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Erin Elissa's story

‘I do have a very strong faith. And it’s ironic because … two of the abuse situations happened within a church setting. But I guess I’ve separated who God is to me, as opposed to people that do a poor job of representing … him.’

Erin was four when she was first sexually abused. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, she describes her family as strong and stable and a ‘good anchor point’. However, her grandfather abused her during his rare visits. This stopped when Erin confronted him, at around 13 years of age, saying, ‘I know I’m not going to jail, you will’. This resilience has been a lifelong characteristic.

When she was young there was also abuse at a Uniting Church Sunday school in Adelaide. A young male classroom assistant would kneel down next to the kids as they did their activities at their desks. With adults and children present in the room, he would put his hand under Erin’s skirt and fondle her.

‘I didn’t even have a reference for what was normal, what wasn’t, what was inappropriate, what was appropriate … Because I couldn’t remember his name … it never crossed my mind to offer that information anywhere, which I regret because I would guarantee he’s probably offended against other children.’

Being a gifted student, Erin was accelerated into high school at the age of 11. She was warned by other students about two male sports teachers, who would watch the girls get undressed. As Erin was often slower, she was sometimes watched on her own. When she and a few other girls reported this to a female teacher, they were given the brush-off and told that if they were quicker in the change-rooms, it wouldn’t happen.

Also in this year, Erin trained in basketball which was held at a nearby college. While alone in the change-rooms one time she was assaulted by a cleaner, a man in his 50s. He kissed her and was trying to take her clothes off when Erin’s sister walked in and interrupted him.

Erin disclosed to her teacher who sent her to the principal’s office. ‘I didn’t really like that because I had no relationship with the principal … I’d never done anything wrong in my life and so that was very upsetting, and even speaking with that person was probably the most inappropriate way to handle it … because I thought I was in trouble.’

The principal of the college was contacted, and spoke with the cleaner. The cleaner ‘up and went’. Erin feels the schools weren’t ‘fussed’ about the whole thing. ‘There were no other additional arrangements put in place the next week … We didn’t have parents there on lookout or we didn’t have any new rules … so I feel like if they’d let me go to the community policing squad … I think he wouldn’t have disappeared into oblivion, but because he got word of it, off he went.’ However, the police did take a statement.

When Erin was around 12 another teacher, of a subject she was struggling with, kept her back after school one day. He started to assault her, saying that he would pass her in the subject if they came to some ‘arrangement’. Erin’s ‘warning bells went off’ and she got away. She didn’t show up to many of his classes after that.

Erin didn’t tell her parents about these teachers but did discuss it with her aunt, who said she should tell the principal. Erin didn’t want everyone at the school to know about it and took it no further.

‘As a child I think it affected me negatively … It delayed areas of development … my motion development was not on par with my peers. My social development was not on par with other children.’ Erin was a quiet and withdrawn child until she ‘went naughty and just behaved really off the charts’. It also affected her academically.

When Erin was around 15 she disclosed some of her abuse to a Church of Christ group leader. He was very sympathetic and referred Erin to a senior minister, Greg Tate, for counselling. When Erin saw Tate, a man in his 60s, he made inappropriate remarks and put his hand up her school skirt and touched her. ‘That was pretty much the end of my attempts to seek counselling for a number of years.’

Erin feels that these childhood experiences made her better prepared to face difficulties later in life.

‘I feel really strongly about working with children and young people, and them having safe and creative opportunities to grow … Because I had teachers that did the wrong thing by me … I thought I can be someone that can be a positive and a safe adult for kids that might be going through a difficult time.’

Erin is quite comfortable speaking about her past and often shares her story. But she hasn’t thought of reporting to police or seeking redress, mainly because it was so many years ago. She also hadn’t classed some of the events as abuse.

Over the past 10 years Erin has fostered many children. She has also implemented child safety procedures at her church, something that gives her a sense of coming ‘full circle’.

‘I haven’t grown up to become an adult who’s part of the problem. But I feel like I’m becoming a part of the solution … And I think I get strength from that.’

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