Former gang associate Billy Tanu's message to sexual and domestic abuse survivors after years of drugs and crime

Warning: This story discusses sexual abuse, domestic abuse and self-harm.

A former gang associate who turned to drugs and crime after being abused at multiple state-run boys' homes is urging troubled young people to seek help and not lose hope. 

Billy Tanu's body bears marks from self-harming. He did it to cope with his painful past. 

It started after the violence at home; beatings from his older brothers and his dad. 

"My spirit was broken at a young age," he said. "His hidings were not five minutes, man - maybe three or four hours, maybe all night."

When Tanu was taken to Epuni Boys' Home in Lower Hutt, the violence continued at the hands of other residents. He said he was also sexually abused by the staff there, aged nine or ten. 

"Touching where you feel that it's wrong but you're too young to say anything."

Tanu was in and out of various care homes, including the Hodderville Boys' Home in Waikato run by the Salvation Army. There, as a 14-year-old, the beatings continued to the point he'd wet his bed in fear. 

Gangs, drugs and crime became a way to escape. 

"I wanted to break the law as much as I could. I just retaliated for what I had been through as a kid," he said.

Wellington Prison was the next stop.

"I learned to read and write in jail. I did it by reading the Bible and then copying it down."

On Tuesday, after 40 years, he told his story publicly as part of the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care's Pacific investigation. 

Of Tokelauan and Māori descent, Tanu is now a 50-year-old. But has a message for troubled young people faced with violence or fear. 

"Don't feel that you're alone and no one cares and then you fall into depression," he said.

"Kia Kaha - you know you've just got to open up to people for help. Don't be afraid to ask for help."

He found solace from the suffering through having his own children.

"I'm living proof that there's light at the end of the tunnel."

That light for Tanu now is his own family and aspirations of getting his own home and returning to work as a truck driver.