As soon as Briony was born she was treated for the symptoms of withdrawal from alcohol and illicit drugs, which her mother had been using throughout her pregnancy. ‘Then for some reason, they sent me home with her.’
Her parents separated when she was still very young, and she stayed with her mother. ‘She had numerous partners. I was physically, sexually abused, I was used as a sex slave, I suppose you’d say. She was a sex worker at one stage, and then if they wanted me she’d do that.’
One of Briony’s teachers eventually questioned her about her family life after noticing she was dirty and bruised, and often did not bring any food to school. She told the teacher what was happening at home and was taken into care by the Department of Community Services (DOCS).
After an initial short-term foster placement, Briony was sent to live with the Brown family in Sydney’s south. It was the 1980s and the Browns had several of their own biological children, as well as others they had fostered or adopted.
Briony craved being accepted into the family. Her foster father, Mervyn, was affectionate towards Briony, and told her that he loved her. He then began sexually abusing her when she was eight years old.
At least twice a week Mervyn would come into her bedroom. ‘He would touch me under my pyjamas and underwear. He would put his fingers inside me and masturbate himself. He would hold me from struggling and would keep saying “shush it's all right all going to be all right, keep quiet”. He would kiss me sometimes on my face.’
Sometimes when they were out the beach, Mervyn would fondle her in the water, holding her against his erection. He would also initiate games of ‘tickle’, trying to put his fingers inside her.
Briony was 10 when she first told her foster mother Janis (‘a viper’) what Mervyn was doing to her. Janis called her a ‘lying bitch’ and a ‘whore’, slamming her head repeatedly against the fridge, and accused her of seducing Mervyn. Briony managed to push Janis away, and threatened to kill her.
DOCS case workers would not visit the house when Briony was in the Browns’ care, as Janis would yell at them over the phone or slam the door in their faces. ‘They just wouldn’t come back ... They just were so terrified, and they left me there. Why wouldn’t you go to the nearest police station?’
A couple of years later, the Browns applied to adopt Briony. Still wanting to be part of a family, Briony agreed to the adoption – ‘I just wanted to belong to someone’. Mervyn continued sexually abusing her, but stopped when she became more developed.
Janis threw Briony out of the house at 16, so she went to live with her boyfriend and his family. She was upset that she did not have a chance to say goodbye to the other children, and worried about them.
In her early twenties, Briony told Annie, one of the Browns’ biological daughters, that Mervyn had sexually assaulted her. Annie didn’t believe her. Less than 10 years later Briony found out that Mervyn had been charged with abusing a number of the children, and felt overwhelming guilt that she had not been able to prevent this.
‘I tried to protect those two while I was there. But later on, I do know, that she [Janis] actually walked in and caught him with some of the other kids. And the best thing she did, was she called a family meeting to figure out how to control it.’
Briony made a formal police statement and Mervyn was charged and convicted with multiple offences against a number of victims. He received a custodial sentence, with a short non-parole period.
The prosecution did not support Briony well throughout the trial process. They failed to accommodate her and her young child even though she had to travel a long way to testify, which was very distressing as she had no money. She has since received a small amount of victims compensation, but has never sought any payment from DOCS.
Briony described the impacts of the abuse to the Commissioner, including post-traumatic stress disorder, nightmares and disrupted sleep (she has self-harmed during night terrors). ‘It’s either drug yourself to the point where you can’t have a dream, or try and dream and cross your fingers that it’s going to be okay.’
Her lack of sex drive impacted on her relationship with her partner, and they are now separated. ‘It takes such a toll on a relationship. The other person doesn’t feel like they’re loved.’
Briony has found her choice of relationships has been influenced by her childhood experiences. ‘A lot of people like me tend to pick crappy partners for themselves. And they will all have their issues, whether it be that they’re controlling or whatever.’
Not having ever had a safe, stable family, she finds herself bonding strongly with her partner’s parents and siblings. ‘That’s just the one thing that I’m craving ... I’m a 36 year-old woman and I still want to curl in the arms of a mother, you know, I just want to lay on the couch and have her stroke my hair ... Just normal things.’
Briony currently receives a disability pension due to her mental health, but still cannot access the level of specialist psychological support she requires. ‘It just feels I can just talk about how it’s affecting me – I can’t shift any of it. I tried several types of medications at one stage.’
She told the Commissioner that survivors of child sexual abuse should be provided with a home, so they have somewhere safe where they can be at peace. She also stressed the need for funding to provide appropriate therapeutic support to survivors, and that adequate compensation should be given (including assistance to manage this money if required).
For many years Briony avoided having children, wondering how she would cope with parenting as well as her own issues, but now has a son. ‘It turns out, it’s the one thing that I’m brilliant at. Without him, life’s just empty ... I’d like a lot more support though.’
Parenting her son ‘is so much more confronting than I thought it would be. Because every day, something will trigger – there’s triggers, there’s multiple triggers. There was without him, but I could control it by not leaving the house, by things being quiet ... With a child you can’t do that ... It’s a shame, but I’m just doing what I can.’