Brianna was a toddler when she and her three siblings were taken into care. They were split up for a while, moving around to different families in south-western Sydney. The youngest children, Jeremy and Kim, were sent to live with Andrew Sherman and his wife Janet.
When she was five, Brianna and her older sister Jessica moved in with the Shermans too. She was excited that they were all back together again.
The couple physically abused the children often. If Brianna wet the bed, she was beaten and forced to eat large amounts of honey as punishment. ‘They would make us line up and hit us. They would give us salt and pepper, make us eat soap, or hit us with a wooden spoon or belt. ... Having to watch each other get hit, that wasn’t good.’
Brianna remembers Kim hiding under the table, watching while Sherman beat Brianna with a pool cue. ‘I was crying on my hands and knees. I just looked at her, and I remember putting my hand up to my face and seeing blood on my hand. I just kept looking at my sister... At that point, after someone hits you so much, you can’t feel it.’
She still worries about what the Jeremy and Kim may have gone through before she and Jessica arrived, as they were so young that may not have been able to tell anyone.
Soon after Brianna moved in, Sherman began sexually abusing her. She told a respite carer that when Sherman kissed her, ‘he puts his tongue down my throat’.
Sherman would mostly abuse Brianna in her bedroom at night. ‘It got pretty frequent ... I remember I was hurting down there, it hurt.’ He also sexually abused Jessica.
One day the family had people around for a barbeque, including Janet’s brother and sister-in-law. ‘Because I was hurting, I said something to her brother, which he then questioned Janet about.’
The police were called and Brianna was interviewed. Sherman was charged with indecent assault, and entered a guilty plea. She suspects he did this in an attempt to prevent any further investigation.
Although Brianna had reported that her genitals were sore, Sherman claimed in his statement that there was no ‘skin to skin’ contact. He also stated that the abuse happened far less often than it did. He was sentenced to periodic detention for a short period, before being granted parole.
Brianna is upset that the matter was not investigated more thoroughly, and would like to see Sherman back in court. She knows he has a new partner now, and doesn’t want her to find out about his offences.
‘Why should he be happy when he got away, he wasn’t honest from the start? Why does he get to live happily ever after?’
The children were left with Janet, who continued to beat them and punish them cruelly. They didn’t tell DOCS about this. They didn’t know they could.
‘It wasn’t until we got older that we learnt that it was wrong, and that they weren’t allowed to do that.’ Brianna is angry that neither Sherman or Janet were ever held accountable for the physical abuse, and wonders how the children could go to school covered in bruises without questions being asked.
Brianna also believes Janet was aware Sherman was sexually abusing her sister. On an interstate holiday Janet put Brianna’s sister in the same bed as Sherman, while she and the rest of the children slept elsewhere.
‘I think that she knew what was going on ... And therefore, again, she got away too when he was being questioned. She looked like the innocent party.’
Counselling was arranged for Brianna. She doesn’t remember speaking much to her counsellor, just playing with toys. The effect of this counselling was limited by the fact that she was still living with Janet at this time.
After leaving Janet’s care, she was moved around again. The next couple she was placed with would lock her outside at night, knowing she was scared of the dark. Another carer she had was ‘alright,’ but their relationship broke down.
‘I knew I was going through something, that I couldn’t stop hurting people.’ After this she moved in with her grandparents, but this didn’t last long.
Brianna was bullied at high school, and quit during her final year. In some ways she regrets this. Then again, ‘I don’t think I’d be here if I’d stayed’.
It was around this time she left foster care, and her job. Insomnia, anxiety and depression set in. ‘I did end up feeling like I’d lost a part of myself over time, and I still don’t know where she’s gone.’
Living with nightmares, distrustful of people, drinking too much – sometimes it just didn’t seem worth going on. She started planning how to take her life, and fantasised that the carers who harmed her would witness her death. She wanted them to see the damage they had done.
Brianna felt like ‘the worst person in the world’ for thinking about suicide, and worried about the impact on her siblings if she took this path. ‘I know that they’ve said to me that if I ever did anything to hurt myself they’d probably do it too.’
Her GP referred her to a youth mental health service, and she began to get help. ‘Before I went there I hadn’t slept for days. I was banging my head on a pole trying to knock myself out so I could sleep ... It was probably the worst day I’ve had in my life.’
Right now Brianna wants to ‘keep looking towards the light’, and to keep accessing support. She finds it difficult to keep engaging with services, even when she knows she needs to. ‘It’s hard, this is something that constantly comes back ... I have so much to learn and teach myself now.’
Brianna keeps herself busy, working long hours in a job she loves. ‘I want to earn the money, I want to keep myself occupied. I don’t want to let myself dwell.’ She has recently signed up as an emergency services volunteer, and has plans to apply to join the defence forces.
Although she still cares a lot about her siblings, Brianna doesn’t see them much these days. ‘It’s a bit hard to be a family when we’re all just kind of broken.’