Annabel’s parents told her that they were sending her to a holiday camp to get ‘a little break from home’. In fact, they sent her to a privately-run drug rehabilitation centre in New South Wales. It was the late 1970s and Annabel was 14 years old.
The executive director of the centre was a charismatic man in his 40s named Jason Robins. Soon after Annabel arrived, Robins began to manipulate and torment her. It was a strategy he used with many of the children at the centre. He claimed that he had to break them down so that he could build them up again anew. In truth he was grooming Annabel and others for sexual abuse.
As part of this process, Robins punished the children with sleep deprivation, gruelling interrogation sessions and public shaming. One of his techniques was to haul a ‘wrongdoer’ before a group of about 20 people and then read out a report of their alleged transgression.
Then, as Annabel recalled, ‘All those people began screaming profanities at you for a period of two to five minutes. The noise was so powerful the glass in the windows and the floorboards shook’.
Robins also employed subtler grooming techniques. During group therapy sessions he would put one child into the ‘hot seat’ and get the others to write one-word descriptions of the chosen victim’s sexual identity onto a blackboard.
‘I was so embarrassed when I was sitting out the front in the hot seat and the words written on the blackboard to describe me such as “frigid”, “inexperienced” and so forth. I tried to hold the tears back.’
Robins encouraged the kids to masturbate. He questioned Annabel about whether she was attracted to other girls. He claimed to have great insight into her sexual identity and eventually, after several group sessions, offered her his conclusions. He said:
‘That I was of the “father-daughter” relationship. That I was attracted to older men and liked to be sexually treated like their little girl. I was easily manipulated during those teenage years and, yes, I did question my beliefs and began to adopt Mr Robins’ beliefs as my own. Like all the other young girls I wanted Mr Robins’ attention, but only as a father image.’
Eventually Robins kissed and groped Annabel. Terrified, she froze. Displeased with this reaction, Robins tried another grooming strategy. He gave Annabel the job of looking after his own young children who all lived in a small house attached to the centre. One night after Annabel had put the kids to bed, Robins approached her.
‘Once again he started putting his tongue in my mouth. I froze. He said “Fair enough” and went back to his little girl Ellen and started kissing her passionately. I felt sick and I wanted to protect the child so I said “Okay, come back”.’
Robins then kissed and groped Annabel. He did the same thing many more nights after that.
A year or so into Annabel’s stay, a boy was transferred in from another rehab centre that Robins and his cohorts ran in a nearby town. The boy brought news that Annabel’s little sister, who was a resident of the other centre, had been abused by Robins.
‘Filled with rage’ Annabel grabbed a knife from the kitchen and ran around the centre looking for Robins, declaring her plans to kill him. Robins was away from the centre that day and didn’t return until Annabel had calmed down. Staff told him what Annabel had said and done.
From that moment, Annabel said, Robins began to fear that she might report him and so he tried to discredit her. His first step was to ship her off to another centre where he tried to get his underlings to frame her for fraud. When that failed he brought her back to the original rehab centre and locked her up. Annabel climbed the fence one night and escaped.
Annabel then contacted her parents who managed to get her sister out of the centre and away from Robins. Next Annabel and another girl from the centre reported Robins’ behaviour to his superiors on the rehab centre’s board of directors. The board believed the girls’ story and fired Robins.
Annabel feels proud that she was able to get Robins removed from the centre. She knows that by doing so she has effectively saved dozens of kids from being abused. But even this sense of pride and achievement was not enough to dull Annabel’s pain. For that, she turned to heroin.
‘I started using a week before I turned 16, so I was still 15. And I stopped taking heroin when I was 23. Then I was clean for four and half years. Then I busted for another couple of years. And then I got clean in my 30s and I got up to 13 years clean. And then when my marriage fell apart I went back to drugs again.’
Annabel believes that her drug problem and the other major troubles in her life can be traced directly back to the abuse inflicted by Mr Robins.
‘I was robbed of an education, a career. When I was a child I was quite a bright child in private school. I was robbed of all that … I was robbed of the potential of choosing a good partner, being a good mother. I was robbed of my family, my immediate family. My mental health – I developed also anxiety and depression. I’ve been in and out of therapy my entire life because of it. I just believe if I hadn’t of gone there, there was a good chance I would have had a normal life.’
Robins was never charged with the abuses he inflicted on Annabel and the other children at the rehab centre. He was, however, charged with abusing his own children and for that he served time in jail. He died some years after his release.
Annabel is angry that she never got the chance to confront him about what he did. Even so, she considers herself fortunate.
‘I feel like in some ways I’m lucky because I have the strength to get through. And I’ve always wanted this chance to talk about it. And if I can ever stop some child ever going through it again I want to. I just don’t want any kids to get hurt.’