Kaitlin's story

‘She does know I’m here and she’s given her full approval. She has very little memory of the events. She was probably three years and eight months when she was first abused …

‘She talks with us about it but she’s not interested. She’s glad I’m here, that’s what she said to me. And I asked her a few questions about how she feels about this happening and the whole effect of the Royal Commission. She’s delighted about it. As far as the institutional side is concerned, that’s where I’m involved because I’m her mother so I was involved with that. In some ways it’s her story of abuse, but it’s my story of trying to receive some form of justice from the [pre-school], the police and the justice system and New South Wales government, so that’s basically what the story is about.’

In the late 1980s, Kaitlin was at home with her daughter Georgia when two workers from NSW Family and Community Services (FACS) came to the house and asked to speak with her. They told her that Georgia had been identified as one victim in a large group of pre-schoolers who’d been sexually abused by one of the workers, Stephen Elling.

In a state of shock, Kaitlin agreed that they could meet with Georgia alone. After doing so, the workers recounted that Georgia had been happily chatting to them until they mentioned the pre-school and Elling, at which point the three-year-old said ‘she had a bad story’ that she couldn’t talk about.

An arrangement was made for Georgia to go to a children’s hospital to be interviewed by specialist child protection health staff. Over eight sessions it emerged that Elling had shown Georgia his penis and asked him to touch it. She said there were other things – ‘dark secrets’ – that she couldn’t talk about.

Parents of children affected sought advice and action from the pre-school’s executive officer, Liz Smith, but received little help.

‘I still can’t believe her response’, Kaitlin said. ‘She was not just flat, she was totally unsympathetic. She heard the story and immediately came out on the attack. She said … “Well why didn’t your daughters tell you straight away what had happened?” And, “Where could such a thing have happened within the pre-school? How could it possibly have happened?” Her attitude was total disbelief. She was, I would say, aggressive on the phone. Aggressively disbelieving at what we had to say. It was the most amazing shock. And we realised that we were dealing with something pretty terrible.’

When police arrived at the home, it was Georgia’s third interview, and mention of Elling’s name brought a severe physical response. She repeated, ‘he, he, he’ and began shaking but wasn’t able to say anything else.

Although police thought it probable Elling had abused more than 50 children, the victims were all under five and unable to give evidence. Staff from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions wanted to re-interview six children who’d been abused as part of game-playing exercises with Elling, but by the time they did so it was a year later and most children couldn’t clearly recollect details about the events.

In the late 1980s, Kaitlin acted with a group of other parents to bring attention to the poor regulation of pre-school staff and the gaps and obstacles in the criminal justice system that had led to the poor response afterwards.

The group had already encountered significant criticism and hostility from Liz Smith and others in the community who called them ‘bible-bashers’ and accused them of working against Elling because he was a man. Smith arranged for Elling’s legal fees to be paid from pre-school board funds and when a board member objected, Smith organised to have the woman voted off.

Kaitlin and the others lobbied government ministers, pre-school industry figures and others for staff screening, mandatory reporting and better coordination of government workers responding to allegations of child abuse. One of their key demands was that Elling’s licence as a child-care worker be revoked. A panel of four psychiatrists was called to assess their request and they reviewed reports written by police, the FACS workers and health staff to determine whether, on the balance of probability, the abuse had taken place.

The psychiatrists concluded separately that it was likely Elling had abused the children. Their reports were forwarded to the minister but no action was taken until an opposition member of parliament pushed the case, and Elling’s licence was finally revoked. Most of the requests Kaitlin and the group had lobbied for came into law over the next decade.

Kaitlin applied for criminal injuries compensation when Georgia was 10 and received $30,870 which was put into a trust fund. The amount had increased to $60,000 by the time of its release to Georgia in the early 2000s.

‘I believed it was important for someone in society to say that this terrible thing happened,’ Kaitlin said. ‘And as a result society, in providing compensation, was actually apologising for the way she’d been treated, that we hadn’t cared for our children enough. We had literally failed to care for our children. I don’t know what the right amount of compensation is. Realistically no amount can compensate for what has happened.’

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