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Gwyneth's story

In the early 1990s Gwyneth was working as a teacher aide at a New South Wales school for children with disability when she became aware that one of the students, Lewis Austin, was physically and sexually abusing other children.

Lewis was in his early teens and had severe injuries sustained after a car accident. Despite limited movement, Lewis was able to manoeuvre his wheelchair and pursue children, many of whom were much younger than him.

Other staff knew of Lewis’ behaviour but they were reluctant to do anything. After Gwyneth made a complaint to the principal, an external person was brought in to do ‘their own enquiry’. However Gwyneth learned it was she, not Lewis, who was being investigated.

‘They were going to have me put off as a person distressing the staff, making up lies, just destroying the school’, she said.

The principal she’d complained to responded by organising ‘prayer meetings’.

‘She was very religious and used to have prayer things at the school praying for me that I wouldn’t see or say anything, and pray that Lewis would stop what he was doing … She would have her local minister come in and have private sessions that I was asked to go to in my morning tea to pray, and apparently when I wouldn’t go, they’d pray for me … I said religion doesn’t come into this or praying. We’ve got to stop what Lewis is doing.’

When a new principal came to the school, Gwyneth approached him but ‘he got cranky’ and didn’t take any action either. Gwyneth thought he had a lot going on in his personal life and ‘couldn’t cope’.

‘I think it was too much on him. He didn’t know what to do.’

Various staff members tried to limit Lewis’ access to other children but the abuse continued, as did attacks on Gwyneth’s professional standing.

One day a parent approached her and said ‘you’re the only decent one down at the school who tries to protect the kids’. He told her that his daughter had disclosed that Lewis hurt her and that he’d put his fingers in her vagina.

Gwyneth made a report to NSW Police, speaking for some hours to a detective who was ‘wonderful’. Some time later she was told by the detective the matter had been ‘shut down’. The detective thought it was because her ‘boss’ knew senior staff at the school.

Nothing further came of the report and only later did several other parents make their own statements that then led to investigation by police.

Gwyneth meanwhile kept getting warned off by her peers. One told her to ‘do what I do’.

‘[She said], “When you hear the screams, turn and go the other way. It’s better for you, love, you’re going to lose your job. I know you’re going to lose your job”. And pat my hand and say, “That’s what we’re all doing”.’

As time passed, Gwyneth was subjected to bullying behaviour from fellow staff members, the principal and staff from the Department of Education. A department officer came to Gwyneth’s house one evening requesting she sign a performance contract.

She was transferred to another school well away from her home and once there, was moved between classes so frequently as to not have any stability.

Several people, including those from a union to which Gwyneth belonged, advocated on her behalf so that she reached some level of job security, but working became difficult.

Gwyneth said she came to the Commission not for herself, but ‘to try to stop what’s happening’.

‘I must say thank you. I’ve been over the years, suicidal and a lot worse. This is amazing. Even if it goes no further thank you so much. Yes. For people to listen.’

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