Growing up in an Aboriginal family on the New South Wales Central Coast, Courtney was regularly abused by her stepfather. ‘My mother stayed with my stepfather and he sexually assaulted me, bashed me, all my life. She chose not to leave him and so I still don’t have much contact with her at all because it kills me inside.’
Courtney, who had mental health issues, frequently engaged in self-harming behaviour. Her mother was unable to cope with this and relinquished care of her to the Department of Community Services (DOCS). Courtney was 14 in the early 2000s when DOCS placed her in a youth hostel run by Jason Lester and his sister Raylene.
Courtney told the Commissioner that as far as she knew the hostel was operated independently by Jason and Raylene but received its funding from DOCS. Staff at the hostel were mostly friends or family of the Lesters, including their nephew Matthew. Courtney felt happy in that environment and believed they genuinely cared about her. ‘It was like they were my family at first … Their nephew, he was 21 at the time, I’m not sure whether he had qualifications as a youth worker or not but he was working in the refuge. And he used to wrestle with us and he was like a brother to me.’
A year after moving in to the hostel, Courtney was having a bath when Matthew knocked on the bathroom door. ‘He asked me to open the bathroom door and I put a towel around me and said, “Yeah what’s so important?” And he kissed me and I was 15.’
‘After he kissed me he stopped working at that house and started working at another house. They had multiple houses … I ended up getting moved into that house when I was 16, 17 … It was a more independent refuge where you didn’t have the workers full time.’
In order to manage her mental health issues, Courtney had been prescribed medication that caused her to ‘walk around like a zombie for an hour and not remember anything that happened or I did’. One evening Courtney was particularly upset because it was the anniversary of her ‘Pop’ passing away.
‘I was on my heavy medication and it was my Pop’s anniversary and I was very, very upset ... The first occasion he come into my room while I was sleeping and had sex with me … I did wake up but I thought I dreamt it until it happened again three days later and I realised that it had happened.’
During the second occasion Matthew raped Courtney, another resident of the hostel, who was friends with Matthew, accidentally walked in. ‘He just went, “Oh, oh sorry man”, and walked away … He admitted it to me that he’d seen it and knew what happened but he never said anything to the workers. He was Matt’s friend.’
After being raped by Matthew, Courtney became confused and thought they had a future together. ‘I became infatuated with him and thought that he was gonna run off with me and look after me when I turned 18. I had it in my head that, well he’s been like a brother the whole time I’ve been there and he’s listened to all my crap and everything that I’ve been through, that I thought that I could have had a future relationship with him.’
A year later, Courtney mentioned the abuse to a youth worker who reported it to DOCS. DOCS did not remove Courtney from the hostel but gave her a choice whether to report Matthew to the police or not. She chose not to because she still believed at the time that they had a relationship.
‘I feel like maybe that’s the reason I didn’t charge him back then because I felt like it was mutual. Now though that I look at it all, I was a young girl with mental health problems and I was taken advantage of, regardless how I felt back then.’
After disclosing the abuse, Matthew was suspended and staff at the hostel turned on Courtney. Matthew threatened to kill Courtney, which resulted in her returning to self-harming behaviours including suicidal ideation. ‘I tried to kill myself. And I hadn’t self-harmed in two years.’
‘When I needed them the most and I was honest, I was treated like I was a piece of crap. And then there was no confidentiality with them. They told the other clients in the refuge why Matt was suspended and told them that the reason why they have to go to new homes and they’re closing down is because I “claimed” that I got sexually assaulted.’
Eventually Courtney left the hostel but ‘I had no self-confidence. I was very young, that I kept jumping into abusive relationships’. She had a child to a man who ‘beat us to an inch of a life and he went to jail’. She has since had another child. ‘I do the best I can as a mother.’
Several years after leaving the hostel, Courtney was compensated $10,000 after making a victims of crime application. She is currently supported by a psychiatrist and sexual assault counsellor.
‘It’s been 11 years or something and I’m a different person now and I’ve grown up. And I don’t feel that it was right. What he did and the way that I was treated after that had happened.
‘I’m angry at DOCS. I never got an apology. I never got no recognition. It was their job. They took me from the abuse and put me in abuse. It was their job when I reported that to them to move me, not keep me there … DOCS kept me there roughly off my memory for eight months after the event had happened, and I dealt with eight months of crap off the people I thought that loved me.
‘I don’t want anyone else to go through that.’