In the 1990s Edward was 13 years old and living in a residential facility for people with disabilities provided by the Victorian Department of Human Services (DHS). His worsening behavioural issues had left his parents Fabian and Julieanne with little option than to place him in specialist care.
While at this centre Edward was raped several times by a casual worker he called ‘Christopher the adult’. Another worker took Edward to his home and exposed him to pornographic videos.
Edward was also subjected to other ill-treatment whilst in government care (at this centre and elsewhere). At one stage his family was not allowed to visit him for a whole year, and he acquired a brain injury from being forcibly physically restrained by staff.
Julieanne is aware that he was also chemically restrained with high levels of psychotropic medication ‘on the say-so of somebody who was working in the house, somebody not very well qualified usually. You know, I don't mean any disrespect to these people but their qualifications are pretty low down on the level of hierarchy ... Psychiatrists sometimes, you know, they vary too. We had one psychiatrist who said to us, “Well, the more disabled Edward is, the easier he is to look after”’.
As soon as Edward disclosed the abuse by Christopher to his parents they believed him. As Julieanne told the Commissioner, ‘He's got a fantastic memory. He doesn't lie, because autistic people don't understand something not being true. They don't understand guile. And he remembers everything in very great detail. So, you know, we've got no question that this has happened’.
They immediately reported the matter to the DHS, and Fabian recalls their meeting with a senior officer.
‘She went into denial. I've since found that she made no report on that. The department have never acknowledged, never addressed and never incorporated the notion that Edward suffered sexual abuse at any time between then and now.’
Julieanne added ‘We were told he [Christopher] was a casual and he was no longer in their employ, and we found out later he was moved to another position region’.
Fabian and Julieanne also reported the abuse to a police unit specialising in child sexual offences at this time. The investigation did not go very far, however, because at the time Edward was very fragile and the family did not want to subject him to any additional pressures. Also Edward did not know Christopher’s surname, and the department had not provided it to them, so the police were unable to trace him.
In response to their complaint about Edward being abused, the DHS hired an investigations firm to look into this matter. Fabian knows that ‘the first person to go to Christopher was a private investigator. That had the effect of tipping Christopher off that there was something on the move’.
Around 10 years later they reported the abuse to police again. These dealings with the police were very positive. Fabian spoke highly of the main officer who dealt with Edward, (who had been afraid of what the police might do to him) and ‘handled it very well, and was supported very well I think by her supervisors. If that was the least thing we could get out of it, we did get that out of it. Edward realised it was quite safe to tell his story’.
This police investigation continued for a year and Christopher was questioned. The case was predicated on proving that Christopher had been working alone at the centre with Edward. He denied ever doing so (or having heard of this allegation before, despite being contacted by the investigations firm years earlier), and the DHS maintained they had a policy of never allowing workers to do shifts alone – although they did not have any archival records of the roster at the centre.
Fabian’s sister had visited Edward during his time there, however, and recalls being in the house with only him and one worker. Fabian believes the DHS may have deliberately destroyed or hidden records of staff shifts. ‘I would have thought just for the purposes of occupational health and safety, WorkCover, for a whole lot of reasons, that they should have kept a record.’
In the end the matter did not proceed. As Julieanne explained, ‘They [the police] concluded, sadly, that whilst they had a private view this event had taken place by the perpetrator that Edward named, they weren't able to go any further with it ... Also, I think the issue of Edward being able to give evidence sort of raised its head’.
This was disappointing for the family, and Fabian now thinks ‘I probably had a naive expectation that if I approached the organs of government and high administration in DHS and the police that this young man would get a fair go’.
Julieanne described the impacts this abuse had on their son. Edward has self-harmed, leading to major injuries. ‘He was basically trying to bash himself to death in the toilet, in the bathroom, smashing his head against the toilet.’ She noted that behaviour has become more extreme, to the point where ‘it’s been very difficult for his siblings to interact with him and feel safe or not distressed’.
When the couple recently consulted with a legal firm they were advised that there was no real prospect of a successful civil claim. They have also spoken with their state member of parliament, ombudsman and a parliamentary inquiry. Said Fabian, ‘It's important to get these things into the record. We're not immortal and there are some really substantial issues of justice in all of this. So we've taken every opportunity along the way’.
Julieanne made the point that a child’s pre-existing behavioural issues or disability may impact on the way others notice and interpret changes in their behaviour, and increase the chance abuse may go unrecognised.
‘Unfortunately when you have a child who has autism and has challenging behaviours, everything just gets put down to their challenging behaviours. Whereas had it been one of my other children behaving like that people would have taken great notice of the change in behaviours and have said, “What's going on?”’
She called for greater levels of training and supervision for staff working with clients with special needs.
‘I suppose the one thing that I'd say now is what we've noticed is that they have stripped a lot of professionalism out of DHS. So you have very poorly trained and sometimes untrained workers and really no access to qualified personnel: therapists, counsellors, psychologists.
‘I think had we had a period of time where a lot of those sort of those professions were represented in DHS, I think there would have been more hard questions asked, "Why is this young man behaving like this when he wasn't behaving like this six months ago?" Or, you know, "What can we do about this young man with his post-traumatic stress so that he doesn't injure himself anymore?"
‘So that would be one thing, to just make sure there's better support, better professional support, in these institutions and that there's a higher standard of training for people who are looking after them.’