‘If I talk to other families now with disabilities, I actually tell them to be careful. Don’t trust anyone.’
Josh has a moderate to severe intellectual disability and limited descriptive speech. When he was very young, there was no respite care option for kids with disabilities in the regional New South Wales community where he lived with his family.
In the late 1980s, a host family respite care program was established through a non-government organisation. Josh’s parents Coralie and Jack provided a written submission to the Royal Commission, and also met with the Commissioner in person, to describe their involvement in this program.
The organisation arranged for four-year-old Josh to be cared for by Marjorie and Lionel, a well-known local couple, for a few hours each week. This arrangement lasted for seven years, and Marjorie would sometimes offer additional hours when she was able. On at least two occasions Josh spent the day just with Lionel.
During this time, it appeared Josh was being looked after well. Marjorie was very welcoming to other kids in the community too – ‘she willingly took all the children into her house, encouraged them in’.
When Josh was around seven years old he began displaying some very out-of-character behaviours.
‘He would greet men by touching their genital areas and he had problematic sexualised behaviours at school. He had been in trouble on several occasions for touching other children.’
Josh also got in trouble for exposing himself. He began to grind his teeth while awake and asleep.
Nobody at the school asked if his behaviour might be linked to experiencing sexual abuse, and it didn’t occur to Coralie and Jack. ‘Schools and support services provided to those families with disabilities should be better educated on the signs and symptoms that may be displayed if a child or young person is experiencing sexual assault. The behaviours that Josh displayed were put down to his disability; however we now think they may have been his way to demonstrate the abuse perpetrated upon him.’
Almost 20 years after Josh’s respite arrangement ended, a young girl reported that Lionel had sexually abused her. A police investigation was conducted, and many additional victims were identified in the community.
Josh’s carer, Fiona, asked him about Lionel, and he indicated that Lionel had abused him too. As Coralie noted, ‘if we had not known that Josh had been in the home of a paedophile, from having the respite – if we’d known nothing else, we probably would have gone through life not thinking there was anything’. Now Coralie realises that ‘behaviour is language’, and believes Josh was likely telling them about the abuse by his actions when he was younger.
Coralie, Jack, Josh and Fiona all went to the police station to make a statement. They were instructed to wait on the station’s front lawn for an officer who was experienced in dealing with child sexual abuse.
This officer did not take them inside to discuss this matter. Nor did she ask how best to communicate with Josh, and she asked him questions in ways that were not appropriate or useful.
‘This conversation was conducted both in view and potentially within earshot of the public. The police officer asked about Josh's level of understanding and showed me images and illustrations of the human body. This was to see if Josh could use these images to identify any abuse that may have occurred.’
They did not want to put Josh through this process, and so no formal statement was made.
‘People with disability are the most vulnerable groups of individuals and should be given the freedom to express their experiences in other ways other than verbal statements.’
Coralie reported their disappointment with their police engagement overall. ‘It was rather a disaster. To be fair to the police, they don’t know what they’re dealing with. And it’s really annoying that they don’t know what they’re dealing with, because this has been going on a long time. People with disabilities have been abused forever ... For the police to not be up to speed, and to actually have mechanisms to understand, really concerns us.’
They learned that Lionel had previously been convicted of a child sex offence in another state, less than a decade before he and Marjorie began providing care to Josh. Marjorie knew of this conviction, but had never informed Coralie or Jack. No background check was ever conducted on the couple before they were allowed to conduct respite care in their home.
Marjorie was not questioned in relation the child sexual abuse by Lionel. That she may have facilitated Lionel’s offending by bringing children into the house – which was never investigated – is very upsetting to them.
‘Josh is a person who deserves to see justice for the crimes perpetrated against him, both by the perpetrator and by the person whose non-disclosure put him and many other children in the hands of a self-confessed, convicted paedophile.’
Coralie contacted the respite program to get documentation regarding Josh’s care arrangements, but it was incomplete. This means she cannot compare her own diary records about Josh’s behaviour with the times he was in respite.
She told the Commissioner it was disappointing that ‘all the prompting of trying to get to the truth has come from us as a family. Not one of them have said to us, oh Coralie, that’s not good, what can we do as a service, to actually look back through our records, what do you need? It’s a blank wall. It’s only me getting the Freedom of Information forms’.
Josh has now been assessed by a specialist psychologist about the abuse – ‘she said that it’s likely it’s happened’. She also told them that the age Josh was when this abuse occurred, combined with the nature of his intellectual disability, may mean that he has not stored these incidents in a way that he can now easily retrieve or communicate. ‘We have to accept that Josh may never divulge what’s happened to him [verbally].’
Another police officer came to the town and met with all the affected families to talk through their issues with the investigation. He mentioned a pilot program using intermediaries to assist people with disabilities in providing statements. Coralie is not sure how useful this would be for Josh, and does not think there is any way he could ever give evidence in court.
It has been a long and hard road for the family, including Josh’s siblings, and they have recently sought support from a number of organisations. Josh now lives in his own home, on the same property as Coralie and Jack, and works a couple of days a week. He has an excellent team of carers, and has good relationships with the people in his life. Seeing Josh happy in his life has been a big relief to Coralie and Jack.