Ward was born on a Western Australian Aboriginal reserve in the early 1960s, and raised by his grandparents ‘because my mum had me when she was a young girl’. Kids would go missing from the reserve and he learned to hide whenever the welfare officers were around. ‘We knew that black car was coming, we knew they was coming to get us. Some of the things my family did in order to try and keep us all together was amazing.’
One day when Ward was at school, welfare officers ‘brought my sister to the front gate, and they bought her a packet of lollies. Back in them days, lollies was a luxury. If you had a packet of lollies you was everybody’s friend, all the kids wanted to know you ... I saw lollies, I didn’t think about anything else. And as I went to say to her, “Hey sis, give me a lolly”, a man and a woman grabbed me both sides’.
They were shoved into a car and told they were going to see his grandparents. ‘I said who are you? And they said we’re the welfare. And I said oh no. My heart sunk.’
They drove straight past the turn to the reserve to a Catholic-run mission. ‘I realised what was going on, and I started kicking the back seat and screaming and shouting ... My sister was crying. She was only three years old. So I was kicking the back seat and when I didn’t stop, the lady in the front she leant over back and slapped me across the face. But that didn’t deter me, because I wanted to go home.’
The welfare people told him the nuns and missionaries would take care of them.
‘I said, but why, why should they take care of me? I’ve got my mum and dad at home. But they said, they’re going to be your parents now. So they left us there and just drove off.’
Ward realised some of the other kids there were his cousins, and they tried to support him. The missionaries soon separated him from his sister, and he wasn’t even allowed to talk to her for a long time.
The children were frequently assaulted by the missionaries, who would shave their heads and pull their ears until they ‘used to go purple. We used to get the wooden spoon across the head’. Ward had his pants pulled down and was flogged in front of other children. The food was appalling, rotting and infested with maggots and weevils. The children didn’t have any shoes, so would get blisters in summer and chilblains in winter.
They were told ‘our families gave us up and put us in there because they didn’t love us. That’s what they told us. We started believing it’.
Racial abuse was common, too. ‘Some of the things they used to say to us, like Aboriginal black people don’t know nothing, or you’ll never amount to anything. Yeah, a lot of put-downs. That’s what they used to do ... And I always thought to myself, I’m not going to let this get to me. I wanted to rise above it you know, even though I was a kid I was just determined to get past this ... That was that willpower that kept me going all those years.’ As an adult Ward became a strong advocate for Aboriginal issues.
A priest called Father Draper came to work at the mission for a while. He was a cruel man and treated the children very badly. It soon became common knowledge that he was acting inappropriately with the boys.
‘I was laying down asleep one night in the dormitory and I woke up and I had a hand between my legs. And then I felt the feeling of his penis on me. And I woke up and I started shouting and screaming. But he attempted that maybe twice, and I think mostly he was preying on the weaker ones, the ones who were quiet ... I was basically on the verge of being penetrated.’
Ward never spoke of the sexual abuse at the time. ‘I didn’t know who to tell ... Who would have believed me?’ It was not until he was about 20 that he told a cousin, who had also been sexually abused at the mission. When Ward left he met up with his mother and grandparents. He found his other siblings, and still sees them from time to time.
Ward’s childhood experiences impacted his life in numerous ways, including relationship and parenting problems, confusion with his sexual identity, and feelings of shame. He was married for a long time, but this broke down and his children no longer talk to him.
‘My wife turned them against me. I try to tell her all the time you know, I’ve lived through a traumatic life. I said, I find it very difficult to love or trust anybody. I said, I don’t mean to hurt you or anyone else but that’s how I am.
‘She couldn’t understand that ... She said it was my problem. “You deal with it”, all she kept on saying to me.’
Ward has sought treatment for his mental health issues, and found medication useful. He never told the doctors about the sexual abuse, and first started seeing them when he began getting anxiety attacks.
‘I was dealing with more or less a mild case of bipolar. I was on antidepressant tablets ... My body was fighting against me. It was like I had somebody else inside me, telling me to harm myself. And then when I got on the antidepressants I started being myself again.’