Anita was born with a physical disability and grew up in a remote area where there were few services to support her. So when she was five years old, her parents sent her to live in the city at a home run by a disability service provider.
Anita told the Commissioner that the home was poorly managed. She recalled that she went hungry a lot of the time and was underweight from age five until age 11 because the staff often left her to feed herself. She said, ‘I’m not able to effectively put nutrition in my mouth. … Frequently I got tired before I got full’.
The home was also poorly run in terms of the protections it provided to the children. One of the staff nurses, Nathan Hilly, was permitted to take Anita away with him for the weekend. On these occasions he sexually abused her during her bath time by ‘paying unusual attention’ to her vaginal area.
Anita said she was disturbed by Nathan’s behaviour but didn’t understand it. ‘It always felt strange, it always felt wrong, but I was only a child.’
One time Nathan tried to take the abuse further.
‘He asked me if I wanted to sleep in the bed with him or on the couch in a sleeping bag, and I felt very threatened, but again I think because I was articulate and had parents that cared, he actually left me to sleep in the sleeping bag. But I was terrified because he had to help me go to the toilet. I was his captive the whole weekend. I did not sleep in that sleeping bag. I sweated. I remember looking out the window and just wishing I could escape.’
Anita said the fear from that night ‘has stayed with me my whole life’. She was too scared to report Nathan to anyone at the home. She felt that by allowing him to have such free access to her they had in a way ‘sanctioned’ his behaviour and so couldn’t be trusted.
During this time, Anita went home regularly on weekends and holidays to see her parents, but she didn’t feel she could tell them either.
‘It was too hard to tell my parents because they might not believe me, they might have felt extremely guilty because every time I went back there were tears and much sadness.’
The abuse came to an end when Anita was about 11 and her parents moved to a less remote area where better services were available. By then, the impacts were starting to show in Anita’s behaviour. She began to overeat, ‘trying to cover myself up, make myself unattractive’.
Then, when she was 16, Anita spoke about the abuse for the first time. She approached a family friend whom she had always trusted and treated like an older brother.
‘I told him what had happened to me, because I was haunted by it. And him saying to me, “Yes it was wrong, yes you were under threat” actually enabled me to regain a sense of self, regain a sense of being able to control my eating, to put myself back together. Just having him acknowledge it, something had happened to me that was bad, I found it helped me to get over it, to heal.’
Anita said she is not interested in pursuing police action against her abuser or civil action against the home. This is ‘simply because it’s too hard to do that and not have my family involved’. Anita has never told her family what happened and said she never wants them to know.
Today, Anita works in disability services. She is passionate about protecting children with disabilities but said that she isn’t exactly sure how best to do it. ‘It’s difficult to find the right protections without impinging on the freedoms of people you support. It’s such a hard balance.’
She said that a problem with some disability services is that they try to ‘do everything’.
‘Think about it in terms of a dish of water. If the dish is full of water then no other water can get into that dish. So if you fill the space with people who are paid to be there, then there’s no room. Family get pushed out, friends are not welcomed in. We need to be conscious of always creating space. Inviting people in, rather than thinking that we can be a holistic system and keeping people out.’