Zack's story

Zack described himself as a ‘troubled’ kid, with some difficult behaviours. ‘[I’d] light fires. Throw rocks at kids. That sort of thing. Flood the school.’ He never knew his dad. When he was nine, in the late 1990s, DOCS took him from his mum and placed him in foster care.

Over the next eight years Zack was moved from place to place around south-west Sydney: home care with extended family members, refuges and residential care. His first placement was with his aunt and uncle and their children. His uncle sexually abused him over the next three years, and his cousins physically bullied him. He also experienced frequent physical and sexual abuse at the placements that followed. He can’t recall the exact details of all the incidents now – names, dates and places elude him. And though he has a copy of his DOCS file it hasn’t helped fill in the gaps, because much of it is redacted.

He reported the abuse at the time and in several instances action was taken. Twice, at two different refuges, the carer responsible was immediately dismissed. But when he was picked up by police after absconding from a refuge, and explained why he’d run away, they didn’t believe him.

‘I ran away from the refuges, and I told police. The common thing, like you’ll probably find speaking to people, police go, “You’re making it up”, this, that, “You want to go back to your family”’, Zack told the Commissioner. ‘I found when I spoke to other kids the same thing had happened. Police and DOCS used to say the same thing to them.’

Zack made one report to police, with the support of his mentor at the refuge where he’d been assaulted. They went together to the police station and Zack gave a statement. ‘Then nothing ever happened.’ Now in his mid-20s, he hasn’t reported since. ‘I never really had the courage to go through with it. You probably find a lot of people say the same thing. You find it humiliating.’

Zack has had numerous run-ins with the law. He was placed on a good behaviour bond as an 18-year-old. Not long afterwards he was arrested again. ‘I just got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time’, he said. This time the judge placed him under an Intensive Correction Order (ICO), which directs a sentence to be served in the community rather than in custody, and imposes conditions such as community service and counselling. In Zack’s view ICOs are a good mechanism for the criminal justice system to use.

‘To be honest I think they do work. I never got dirty urine or anything, I wasn’t on drugs or anything like that. You get parole there, you get forced to see a doctor and psychologist to address your offending and why you offend and what’s gone wrong in life. In them two senses you got them, and parole help you get a job, plus you do a day’s community service to say I look like an idiot out here doing this. And then you got all the other conditions – you have to live here, you can’t go here, you can’t drink alcohol, you can’t do this. It’s a good punishment to teach someone.’

When Zack spoke to the Commissioner he was in jail. He’d been there nearly a year, and was due to be sentenced the following day for a crime he’d pleaded guilty to. ‘Should go home, you’d think’, he said.

Through the ICO he’d worked with a counsellor who used cognitive behavioural therapy. ‘He sort of worked on putting the sexual abuse to one side and learning to grieve and live with it, and then why I offend because of it, and why I do this and why I do that.’ During his time in jail he’d been seeing another psychologist.

‘He’s very good’, Zack said. ‘He goes, “The hard thing for you … with your life put in a nutshell”, he goes “what normal people get taught at 15 to 18 by their mum and dad you’ve never been taught. You’ve never been taught etiquette, this, that, you’ve never been taught any of this, you’ve just been thrown into the middle of the ocean. We’re put on the shore, where the sand is; you’re put in the middle. So you have to learn to swim back”.’

Zack said his parole officer was hoping he’d be directed to counselling rather than a custodial sentence. The psychologist had offered to keep working with him, and to do what he could to help. If he were released the next day, Zack would be going home to his partner and their child and the support of his partner’s parents.

He’d been diagnosed with a range of mental health conditions, among them reactive attachment disorder, ADHD, anxiety and depression. He had no plans to seek compensation for what was done to him. ‘Money doesn’t really worry me, you know. Money would be good to have for your kid and that, but money doesn’t make things right ...

‘You get dealt a hand in life, you gotta make it work.’

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