One year in the 2010s, Katie spent every Wednesday and Thursday afternoon at the house of her best friends from primary school, Mia and Regan Fitzpatrick. The girls were looked after by Mia’s grandmother who often fell asleep and left the girls to play by themselves.
During these times, Mia would make Regan be lookout and she’d tell Katie, ‘This is a love game. This is how I show I love you’, as she touched Katie’s breasts and vagina. Mia also showed Katie online pornography and if Katie objected, she’d be punished by having Mia refuse to speak to her.
Katie’s mother Elise told the Commissioner that regardless of the whether Katie would often be outside the Fitzpatrick’s house at pick up time. She’d be chastised for making her asthma worse. Elise realised later that being outside was Katie’s only way of escaping Mia.
One Friday Elise received a text message from Katie disclosing that Mia had been touching her and that she didn’t like it. Katie then disclosed that the abuse had been happening for nearly a year and that it occurred at school as well as at Mia’s home.
On the same day Katie texted her mother, she also told her class teacher who made a mandatory report to New South Wales Family and Community Services. Elise believed the catalyst for Katie speaking up was that another girl had witnessed Mia’s actions and had intervened to stop it. That she now had a witness made Katie feel she could tell others and be believed.
Elise didn’t hear anything from the school over the weekend and on Monday went to the principal to express her concern and ask what the school intended to do. The principal didn’t know.
‘She was quite perplexed as to – well, her exact words were, “I’m waiting for the CEO of the Catholic Education Office to call me. I’m not entirely sure what to do”, which really doesn’t give you a lot of confidence on this end of the table. I explained to her that, you know, we hadn’t contacted [Mia’s] parents. I said that I felt that I wanted to, because I was actually concerned for both children.’
With no apparent progress from the school, Elise’s partner made a report to the Child Protection Helpline. On Tuesday, the family was contacted by staff of the Joint Investigation Response Team (JIRT) who interviewed Katie and afterwards expressed their views to Elise that they thought it likely from Mia’s language and actions that she was herself being abused. Elise didn’t want Mia charged. However, that seemed the only option available for further action.
Over following weeks, going to school became difficult for Katie. Children began to talk amongst themselves and no leadership was shown by the school in acknowledging or dealing with the matter.
Mia denied the allegations and Mia’s parents became outwardly hostile. Every morning and afternoon they took up positions on either side of the assembled children to glare at and intimidate Katie. Mia’s father began frequenting the public park at which the children ate their lunch, sitting in close proximity to Katie in an apparent attempt to frighten her. On one occasion, the principal told him if he didn’t leave she’d call the police, at which point he left and made a demonstrative show of apologising. The Fitzpatricks’ behaviour was noticed and commented on by other parents.
‘That two-week period really took [Katie] from a confident young lady, thinking that she’s done the right thing, to anyone can get to me, there is no safety net here,’ Elise said. ‘She did not feel safe.’
Mia’s parents threatened legal action and spread rumours through the school community about Elise’s family. The Fitzpatricks’ had been significant contributors and organisers of events at the school, and they now doubled their efforts. They were constantly on school grounds and in the principal’s office and they made public displays of their largesse with donations. The effect, Elise said, was that the principal, other teachers and parents also became intimidated.
None of the children in the girls’ class were ever spoken to and no one from the school rang to see how Katie was going, even after she was admitted to hospital with asthma. There was no effort to include Katie in her end-of-school graduation despite the family’s 15-year association with the school. ‘It’s almost like we were a reminder and as soon as we walked out of that school - you could hear the sigh of relief when I rang to say that [Katie] wouldn’t be there for the graduation ceremony.’
At the end of the year, Katie moved to high school. Elise spoke to the new principal about events of the preceding year and was struck by the contrast between her attitude and that of the primary school principal. ‘The school has offered [Katie] a counsellor and have given her a pass, so that if she’s feeling pressured or if she feels upset, she can leave the class and just go to a quiet area. They’ve been nothing but continually supportive. ‘
Nearly a year after first being alerted to the abuse, Elise said she still felt let down ‘by the system, by the police, and by the school’. Everyone had ‘got on with life’, she said, but she and Katie were left with a lingering sense that nothing had been done.
‘Unless we pressed charges, the police weren’t going to take it any further. I wasn’t interested in pressing charges for an 11-year-old girl. I didn’t feel comfortable with that at all. I was disappointed with JIRT. I was basically told that [Mia] would probably pop up in the system again, that there would be another child, that, you know, there may be other incidents, as they see it quite often; that she may pop up again because somebody else may make a complaint. But I couldn’t understand that either. That’s not something you want to hear at all.’