These life stories may contain descriptions of childhood trauma and abuse, as well as images, voices and names of people now deceased. If you need help, you can find contact details for some relevant support services on our support page.

Salesman, business owner and activist, Geoff Steele, (b. 1947), was in institutional, adoptive, and kinship care as a child.

Geoffrey Davis was “born out of wedlock in Melbourne amongst three other children who were given away.”

Geoff was first placed in a babies’ home and then in 1949 he was adopted by a married couple who owned a grocery store and lived in Ballarat, a city in the Central Highlands of Victoria.

A Young Geoff Steele

When Geoff was around eight and a half years old, the Steele’s business went bankrupt, which led to a marital separation. Geoff continued living with his adoptive mum, Estelle, whilst she looked for work. Estelle eventually gained employment as a nurse at Melbourne Orphanage in Windermere, close to Brighton. Here, she and Geoff were provided with a cottage to live in, separate from the orphanage.

Melbourne Orphanage, Windemere, Victoria

Shortly after beginning their stay, Melbourne Orphanage decided to remove Geoff from Estelle and place him in the main orphanage, away from his mum.

…They grabbed hold of me and said, “we’ll be looking after Geoff, and he’ll be living over in that cottage over there…” It was very traumatic for [Mum] and me…I wasn’t allowed to see her, and she wasn’t allowed to see me, she had her job to do, and I was just inconvenient, another inconvenient ward of the state coming into the system…

Geoff and Estelle did not see each other for 18 months.

During their time at Melbourne Orphanage, Estelle suffered from mental illness and was in and out of hospital care. At one stage, Geoff’s adoptive dad came looking for Estelle to find she was in hospital, and Geoff was staying in the main orphanage. Geoff’s dad arranged for Melbourne Orphanage to allow Geoff to visit his dad in Melbourne each fortnight.

One evening, Geoff was returning from being with his dad when he was sexually assaulted by a staff member living in Melbourne Orphanage.

When Geoff was approaching his teenager years, he and Estelle left the orphanage and lived with Geoff’s paternal aunt for a while. Although Estelle was still unwell and having hospital stays, Geoff has fond memories of spending weekly Sundays together.

Mum and I used to have special Sundays together. She was special because I didn’t see her. Most of the time she was gone at six in the morning, home at seven at night… Mum was very Churchy, so obviously church on Sunday, but Sunday was a special day, really… One where I had my mum.

Due to Geoff’s upbringing and having moved around Victoria, Geoff was very unsettled at the schools he attended.

… I went to so many schools that I was either behind or so far in front that they reckoned I was cheating. Oh, oh. I couldn’t win. I couldn’t win. Plus, you would be introduced to the school with your birth certificate, which was a blue one which showed that you were adopted by the birth certificate in an envelope and numbers on it, a little code… So that didn’t help coming into schools and being called a bastard…

By the time Geoff was a teenager, instead of doing schoolwork, he found himself reflecting on his life or dreaming about his interest in designing cars, which he later ended up doing an apprenticeship in.

Geoff Steele, car enthusiast

Geoff had the pleasure of meeting “Australia’s Little Johnny O’Keefe” when he was fourteen.

So I said to Mum, we’re ready to go home. She said no, no, let’s go around the corner. He might come out the door. There might be a door out there because they’re the fire exit doors. And sure enough he came out. I said, “Hi Johnny.” And he said, “Good day mate.” And from that day on he’s been the idol.

Geoff kept in touch with Johnny O’Keefe over the years. They wrote to each other and whenever O’Keefe put out a new record, he would send one to Geoff.

Then Johnny passed away in ’78. In 2014, my sister got to come to my home here over Easter. My family, Dion and Christine were here and my brother-in-law. We were having lunch and she’s looking over at the wall and she said, “He’s always with us isn’t he?” And there’s a big picture of Johnny on the wall.

Geoff proudly wearing his Johnny O’Keefe t-shirt

In 1990, Geoff was encouraged by his family and friends to find his natural family. He discovered that he was one of four children who were given away. One brother lived with his parents, the other had passed away, and he had two sisters—one  younger and one older. Geoff’s older sister and her family turned out to live just 190 kilometres from Geoff. He reached out to her, and they grew close, becoming “like twins.”

In 2003, Geoff decided to address the sexual assault incident that happened to him at Melbourne Orphanage with the help of a solicitor who encouraged him to seek out compensation for the orphanage’s wrongdoings. The process was lengthy but eventually brought Geoff to OzChild, where he attended meetings with their representatives, communicated his experiences, and asked for an apology, which OzChild eventually gave.

The apology I got, you would have to say, was a removal of pain, and locked up pain as well, because it’s not only the legal side you take on, it’s the journey you’ve been through all your life. Whether you go down the legal road or not, these things happened to you as a person… It happened in that place supposedly caring for children… I think compensation can be money, but it can also be an apology. I think that really is the biggest part of the compensation for me, and I got the apology in my home. It was fantastic, and it was genuine.

In addition to the support of Geoff’s friends, both adoptive and natural family members, and his own family, Geoff believes that when it came to addressing his experiences in out of home care, his writing letters to newspapers and to parliamentarians were the most effective.

I had at least one article I know that was in the Age. It went into Sydney [Morning] Herald as well. But I had three articles in The Border Mail here. I had a couple of articles about my journey. My journey to Canberra, the redress, the apology that I received finally from Oz child, which was fantastic.

Geoff also participated in the federal Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2013-2017) and attended reunions where he met others who lived in the orphanage at the same time, and even remembered him.

Although Geoff has always known he was adopted, he describes his upbringing as having caused him to “grow up quickly” and be “different” from his family and peers. That said, Geoff feels like he is finally settled, “content with [his] life,” and that OzChild’s apology—plus compensation he has received—had a truly positive impact on his ability to heal from the emotional pain he had endured.

So now I have comfort, I have security, I have a late model car, wide television, and an electric blanket. I rebuilt my life with that money and it also helped my son into a home. So I think I’ve done a reasonably good job at survival and getting some kind of justice…

 I’m happy, I’m truly content with my life. I’ve got a loving son…


“Melbourne Orphanage (1926-1965).” Find & Connect, 2021.

Images supplied.