Claudette’s mother always struggled. Her marriage had broken up and she had four children to care for by herself. Claudette would often stay with an older sister whenever her mother was mentally unwell. In 1976, when Claudette was seven years old she was placed in her first foster care home and was sent to a camp for underprivileged children organised by the South Australian Department of Community Welfare for some respite.
Claudette was sexually abused by the camp leader. She reported the abuse to her mother who spoke to the department about it.
‘I did say something to Community Welfare about [him] after telling my mother but as far as me going to police or having it taken any further … nothing happened.’
The man continued to be involved with the department and to provide services to children and young people for many years after Claudette’s abuse.
Her mother attempted suicide and was frequently mentally unable to look after Claudette, so she remained under the care of Community Welfare. On one organised visit with her mother when she was 10 years old, Claudette was sexually abused by one of her older brother’s friends. She told her mother and made a statement to the police about the boy but has never heard what happened to him.
When she was 12 years old, she was placed in a foster family in Adelaide. Her foster father began to sexually abuse her almost immediately. He would regularly force her to have intercourse with him in her bedroom at night, would tongue kiss her whenever she left for school, and would attempt to touch her intimately whenever he had the opportunity. He would also tell her he loved her after he had abused her.
Her foster mother knew about the abuse but did nothing to stop it. She would, instead, often become jealous of Claudette and physically abuse her.
‘She was very strict with me and would hit me a lot and for a long time, because of that, I hardly spoke because she would hit me … I couldn’t speak up for myself because I would just get hit in the face. I got so sick of it at one stage that I threatened to her that I’ll just ring the police. She said “Yeah, go on, all they’ll see is a stupid little girl and they wouldn’t believe you” … she was very degrading of me … there was a time when she was crying … and I said “What’s wrong?” She just cried and screamed at me “Keep your hands off my husband”. I was 13.’
When her foster parents’ marriage broke up, Claudette was often sent to her foster father’s for ‘access visits’ and he would continue his abuse of her. Claudette remained in the care of the foster mother until she was 16 years old. She was further sexually abused by several of her foster mother’s new partners.
Throughout her years in care, Claudette only had one social worker until she turned 16 years of age, something that seemed beneficial to Claudette. But this woman became friendly with her foster parents and Claudette was never allowed to speak with her alone.
‘Why, as someone who had been in the social work field, couldn’t she recognise certain traits, certain behaviours that I was being abused? Such as being sexualised, smoking, stealing – so all of these behaviours was acting out against something.’
Claudette was also unaware of her options. She felt that all that was on offer was to remain with the abusive foster parents or to return to her mentally unwell and suicidal mother. She also relied on her social worker and didn’t want to jeopardise that relationship by reporting the sexual and physical abuse.
‘I loved her. I didn’t want to disappoint her. At a young age I was taking it on board myself.’
At one point Claudette did report her abuse to a teacher at her high school but she pleaded with him not to say or do anything about it. It appears that he did as she asked because nothing changed in her foster home. Now, Claudette wishes he had reported the abuse.
‘I think he should have done everything to keep me safe … I felt he was an adult that I could trust … he was there as an adult friend I could actually trust.’
As an adult, Claudette was one of a number of people who gave testimony against the leader of the camp about her sexual abuse as a child. The case took six years to come before a court but the survivors did win. The man went to jail for two years, a lighter sentence than he may have received due to legal limitations around the case. Living through the years of preparation for the case was very difficult for Claudette.
‘Two of the people that actually came forward, because it dragged on so long … two people [survivors] actually committed suicide … It’s a lot harder on some people than it is on others depending on just how strong a will to live, to survive.’
While she was granted compensation in relation to this man’s abuse, she is ambivalent about the idea of compensation.
‘I’m one of those who actually found it quite difficult to receive it [compensation] because of what it meant … others … have actually decided in the end that they didn’t want the money. You know, they won and that was enough for them and actually having the money and thinking “This is what I have got for all of that” … I see things like politicians getting defamation cases and getting $200,000 …
‘Is this what I’m worth for everything that has happened to me?’
Claudette initiated a case against her foster father, but when it came to court he was not convicted.
‘I got to tell my story. I know that he was guilty. The people in the courtroom after I had given my evidence knew he was guilty ... so there was [that] side of things ...
‘I never thought it was not worthwhile for me to have gone through that. Giving that statement. Feeling heard. But then, in the end not feeling there’d been justice.’
While Claudette believes she received excellent support from the police and the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) throughout both her cases, she would like to see more straightforward and timely processes for sexual abusers to be charged and convicted. She also believes that survivors need to be supported after the case is finalised, not just in the preparation before the case goes to court.
‘I could have done with a lot more support afterwards ... I survived right through it. However, thriving after going through all that and bringing it all up? I could have done with a few more strategies.’
She would like to see more awareness of trauma-informed counselling support in the community. Before she found significant help, Claudette was diagnosed with mental illnesses, anxiety disorders and medicated for various conditions. Her trauma wasn’t addressed as crucial to her ongoing wellbeing.
Claudette’s life has been severely impacted by her abuse. She has difficulty managing intimate relationships and is estranged from her family, including her children. She has also had long periods of homelessness.
Recently, she has moved interstate and has found support, housing and is beginning to rebuild her life.