Charmaine came to the Royal Commission to talk about her son, Sebastian, who is now 17 years old. Because of his disabilities, Sebastian has limited verbal skills. This was part of the reason why, at age 12, he wasn’t able to express exactly what was happening to him at school. But Charmaine knew from his behaviour that something was up.
‘He’d get really close to me and be laughing hysterically … He actually started spitting and I couldn’t work out why. He’d get out of the bus of an afternoon and go over and spit on the grass.’
At the time, Sebastian was attending a specialist school for kids with disabilities, located a short drive from Charmaine’s house in New South Wales. She decided to go to speak to his teacher. A few minutes into the conversation her worst suspicions were confirmed. The teacher said that if Sebastian said anything about penises, Charmaine should not doubt that he was telling the truth.
‘And this was just alarming to start with … I actually questioned her on that. I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “I can’t say any more”.’
Feeling even more anxious now, Charmaine went home and spoke to Sebastian.
‘I asked Sebastian had anyone touched his penis or put their penis to him or touched him with their penis. And he said, “No, Derek say keep it a secret”.’
Derek was one of Sebastian’s classmates. He was a few years older but the two of them hung out together regularly and called each other ‘best friends’.
Charmaine assured Sebastian that if anyone told him to keep such secrets they were doing the wrong thing. She tried to get him to speak more about what happened but Sebastian told her to go away. Charmaine gave him some space for as long as she could, then opened the conversation again later in the evening.
She told him that if anyone touched his penis it was okay to tell Mum.
‘Sebastian said, “Me say no, no, no and no … but he not listen”. I asked Sebastian what he did, what Derek Matthews did, and Sebastian said, “He suck my penis”.’
Sebastian went on to say that Derek had done this to him several times in the boys’ toilets at school. By this stage, Charmaine was very upset but kept it together long enough to get him settled and off to bed. Then she rang the police. They were not helpful.
‘It was, “Well, the offender’s got a developmental delay as well. Not even really worth reporting it”.’
Undeterred, Charmaine rang the school the next morning and spoke to the principal. The principal was sceptical and reluctant to move at first, but at Charmaine’s insistence she contacted the Department of Education and the Department of Community Services.
Meanwhile, Charmaine spoke to police again and they got in touch with some caseworkers from the Joint Investigation Response Team (JIRT), who then scheduled interviews with Sebastian and Derek. Charmaine was not allowed to attend the interview with her son and had to scramble at the last minute to find a support service that would provide someone to sit in on the interview.
The outcomes of the interviews and the subsequent JIRT investigation were disappointing for Charmaine. JIRT acknowledged that some abuse had happened but they said that because of Derek’s disability he couldn’t be charged, and because there were no other specialist schools in the area, he would have to return to the same school.
Sebastian, likewise, had nowhere else to go, so he ended up back at the school, too. The principal arranged for the two boys to be kept separate at all times and enforced an existing but largely ignored rule that they would have to ask permission to go to the toilet. Sebastian resented this as it made him feel like a little kid.
From start to finish, Charmaine was disappointed with the way the school treated her son. She was also disappointed with the way they failed to inform her of the abuse and failed to offer her or Sebastian any counselling.
These days, Charmaine no longer trusts the school to do the right thing. When the principal undertook some training courses, supposedly designed to give her the skills needed to better protect the kids, Charmaine was sceptical. She suspects that the real purpose of the training was to give the principal the skills needed to better protect the school.
‘She had been trained to deal with parents … in a defensive way. The school is not transparent. Still now. They say it’s to keep the kids in, but I’m sure it’s to keep the parents out.’
Charmaine has kept up a strong line of communication with her son ever since the incidents and she’s confident that he suffered no further abuse. But she knows that he’s still troubled by what happened.
‘He’ll just floor me at 7.30, breakfast time: “Why Derek do that bad thing to me?” And I said, “Mate” – and this is how I got my head around it too – “I think there was nobody that loved Derek enough that, when somebody did a bad thing to him, to say, ‘Don’t do that bad thing’. And to stop it”.’