‘If I can help other people, because to me it’s obviously neglect, like someone’s messed up and they’ve not done their job properly – if I can help, the next time someone goes to do something like this, they might think, “Oh well, one time this happened and maybe it could happen again”.’
In 1999, when Jane was five and her sister Taylor, 12, their mother was convicted and sentenced for drug offences. With their father unable to care for them, a NSW Family Court ordered the girls be placed with their grandparents, Rose and Peter Dowling.
Jane said it was unbelievable that she and her sister were sent to live with their grandparents. Peter Dowling was a registered sex offender who’d previously been charged and convicted of the sexual abuse of one of his daughters. Jane thought the charges related to her aunt but from things her mother had said, it was probable she too had been abused.
The Family Court order stipulated that NSW Department of Community Services staff oversee and supervise the placement closely to make sure Dowling was never alone with the girls.
‘I don’t understand how I could not be alone with him’, Jane said. ‘It’s incredibly stupid to be honest. I always think if it wasn’t for that happening my life would be so different and I wouldn’t have gone through it if they had done their jobs.’
Jane told the Commissioner that the sexual abuse started when she was seven years old and continued until the age of 16. Throughout that time she recalled only one visit from a DOCS worker which took place at the kitchen table with her grandmother in attendance. Her grandmother was complicit in the abuse, and had seen it happening to both girls.
Taylor left the home when she turned 16. Shortly afterwards she reported Dowling’s sexual abuse to NSW Police, but later withdrew the charges before finalising her statement. Jane, aged nine and still living with the Dowlings, wasn’t questioned by police, nor did DOCS follow up or investigate despite being informed about the complaint.
Throughout the years of abuse, Dowling had threatened Jane and told her no one would believe her if she ever tried to talk about the abuse. He controlled her activities and forbade her to see friends. ‘I had to do the things he wanted me to do where he could spend more time with me alone. I had to play lawn bowls as a child. It was put over me that I couldn’t ask for things. I’d get in trouble so I never asked.’
In 2010, the Dowlings applied for custody of Jane’s niece, then only a few months old, and it was arranged that Rose, Peter and Jane would meet with DOCS staff. ‘The whole way in the car they were prepping me’, Jane said. ‘They were telling me what I had to say. “If they say this, this is your response” … They had a meeting with my grandmother by herself and my grandfather by himself, and me with my grandparents in the room. So they still again didn’t have me by myself. There was no way I could tell them.’
Despite being unable to disclose the abuse at the meeting, Jane said her discomfort at the thought of her niece coming to live in the house grew until one day she walked into a DOCS office and disclosed her previous nine years of abuse. The DOCS worker called NSW Police who interviewed her and subsequently charged Dowling with child sex offences.
‘The police treated me really well. The detective even stayed in contact with me after the process. They believed me, they kept making sure I was okay and that I was getting through it.’
Dowling pleaded not guilty and the case became protracted and proceeded to trial. Numerous people, including Jane’s grandmother, testified on Dowling’s behalf, and Taylor came to the court in support of her grandfather, not her sister. Jane said it was likely that Taylor, who was using drugs, had been paid by the Dowlings to attend.
When the case concluded in 2014, Dowling was found guilty of eight counts of sexual assault and sentenced to 12 years jail. ‘[My grandmother] lied in the court case for him, because there was one instance where she’d actually walked in [on the abuse]. For her to get up and lie and still to this day go and visit him, after he’s been convicted. And that’s after he’d been convicted of doing it to his own daughter.’
Jane had left the area in which her grandparents lived when she was 19. In the two years since, she’d worked to build a career-base in the community services sector. She hadn’t done well at school, she said, because there never seemed to be any point studying in the same environment as the abuse was occurring.
She wished that at some point a DOCS worker had taken her aside and spoken to her by herself, or that someone at school might have asked her how things were going. ‘We had sex education classes, but it never went into abuse’, Jane said. ‘If there’s that knowledge that it does happen and you’re not a disgusting person and it’s not your fault then it might have been easier for me to talk.’
One year after the court case, she was working on creating the life she’d always wanted. She hoped that at some stage she could help others who’d been through similar experiences. ‘There was a point in my life where I could have gone the same way as my sister or I could have made a better life, so I’ve focused on trying to put it behind me and make a better life.’