Children taken away from their abusive families are reclaiming their childhood at a reunion next week. WILLIAM VERITY discovers the truth – both painful and inspiring – about Renwick State Ward Home.
At first glance it might seem like a time and place that most people would rather forget.
No-one who ended up at Renwick, or the Mittagong Farm Home for Boys as it was previously known, ended up there by choice.
Before 1976, the 500-acre property and its 16 cottages had catered for physically disabled children, later for boys who were in trouble with the law, and finally for state wards.
Leeallison Downie arrived at Renwick in 1978, at the age of seven, after her mother bashed her so badly she was in a coma for nine months.
When she woke up, she was a ward of the state.
‘‘When I came out of the coma at the age of six, it was like being a new-born baby,’’ Downie relates.
‘‘I had to relearn how to talk, how to walk – you name it.’’
She has no memories of her life before her bashing – she only knows she grew up half Aboriginal at the back of Bourke, because government documents tell her so.
Yet this is the woman who, along with another former student, is organising a reunion for former state wards and hopes to attract more than 300 people.
To say they were tough times for Downie, and others like her, would be an understatement.
Some of the least disturbed of the children would go to the local schools – Mittagong Public and Bowral High – but the others were taught at Toombong, the specialist school on site.
The reason most of the children ended up at Renwick was because they were classed as ‘‘uncontrollable’’, so classes at Toombong were never dull.
Downie was nicknamed ‘‘the two-day chuck’’ because every second day she would throw a tantrum.
‘‘I would pick up desks and throw them across the room,’’ she says.
‘‘I didn’t know why I didn’t have a family like everyone else. I was angry.’’
She remembers how it took seven teachers to hold her down and drag her to the padded room, where she would stay until she exhausted herself with all the kicking and screaming.
‘‘I spent the majority of my childhood in that padded room,’’ Downie says.
One of those teachers may have been Peter Malone, who first arrived at Toombong in 1973 as a relief teacher, left, and then returned in 1978, staying 13 years.
He served seven years as principal, until the school closed down and the children moved to foster homes in 1994.
Of the 11 students in his year 10 class from 1978, at least seven are now dead from a combination of car and motorbike accidents, drug overdoses and – a major hazard for students – suicide.
‘‘It was tough at the time, because no-one had any answers and we were left on our own to run what we could,’’ Malone says.
‘‘It is very hard to comprehend the difficulties faced. You could write books and books on all the incidents, all the problems and some of the good things too.’’
One time he was threatened with a knife; another time a student walked along with a brick and smashed 20 windows before he could be physically restrained; another time Malone opened the top drawer of his desk to find a couple of copperhead snakes inside.
He urges us to refrain from judging earlier eras by the standards of today, believing Renwick to be full of good, passionate, motivated people dealing with situations that were often as impossible as they were distressing.
Indicative of this view is George Tustin, a carpenter who arrived at Renwick as a maintenance man.
Soon enough, he was maintaining teenagers more than doors and fences, and gaining more satisfaction from the human element.
He arrived in 1973, three years before the property stopped being essentially a short-term jail for delinquent boys in khakis and hobnailed boots and converted to a place of refuge for state wards.
Tustin ended up feeling a strong attachment to the students and coached them in soccer, cricket, table tennis and, through sport, how to cope with a difficult life.
Even after all these years, Tustin’s voice is warm with emotion when he relates how his Renwick cricket team all walked on to the field and shook the hands of the Moss Vale team that had just inflicted a humiliating defeat.
‘‘Why did you do that?’’ Tustin asked them, amazed at their sportsmanship.
‘‘We asked ourselves, what would George do?’’ replied one. ‘‘That’s what George would have done.’’
Hanging on his living room wall is a framed letter, given to him by one of his charges who ended up playing soccer for a rep side.
‘‘You made me the man I am today,’’ the letter states.
At last year’s reunion, students also gave him a certificate of thanks. He could have cried.
‘‘It was the best I have ever received in my entire life,’’ Tustin says.
‘‘It’s almost made me feel my life was worth living because I did something for somebody.
‘‘It’s more about what the kids gave me than what I gave the kids.’’
Tustin specialised in teaching his students how to lose, showing them that losing does not have to mean failure.
Joining Tustin next Saturday at the reunion will be another former staff member, Lynne Burgoyne, who worked at Renwick supporting house parents from 1972 to 1984.
She sees Renwick and the staff who worked there in overwhelmingly positive terms, saying some of the ‘‘delinquents’’ reoffended just so they could stay.
‘‘Some of the house parents made a better fist of it than others, but all of them were well-intentioned,’’ she says.
‘‘Renwick gave young people stability and security as well as good physical and emotional care.
‘‘It gave kids a routine which they probably didn’t have at home because their mums and dads were not well.’’
Not surprisingly, many of the students – even as adults – have a view about that time and place which is more complex, nuanced both with dark and light.
Davina Logan arrived aged nine, on March 13, 1973, taken from an Aboriginal community on the NSW North Coast for reasons that she has never understood.
March 13 has become a day of mourning for her; she calls it her ‘‘incarceration day’’.
‘‘It’s my down day,’’ Logan says. ‘‘I play it by ear, play it by eye, play it by heart.’’
Yet although she refuses to commit, she’ll be there next Saturday to relive those times with her fellow inmates.
‘‘Every other child can remember their childhood when they get older,’’ Logan says.
‘‘When you grow up and move on, you don’t have life because you have to forget your childhood.’’
She remembers how she had to cut her hair when she first arrived, and how at the age of nine she had no idea why she was taken away from her family.
‘‘I get my childhood and I realise it wasn’t much, but you can’t pretend it didn’t happen,’’ Logan says.
‘‘I have to remind myself that I survived it and it can’t bite me.
‘‘I have landed on the underside of the coin, but I am doing OK with it.’’
Whatever Renwick was for her, Downie and about 60,000 other children who passed through since it opened in 1885, it was where they shared formative years that only those who shared the experience can understand.
Which is why Downie is proud to claim Renwick as her country, and can’t wait to meet up with her people.
‘‘My blood, my tears, my sweat is all in Mittagong, at Renwick, on that land.
‘‘That is my home and the only place I will ever feel whole.’’■