Erica came to the Royal Commission to talk about her daughter, Madeleine, who was sexually abused at her state-run primary school in Tasmania.
Erica was called to the school one day in the 2010s and told there had been an incident involving Madeleine, who was then five years old. The vice principal told her a boy had taken Madeleine to the toilets, where he engaged in ‘sexualised play’.
Erica took Madeleine home and asked her to explain again what had happened. Madeleine said there were three boys. They locked her inside a cubicle and wouldn’t let her leave until she took off her clothes. Then one of the boys came into the cubicle with her.
‘Madeleine said “He made his penis go like this and he climbed over me, Mum”, and she did thrusting, mimicking thrusting, “and he made it go in my vagina”. Now I cannot under any circumstances, you cannot claim that’s sexualised play. Sexualised play is a flash. This is very very, very different. And the fact that previous to that, he’d asked her to kiss his penis the week before, which we never were told about, and they’d had her whole dress off under the table, and we were never informed about it.
‘If they’ve actually done what they should’ve done initially then this horrendous thing perhaps would not have happened to her. But even the fact that it did happen to her, as horrendous as it actually is, we just wanted them to do the right thing. And I don’t think that’s unreasonable.’
Erica and her husband had a meeting the next day with the principal and vice principal. They asked the school to report the incident to police and child protective services but the school said that wasn’t school policy and that they would deal with it themselves. They asked for a copy of the policy but the school said they couldn’t give it to them. They asked for help finding a child psychologist who could talk to Madeleine straight away but the school said they couldn’t help with that.
Erica contacted the education department and was told the school had responded appropriately and that reports had been made to the authorities. She asked for copies of the reports and policies but was refused. She then embarked on a lengthy and arduous process of obtaining documents through freedom of information legislation and found certain records had been destroyed and others could not be made available ‘as per protocol from the department’. Erica said she found the whole process incredibly frustrating and wishes she had just gone to the police herself straight away.
In the meantime, Madeleine, Erica and her husband saw counsellors at a sexual assault clinic but their privacy and confidentiality were compromised.
‘When they found out we were going to the Royal Commission they stopped Madeleine seeing the counsellor. It’s been a very difficult situation through the whole of it, because it’s supposed to be completely independent, it’s supposed to be anonymous. The principal, I’ve got it in writing, the principal rang [the clinic] and spoke to the counsellor in regards to us and the counsellor spoke to them and told them what I had said.’
One of the counsellors they saw put in a report to child protective services and Erica said that when she eventually saw that report, it was ‘like chalk and cheese’ from what Madeleine had told them, and totally ‘watered down’ the events. They eventually arranged alternative counselling for Madeleine through their doctor.
Back at the school, there was a further incident involving the main boy from the assault in the toilets, when he was found kissing Madeleine in a locker room. He was moved to a different classroom but Erica is not aware of the school taking any other actions.
‘This was our concern initially … because children do things, we understand that … but [the incident in the toilets] was well and truly beyond anything that you should be knowing about as a five-year-old child. Our concern, as we stated in that meeting about 10 different times, was that there’s something that’s happened to some child, or who’s seen something or something’s occurring that shouldn’t be. And we were equally concerned for all of those children. That’s not normal behaviour for a child of that age to be exhibiting those things. We didn’t want them to get in trouble. We were concerned for their welfare, we wanted them to actually be helped …
‘All we ever wanted was the children to be protected and for them to do their job. That was it.’
Erica has now decided to move both Madeleine and her older brother to a Catholic-run primary school but this comes with its own set of difficulties.
‘We’re going to have to move house because we can’t afford the fees so we have to find a cheaper home. But we’re happy to do that because … in all honesty, we wanted to pull them out, then I spoke to a psychologist and she said no because Madeleine would perhaps see it as something she had done wrong.’
Overall, Madeleine seems to have coped well with everything that’s happened and the family is now looking forward to a happier time ahead.
‘With Madeleine, we’ve been really happy that, as best as we can tell, when it initially happened she was having some nightmares and things, but we’ve been very happy with how she’s progressing. She was five and the psychologist thought if we keep bringing it up sort of thing, and going over, that might actually do her more harm.’