Bruce Ellis was already a convicted child sexual offender when he became Daniel’s teacher in the 1980s. He had recently completed a good behaviour bond, after he admitted trying to have sex with boys at a youth camp.
The Department of Education knew about this conviction, and Ellis stopped teaching during his bond period. The principal who next employed him, at a NSW state primary school, was not informed of his conviction.
Ellis soon offended again. Daniel was six years old when he disclosed being sexually abused by Ellis. This included Ellis fondling his genitals, and lying on top of him and thrusting.
Daniel’s mother Janelle took Daniel to the police, and he told them what had happened. She went with police to see the principal of the school, who listened in ‘disbelief’. In ‘great faith’ she left his office, believing the Department would conduct a full investigation.
Daniel was moved to another class. Ellis remained teaching at the school. Behind her back, the principal called Janelle a ‘ratbag’.
She waited and waited for the outcome of the departmental investigation, but heard nothing. During this time she became aware of Ellis’s previous conviction. ‘I nearly collapsed really, because suddenly I realised that nothing was being done on purpose.’
Janelle heard the principal was meeting with a departmental inspector, and insisted on attending. She confronted the inspector with the Department’s knowledge of Ellis’s past offences, and asked what progress had been made with Daniel’s matter.
‘He looked at me with a very sarcastic, nasty little grin on his face, and he said, "Well, Janelle, you never made a formal complaint. We can’t investigate unless there’s a written complaint".’
So she complained to the Department in writing. She also contacted the NSW Ombudsman’s Office about the Department’s lack of action.
The Ombudsman found unreasonable delay in the investigation. It made strong recommendations about departmental procedures, and that the principal and senior departmental officers be reprimanded for their conduct.
Janelle spoke about Daniel’s experiences at the school’s parents and citizens’ meeting. She described how his behaviour had changed after the abuse.
‘Suddenly Daniel wouldn’t let me undress him to have a bath, he didn’t want to get in the bath. He was showing signs, he was sort of doing these strange pelvic thrusts, there was all sorts of strange behaviour going on.’
After hearing this, other parents of children in Ellis’s class came up to her ‘with very pale faces’. They told her they thought their children may have been abused too.
Janelle then went to the media. After this publicity, the Department decided to speak with the children. Their legal officer and a psychologist interviewed the children alone. The officer immediately told Janelle he believed Ellis had molested them.
This same officer later informed her Ellis had resigned, and any record of these interviews had been destroyed. This seemed to be the end of the matter as far as the Department was concerned.
The police decided to investigate further and charge Ellis, and he went to trial by jury. The teachers’ union paid for his defence. He was represented by a top barrister.
The children and their parents were represented by the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP), who did not consult with them until the day of court. Janelle later discovered the Ombudsman’s report (condemning the Department’s actions), had been lost, so the judge could not consider it.
The parents were not allowed in the court, and the children were supported by a psychologist. They were cross-examined ‘brutally’ by Ellis’s barrister, and called liars. Ellis accosted one of the children in the toilets, threatening him.
Ellis was acquitted. The prosecutor was angry about the verdict, and criticised the jurors’ reluctance to believe children.
The trial divided the small community. Ellis was a popular figure at his local church, and also taught sport to local children.
Janelle received threatening mail and calls from his supporters. ‘Just local people ringing and saying, "You’ll burn in hell, what you’re doing you’re destroying this man’s life, and your child’s a liar and you’re a slut".’
Many years later Ellis was incarcerated for child sexual abuse in another state, and further victims have also come forward.
As an adult, Daniel felt strong enough to sue the Department for their handling of his allegations. He settled by mediation, receiving a significant financial payment and an apology from the Department. As part of this settlement, he agreed not to sue Ellis.
The Department itself then took action against Ellis, and called Daniel as a witness. He and the other plaintiffs from his case attended court. Janelle thinks it was cathartic for them to see Ellis again, now they are all adults.
‘They all got to eyeball this man, and realise that he was just nobody, you know, that he wasn’t smart, that he wasn’t powerful.’
Daniel still has trouble with trust, and a lot of anger. Although a smart child, he finally left school in Year 9, after years of difficulty. He had attended a number of schools since the abuse.
Janelle would visit each one, and explain his experiences and needs to staff. She was rarely taken seriously. ‘Nobody believed that Daniel had been molested by his school teacher, there was always a feeling ... that there was something wrong with him.’
Daniel attempted suicide in his early 20s, and finds it hard to engage with counselling. Although he is doing better now, Janelle is ‘always on edge’ about his wellbeing.
Regular therapy helps Janelle cope with the impacts on her as a secondary victim. ‘I never really talk about me, in this ... [but] it’s affected my life enormously. I’m still angry. I’m still so sad.’
The time she has spent supporting Daniel and working to get justice has meant she’s had less time for his siblings too. ‘They’re all good, but look at all the time Mum’s spent dealing with this stuff. It’s just changed our lives, all of our lives.’