Clemency attended more than 25 Sydney primary schools as a kid. It was her single mum’s response to the problems Clemency had at school: move her on to somewhere new. ‘I was a bit of a ratbag. Now you’d say I had ADHD, but in those days I was a ratbag’, Clemency said.
When she was nine or 10, in the late 1980s, she was enrolled in a government school for children with special needs. You could attend the school as a day student or live there. Clemency became a residential student, remaining at the school for the next 12 to 18 months.
While there, Clemency experienced multiple episodes of sexual abuse. The consultant psychologist to the school was the first person of several to sexually assault her. During his early sessions with Clemency he touched and groped her and later on he raped her. She doesn’t remember exactly, but believes this happened throughout her stay at the school. ‘It was pretty often, as far as I remember back to that period.’ She believes that other girls were assaulted by him as well.
Clemency was also sexually assaulted by male nurses attached to the school. She remembered a Christmas party being held in the school quadrangle, which was ringed by the students’ sleeping quarters. A couple of the nurses started to touch her inappropriately, ‘to put it politely’, then took her into one of the bedrooms and raped her.
Other placements followed that one. Clemency had been made a ward of the state, so didn’t live for long with her mother again. At one group home she was sexually assaulted by her foster father. ‘That started almost straight away. He’d come into the bedroom at night, put his hand over your face and rape you. It happened basically straight away’, she recalled.
She was moved again, and again. The last time it seemed she was safe. The house parents were ‘nice’ and Clemency ‘had some peace for a little while’. But the nice foster parents left and were replaced by a man Clemency described as ‘a horror’.
Clemency had just turned 16 by then. The new foster father tried have sex with her. ‘I said no. I’d had enough ... He used me as a punching bag.’
The man badly injured Clemency. He broke her nose and cheekbone. ‘I was a mess’, she said.
Clemency caught the bus to the police station and reported the assault. ‘They said bad luck.’ She went to her mother’s place. As with Clemency’s previous attempts to disclose to her mother what had been happening to her, she found her mother not particularly sympathetic. Her mother had arrived in Australia as a refugee from occupied Europe, Clemency explained. She’d had a hard life growing up during the war.
‘I told her about [the abuse] once or twice and she said “That’s life, get on with it”. I think she was abused as a child as well, so she thought it was normal.’
Clemency didn’t return to government-run care after that. She lived with her mother and at several homes associated with the church she attended. At one of these she met Darren, who later became her husband and came to the Royal Commission with her. She found employment in childcare, and worked in that field until she became a full-time carer of her own children.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that Clemency reported the abuse she’d experienced, to a DOCS officer who’d been working with her to help manage the complex needs of her then-teenage son, Phoenix. ‘I ended up with him having respite care in a home. I didn’t like the idea but there was no other option at that point. I revealed this to the worker I had, then went to the police the same day.’
Despite the seriousness of her allegations, the police didn’t take any action. ‘I pushed it but nothing happened’, she said. Six months later, she withdrew her complaints. She is now reconsidering that decision, and thinking of reporting to police again. She also plans to seek compensation, though is uncertain about the process.
‘I want to but I don’t know how to. I think it’s fair enough that I do. I think I’ve had enough of my childhood destroyed, and it’s affecting my kids as well as me, that they deserve it just as much as I do. And it’s the stupid things like getting our teeth fixed. If they’d been cared for back then, we wouldn’t have the issues we have now.’
Clemency has had several spells in mental health facilities throughout her adult life. She is bipolar, she said. ‘It’s hard.’ She is very obese, and believes her weight gain is a consequence of the abuse she suffered. She is scheduled to have weight loss surgery, and as part of that process will be having regular sessions with a psychologist. She thinks it’s likely her childhood experiences will be discussed in that context. She hasn’t spoken of it with psychologists before. ‘I don’t feel comfortable to’, she said.
Looking back, Clemency believes that if her difficulties at school had been noticed and acted on sooner, her life would have unfolded very differently - ‘If they’d recognised the problems I was having in the school, before it got to the point where Mum couldn’t cope’, she told the Commissioner.
Widening responsibility for duty of care is another issue that concerns her. ‘Accountability. Because it wasn’t just the perpetrators, it was those that were around. They were just as guilty. Because they were there to protect us and that’s not what they did.’