‘PETER’ doesn’t remember celebrating birthdays or Christmases as a child.
He never met his natural mother and father and was abandoned by his adopted parents when he was about eight. Until he was 14, Peter was reared in Gordon Boys Home, Highett; the Royal Park Boys Home (Turana), Parkville; and the Salvation Army Boys Home, Box Hill.
Now 55, he keeps a torn newspaper photograph of himself as a two-year-old in a bath at Alexandra Children’s Home.
Why he, as a two-year-old, came to be in state care remains unclear to him.
“I never met [my mother]. I only got to see her when her ashes were scattered. I think from what I can gather, she was a single mother. My father had returned to England and paid her maintenance for only a short period. Until I met [his step-sisters four years ago], I didn’t know what my birth name was.”
Peter still struggles to deal with being “repeatedly raped” by a dormitory supervisor at the Box Hill home as an 11-year-old.
After enduring an adult life of broken marriages and substance abuse, but little counselling, Peter admits he has “hid [the abuse] deep away”. Along the way, he’s “stumbled” in and out of employment, lived in cars and public housing, and battled depression and social isolation. “For the abused, it’s more the psychological impact than the actual act that you have to come to terms with. Then people say anyone who’s abused will abuse other children, but that’s not necessarily the case. That’s a terrible burden to live with.”
Peter says the State Government misunderstands what care leavers endured growing up in “the system”.
“If your de facto parents, which was the State Government, abused you under their care you don’t trust anyone in authority. I noticed me and other state wards grew up deprived of nourishment. Since then, I’ve tended to hoard things, to gather things. We didn’t celebrate birthdays and Christmas. There were hundreds of kids at the home. We battled for food and clothing.”
During a “pretty harsh” upbringing, he remembers repeatedly polishing a verandah at the Box Hill home – a task often used to punish the residents. “There was one kind matron, the only one who showed love and affection to the boys.”
At 18, Peter was no longer the State Government’s responsibility and had to fend for himself. Without government support, coping with the transition was “impossible virtually”. “That was the stage when you most needed help.”
Peter didn’t come forward for state government paid-counselling until he was 40. He says five counselling sessions were the only help he received from the government as an adult. What hurts most is the effect his upbringing has had on his ability to parent his eight children.
“I’m in touch with the kids, but everything’s a complete battle. They don’t understand what I went through and don’t understand why I can be cold or distant.”
Last month, Peter was referred to the State Government-funded support service Vanish for long-term counselling and entry into a support group. He hopes to enrol in life skills classes to help him with budgeting and cooking.
All work?: Boys in a workshop at Box Hill Boys Home in the 1930s. Source: A Bucket Full of Berries: Reflections on Whitehorse, edited by Murray Lewis