Growing Up In Care

We try to place Care Leavers at the centre of all we do at Find & Connect, it’s important to share their voices as widely as possible; and we are fortunate that some who spent time in “care” share their stories with us. Wayne generously shared memories from his childhood, which included placements at Roylestone, Suttor Cottage at Mittagong, and time in foster care, for us to publish here.

We sincerely thank him for telling his story and allowing us to publish it.

I have memories of childhood, from 3 or 4 years old. Riding a bike with my dad, exploring under the house with my older brother. Sitting on the bed with my mother. Just snippets here and there.

One day all 3 of us, older brother 5, me 4, and younger brother 18 months, we were in the back seat of a car. I climbed up to look out the back window as we were being driven to a centre, to see my mother standing on the grass crying into a handkerchief.

I started crying along with my brothers. It would be last the time I saw my younger brother for many years, he was fostered quickly due to his age.

Next thing I was in a ‘centre’. In hindsight it could have been a St Vincent de Paul op-shop. I was given new/old clothes to change into out back of some place with lots of racks of clothes. It smelled of old clothes.

The first place I remember was a big old building on a main road in the city of Sydney somewhere? The two storey building had younger kids downstairs and older kids upstairs. My older brother was there, although I didn’t see him much.

Our dorm was huge in my eyes, with rows of beds all lined up. There was a big cupboard at the end of the room where we would be handed out clothes to wear, by young ladies.

I was given my choice of a toy from a big box, I chose a red fire engine, which I lost shortly after and a lovely young lady took me around the building to find it. It was in the TV room, a large room with wooden floors and chairs arranged in a semicircle in front of the TV.

The next memory was being walked up the main street of a busy road to another centre, not far from the first [editor’s note: this was Royleston, located not far from Bidura, both in Glebe Point Road]. This again was a two storey old building with polished floors and a big staircase up the middle (they all seemed to be very similar architecture).

Again the dorms were many single beds with green blankets lined up, and again younger kids downstairs. My older brother was already there he took me upstairs and showed me his bed among many.

This place had classrooms out the back forming the boundary of the property at the rear, there were 4 courts on bitumen forming the assembly/play area between the house and the classrooms.

Along one side was a tin fence, I remember other kids saying “you can run away and get to Kings Cross, people will look after you there”.

I remember thinking I wanted to run away, but looking through the fence seemed more scary than staying in the play area. I was told others had ran away (astonishing to hear that, I don’t know how many ran away? If any).

Our days were attending the classrooms out the back, running around with 100 other kids of all ages.

At dinner time we all sat at long tables, the food was the same every day. For lunch and dinner every day, including Sunday, dessert was prunes and bread and butter pudding. This one meal time after the kitchen staff served us, a boy yells out “I’m sick of this” and tosses his bowl of pudding up in the air. The bowl stuck to the roof – for a few seconds we all stared at the bowl then burst out laughing.

Well, the matron and staff all came running out of the kitchen to see what was going on. Everyone bowed their heads and went back to quietly eating. The staff turned around and went back into the kitchen. At that moment the bowl let go and fell back to the table exactly where it was launched from. We all howled with laughter which brought all the staff running again and again we all went back to eating. It was hilarious.

Me and my older brother were reunited with our parents when they got back together for a short time, however we wound up back in care.

In 1971, we went by train from Sydney to Mittagong and Suttor Cottage. I was on the train station, the smell of train brakes was strong, a young well-dressed couple escorted my brother and I in the train to Mittagong. Upon arrival I was introduced to a doctor, had my head shaved, was given a “yellow shower” in de-lousing powder, and new clothes. I have in my possession part of my B file which says that I was given an IQ test and returned 115 “above average bright”. I stated that “I want to stay with my brother”, which was accepted thankfully.

I had personal belongings which my uncle had given me, a leather headband which was promptly demanded by the house master and never seen again. I was allowed to keep my kangaroo-skin koala bear. I did have a phone call to my family once on the old wind up telephone in the cottage, one with a separate black ear piece and you speak into the trumpet affixed to the front. It was a wooden box attached to the wall.

10 to 12 boys lived in Suttor Cottage. Boys only, aged from 5 to 14, I think. There were older boys than me. I think I was the youngest in my dorm. My 6 year old brother was there as well.

The school was on another part of the property. The girls were in another house on the property.

A matron ran the day to day details.

It had dorm style rooms. The room I was in had 4 beds in it and a small locker-style upright cupboard for your clothes to be stored in. In winter we were always cold. There was no heating, and no air conditioning either at that time.

When I was there we definitely had a man and woman with 2 children of their own as ‘house parents’. The cottage parents were seen at meal times in the dining room. We all sat at separate tables with 4 to 6 kids to a table (house parents at a separate table). We’d say grace before every meal.

Once a bunch of the boys from Suttor Cottage decided to get into the food storage shed – as we were always hungry, it seemed like a good idea. We managed to open the door and find lots of food stuffs which we absconded with and hid out in paddocks.

So a typical day at Suttor Cottage started at 6am. A matron walked around blowing a whistle. You then had to make your bed, hospital-style, folded corners. Get dressed in khaki shorts and shirt, then line up at the end of your bed for inspection by the matron. Bed inspection. Bounce the coin on the made bed.

Your locker was inspected and all clothes had to be folded as they came from the store. Anything out of place was ordered to be rectified, too many infractions were rewarded with a menial task, such as polishing all the other kids’ shoes on the front verandah after dinner instead of watching TV (the TV room was a large room with chairs arranged in a semi-circle), or scrubbing a pile of pots and pans under the house in a storage room until “I can see my face in them”. I had the pleasure of doing these activities.

After bed inspection, we’d dress in khakis and go work in a garden or orchard or clean up some area on the property, then return to the house in single file, line up for roll call and inspection. Those who had injuries were to go to the doctor on the property. You left your shoes at the door, sit down for breakfast, say grace, then your name was called up and off you go.

Upon return from the doctor the cook would give you some toast and tea knowing you didn’t have breakfast. Breakfast was toast and porridge, tea. (All meals were the same every day except Friday – fish – and Sunday – lamb roast on Sunday dinner.)

After breakfast, get changed into grey school uniform and go to school. One of the older boys would carry a large hessian bag of fruit for tea break.

Children at Southwood School, Mittagong

Now on my first day at school I had no pencil to write with, I had to earn my pencil by answering questions correctly before I could participate. Of course some kids had fat pencil cases full on their desks.

Boys and girls attended in the same room. A typical school room. Desks. Chalk board. Teacher desk up front.

Once our lady teacher (can’t remember her name) engaged in an argument with me. At this time another boy stood up and defended me, saying “it’s a free country”. At which the teacher swiftly took him out side and we could hear whack, whack, whack.

Upon his return I was swiftly and not carefully lifted out of my seat, taken to the rear storeroom and whipped with a feather duster and left in the room till morning tea.

Upon morning tea my house would march to some area and have the fruit we carried earlier.

Lunch was single file back to the house, soup and sandwiches. Then back to school.

Boys marching to school
Boys marching to school

There was free time where all houses mixed on the ovals at the school. Boys and girls ran around. One boy was constantly chasing me and bullying me. My brother hit him on one particular occasion when he was standing over me about to give me a “knuckle sandwich”.

The afternoons we changed into khakis again and went out to some area to do maintenance or clean up duty.

Then back to the house, change again and have dinner, then bed. Except Fridays was TV night when we would get 2 lollies (we called them gubbo’s)

Saturdays were the same routine, just work detail. Sundays, we wear our ‘Sunday bests’. You’d all sit on a bleachers seat and wait for a foster parent to come and pick you up and take you out for the day. Those who weren’t taken out for the day remained at the house to play and run around.

At night those who were taken for a day trip would return usually with gifts from the potential foster parent, those gifts would be ‘put away for later’ never to be seen again.

I was at Suttor Cottage until I was about 8 years old. From Suttor Cottage, me and my brother ended up with a foster family in Cronulla. These people would have to be the most horrible people anyone could be subjected to. The abuse from these two individuals was cult-like behaviour. I was regularly beaten and locked out of the house for days with no food, I slept with my dog, Sam.

Whenever I saw storm clouds gathered on the horizon, I would always feel an impending doom. It felt like Ned Kelly’s helmet would come over my face, I became just a pair of eyes, because I knew I would have to be in the house near my abusers. That feeling would stay with me for many years after i left the foster parents house. It’s how I shielded myself from the abuse. 

My older brother was being groomed and could do no wrong. This is the paedophile’s tactic of divide and conquer.

After a savage beating, I took a motorbike from the back shed and left in the middle of the night, only to be found sleeping at 5am by the cleaners at the high school I attended. It was my 14th birthday (a large storm had me move from my camp in the bush).

The idiot DOCS workers took me back to the family. Not long after I found dozens of letters from our mother in an old wardrobe addressed to me and brother.

I became resolute, the number of times I had been told “your mother doesn’t want you, where are you going to go?” kept ringing through my head. Our mother had been in contact the entire time, she constantly fought DOCS to see us, the department’s reply “the boys don’t want to see you, they’re happy where they are” was a complete fabrication.

After finally having a few supervised visits, a day to come and see us on the farm was organised. The foster father locked me and my brother in a shed, and again told our mother we don’t want to see her. He made the mistake of calling the police, the police wanted to see me and my brother. Once released from the shed I walked out the front door, hearing “If you leave you don’t come back”. I hesitated and turned around to see my brother had not moved. I went back grabbed him by the arm and dragged him out of that house. He was the golden boy, never did anything wrong, he didn’t realise the situation.

And that was the end of them.

We lived with mum from that moment on.