However, this boy was a ‘sick, horrible bastard’ and ‘took advantage’ of Vernon, sexually abusing him for a number of years.

Vernon wondered if he was somehow to blame, and wishes he’d known how to speak about what was happening. ‘Why didn’t I run away and tell someone at the time what was happening to me back then? I was so scared. Who would believe me?’

An officer from the Department would come and visit occasionally, but Vernon felt this man just wanted to ‘tick the boxes’ so did not disclose the abuse to him. When he was around 17, he had one final encounter with his cousin who started molesting him when he was drunk.

This time Vernon ‘decided I’m not putting up with this shit anymore’, and ‘got really abusive towards him’.

Although his cousin is now living interstate, Vernon still sees him sometimes at family events. He avoids going to functions if he knows this man will be present, but this has caused some speculation among relatives.

Vernon made an application to the state’s redress scheme, and disclosed the abuse at this time. He was allocated a counsellor, but found the process very hard. It was difficult to open up to her as it meant reliving painful memories. He received a moderate payment, which came in handy to cover some bills, and appreciated the apology issued by the Premier.

Until very recently, Vernon had not reported the abuse to police, or spoken about it with most of his siblings. He eventually decided that he needed to do so, in order to get some closure and justice for himself. ‘I thought, something’s got to be done here. I’ve got to do something. I can’t live this life like this.’

The response from police was very good. They attempted a pretext call between him and his cousin, but this was unsuccessful. Vernon hopes that police will be able to lay charges soon.

The impacts of this abuse still weigh heavily on Vernon, and also affect his family. Some days, ‘I am tired, fatigued, depressed and stressed. When I’m feeling stressed I feel like shit. There are days when I can’t help my wife around the house and the yard’. He turned to alcohol for a while, to blank out the bad memories, but realised this only worked ‘until you wake up’.

Vernon’s cautiousness around other people has been hard on his interpersonal relationships. When he was younger, ‘I always refused to go to anyone’s place. Even when I played sport, I refused to have showers after the game. I would go home to my shower’.

Attending trips away with the school, or going to social events like parties, was very difficult. ‘I didn’t want to go anywhere with the boys ... When it comes to mixing with close contact, that was out of the question for me, yeah, would not do that.’

The support of his family, and his work life, are the two things that have helped Vernon get through his bad times. His job takes him away from home for periods of time, and it is good for him to have time to be on his own.

He recognises that he was very protective of his children when they were small. ‘I never wanted my kids to go and stay at any aunties and uncle’s house ... I would not let them go anywhere.’

They now all know about the abuse he experienced. ‘My family have been really, really good to me, you know, my wife and kids. My wife’s been my rock, even though I was stupid when I was a younger fella. I had no idea how to bring up a child.’

Vernon recently attended a speech day for one of his grandkids who had received a prize and did a performance. His wife was in tears, and he was proud to see his family thriving after his own difficult start in life.

‘I love my wife and kids very much, especially my grandkids. They’re awesome to be around ... They make me laugh. We tell each other stories, and share jokes, and I love looking after my grandkids.’

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