Meet Peter Kelso, a lawyer who grew up in State care. Peter is the sole director of Kelso Lawyers.
I haven’t always talked openly about growing up as a ward of the State. I kept it quiet for most of my life, because I was ashamed. But now, I think it’s important to tell my clients what I went through. When they hear my story it makes them feel safer in telling theirs. They seem reassured to learn that although I’m a lawyer, I’m not from a privileged background. My childhood was one of beatings, anger, disapproval and loneliness. As a child, and for years of my adult life, I felt worthless and unlovable. I was convinced I was a bad person.
I was born in Geelong, Victoria, and am the second youngest of eight children. We were very poor. My father left home when I was six-months-old, and my mother gave me away when I was five. It was 1962. I remember the big black car arriving. My two youngest brothers and I were given a bath, before being driven away by two men.
My welfare file explains that my mother had a new boyfriend, who had left his wife and six children. My mother phoned the State welfare department and convinced them to take three of her boys off her hands.
I was separated from my two brothers and put into Winbin Depot, a home for young children in Sydney, while I was waiting for a foster placement. I didn’t see anyone in my family for 17 years and I missed my brothers terribly. Many times I asked where they were and whether I could see them. I promised myself that I would not forget their faces, or their names, and that when I was old enough, I would go looking for them.
I was fostered by a couple in Sydney who raised me as their only child. They physically and emotionally abused me. I know what it is like to be beaten so hard and for so long that it feels like it will never stop. The only reason my foster mother ever stopped was because she was so physically exhausted she couldn’t carry on. I was beaten so badly I planned to kill my foster parents. I plotted carefully how I would murder them, though I’m glad I never did.
I grew up thinking the abuse was my fault. When I left home at 22, I sat my foster parents down and apologised for ruining their lives.
My foster parents abused me emotionally too. My foster mother said I was nothing but a creature and one day, if I was ever good enough, I could change my surname to hers. I believed I was bad and I’d done something terrible. I longed for the day I would be worthy of her name. I grew up thinking the abuse was my fault. When I left home at 22, I sat my foster parents down and apologised for ruining their lives.
Once I left home though, things started to improve. I found my mother and my siblings in Newcastle after 17 years of us being apart. When we were reunited they were all crying. But I couldn’t cry – I hadn’t been able to from the age of 10. Crying had been beaten out of me.
It wasn’t until I went on a men’s retreat in 2005 that I cried for the first time. I cry a fair bit now and I’m happy that I can do that. It feels good to be connected to my emotions again.
Growing up in foster care made me feel like I was different to everyone else and that’s something many of my clients can relate to. I felt I was weird or unusual. It was overwhelming and I longed for the day I would be the same as everyone else. It seemed impossible that anyone could ever love me. As a young man, I honestly believed that no-one would want to marry me.
But six years after the reunion with my family, I was married. My wife, Michelle, agreed to move from Sydney to Newcastle, so I could be close to my brothers and sisters. This was important to me because we had missed out on spending our childhoods together.