Helen came to the Royal Commission to speak on behalf of her son, Robert. She explained that because of his autism, Robert has difficulty understanding social signals and controlling his emotions. When he was in his early teens he had some angry outbursts that attracted the attention of Child Protection. Robert never hurt anyone, but did hurt himself one time and so Child Protection decided to place him in a care home.
At first, Helen and her partner Brian were able to see the positive side of this move, largely because Child Protection made so many promises about the great support services that Robert would get to enjoy. As it turned out, none of these promised services were delivered. Robert was left vulnerable and inadequately protected, and ended up being sexually abused while living in the care home.
The perpetrator was a young adult who also lived in the home. He, Robert and a teenage boy were the home’s only residents. Robert was the youngest resident and the only one with a disability. No one has ever explained to Helen why her son was put into this home, except to say that no other accommodation was available.
Robert stayed at the home about four months. He was allowed to visit Helen a few times during that period. At the end of one such visit he broke down. Helen recalled ‘the absolute sobbing and misery at having to go back, and begging and “Please, Mum!”’
It was not until Robert finished his stay at the home that Helen and Brian finally learned why he’d been so frightened of going back. A week after his return, Robert opened up to Helen, describing how the young man had tried to rape him but was stopped when the other boy intervened.
After hearing this, Helen spoke to the managers of the home.
‘They said “Yes, that’s true but you’ll never prove it. All the paperwork’s been shredded”.’
Helen spoke to police as well. Then Child Protection got involved and tried to shut her up. First they insisted that Robert’s relationship with the young man was consensual, and when that didn’t work, they turned to threats. Brian, who attended the Royal Commission session with Helen, recalled the moment: ‘It was quite threatening. It was a case of “He could very easily be taken away from you again”.’
Meanwhile, at home, Robert was exhibiting sexualised behaviours. He behaved inappropriately with his younger sibling. In the wake of this incident, Child Protection mandated that Robert had to be supervised by two adults at all times. This meant that Brian had to quit his job, which put the family in financial strife. It was a stressful time. Brian hated being unemployed and struggled to forgive Robert for what he’d done. Brian told the Commissioner:
‘Because of the incident I didn’t want to see him. I didn’t know what my reaction to him would be, as a father. But when he came back, I thought, "Every adult male figure in your life has let you down and nobody has shown you anything but violence, how to mistreat people, that type of thing".
'So I saw him and I thought, "Well, okay, it’s my turn to teach him forgiveness".’
Not only that, Brian also took Robert aside and gave him some straight-up advice about appropriate sexual behaviours. ‘I sat down and had a chat with him, and since then, I can honestly say I have not seen any of those behaviours.’
Unfortunately, because Robert has trouble comprehending the nuances of social rules, his behaviour in regard to his sibling has swung towards the other extreme, and he’s become overly cautious and awkward. Helen said, ‘He keeps saying, “Am I allowed to do this?” And I’m like, “Robert, you know that that’s fine”.’
This was just one of the many ways that Robert’s trauma has affected the whole family. ‘The situation has scarred all of us’, Helen said, adding that Robert’s sibling’s ‘whole uplifted spirit dropped dramatically with everything that’s happened’. As for Helen herself, ‘It was like my whole motherhood was slandered’.
Recently Helen and Brian decided to move to a new area. It was a handy decision, given that Child Protection were trying to kick them out anyway. One of the representatives gave Helen an ultimatum: 'If you leave, we’ll close, we’ll leave you alone. If you stay, we’ll keep going. And I said, “Well, I think I know what I have to do”.’
A fresh start proved to be just what Helen and her family needed. Their new neighbourhood offers better services for Robert, including a great school. Helen and Brian are now learning to ‘let go’. It hasn’t been easy. For a while Helen was obsessed with holding Child Protection to account for their behaviour – ‘bringing down their empire’, as she put it. Now, she said, she’s just happy to have had the chance to tell her story.
‘This is my first time being able to – I suppose, my turn to talk, isn’t it? These meetings we go to, and these services, we don’t tend to get to say what we go through. They’ve never really heard our side of the story.’