Zeljko grew up during the 1970s in a Catholic family. His Slavic father was an alcoholic who was physically violent towards his wife and the kids. His mother was a drug addict, who had herself grown up in institutions.
From the age of seven Zeljko’s behaviour deteriorated and he started to run away frequently. His parents separated when he was nine. Soon after this his mum ‘dumped’ him completely, as she couldn’t handle him anymore.
Zeljko doesn’t know if he was made a ward of the state, but he was sent to live at a number of different institutions. Conditions in all of the homes and detention centres were harsh. He ran away often, sometimes moving between states.
One of the first facilities he lived in, when he was 10, was a government boys’ home in Brisbane. There he witnessed another boy his age, Trevor, being sexually abused by a man who worked there.
This man would visit several of the children in their beds to assault them. Zeljko would hear Trevor call out for help, but didn’t respond for fear of being abused himself. He didn’t tell anyone about what he saw either.
Zeljko soon started getting into trouble for stealing and arson. His welfare officer told him if he finished primary school he wouldn’t have to go to high school, so that was all the education he completed. He hitchhiked across the country, and stole a car intending to drive to see his mum, but was caught.
Although he was in and out of court many times, nobody ever talked to him to find out why he was behaving this way. He felt people considered him to be ‘bad’, so he wanted to be bad.
At 14, Zeljko was sent to a juvenile detention facility in New South Wales. It was the middle of winter when he arrived, and he was locked up naked without any bedcovers. The guards forced him to stand all night facing the corner, and would throw a bucket of cold water on him if he tried to sit down.
This treatment continued for a number of nights, and a couple of times one of the guards came up behind Zeljko and touched him inappropriately. He did not disclose the abuse to anyone, but managed to run away after a few months.
Zeljko has never reported the abuse he witnessed or experienced to the police or institutions. He has received a small amount of compensation from a state redress scheme.
By the time he was 17 he had entered the adult prison system, and has spent most of his time inside since. In the past Zeljko has abused drugs, and felt suicidal. He has been diagnosed with ADHD, and told he is ‘intense’.
He has had some counselling in prison, which has helped him build on his social skills. Despite his reservations that asking for help is a ‘weakness’, he realises he needs this and has sought assistance from a support organisation.
His prison psychologist, Gerry, asked him to help out with a couple of the younger inmates, ‘because I had a bit of a reputation’. Though he realises he can help other people in prison, he does not feel he is very useful outside it.
Zeljko married in his 30s and had kids, but has barely been present in their lives. He has recently been released again, and he and his wife are struggling to adjust to his return to the family. His father is deceased, but he is trying to build up his relationship with his mother.
‘When I was younger I used to say, don’t blame my parents, it was me. And get up in court and carry on ... But when I got a bit older ... I understood that I was a product of my environment.’ Though as Gerry reminds him, ‘you make the decisions for yourself. You can’t keep blaming your parents for the rest of your life’.