Karen's story

Karen didn’t have many friends as a child, because her family moved around a lot and she changed school frequently. Things were tough at home, and her alcoholic mother often beat her.

In the late 1980s Karen started Year 4 at a public primary school in a coastal New South Wales town. One of her popular classmates, Gemma, invited her to a sleepover with some other girls. Eager to make some friends, Karen accepted the invitation.

Gemma’s parents were out for the evening. A few boys from the local high school, who were in their early teens, joined the girls. Karen was made to take part in ‘initiation games’, in order to be part of the group.

This included forcing Karen to lie down and drink vodka while they timed how long it would take her to pass out. She became unconscious very quickly.

Later that night, she woke up in the backyard, naked and covered in ants. She walked back to her home and crept in through the bedroom window.

A week or so later the same group of girls took Karen to the toilet and shower block one lunchtime, saying they wanted to talk to her. The block was in the playground, not far from where the teachers would congregate. Once inside, some of the girls stood watch while the boys from Gemma’s house entered through the back.

The boys then sexually assaulted Karen while the girls stood lookout. This abuse included penetrating her with pens, pencils, and erasers, and continued on a regular basis for the next two years. ‘It wasn’t every day, but it was pretty consistent.’

One of the boys, Nathan, said his father was a lawyer, and would make her family’s life a ‘living hell’ if she ever told anyone what they were doing. So Karen thought it best she kept quiet.

These incidents would make her late back to class. ‘I was often there for a while afterwards. It got to the point where the teacher of my class was asking me if I had cleanliness issues, because I was always wet. It looked like I’d had a shower.’

Karen started ‘taking an extra pair of pants with me to school, just so I didn’t have to go to class all wet. My hair was all wet anyway, but at least I could feel a bit dry.’

About six months after the abuse started, a young female substitute teacher came to Karen’s class. Karen would stay back at the end of the day to avoid being approached by anyone on the way home, and started speaking to this teacher.

The teacher had noticed Karen coming back late after lunch, and asked her about this. Karen disclosed the abuse to her, and, scared of what Nathan has said about his dad, reluctantly agreed that she could report it to the school principal.

She never saw this teacher again. The abuse continued until she finished primary school, but she was never questioned about it by staff.

Karen then moved to the local high school. The school counsellor introduced himself to all the first-year students early on, and she made an appointment to meet with him. Although the abuse had finished, she told him about it, and he suggested they call her mother in.

‘She told him that I was a child who lied, and what made him think I wasn’t lying now for attention. And he looked at me and said, "What do you think of that?" I just, I shut my mouth ... I never opened my mouth after that until I married.’

At high school, Karen ‘spent all my spare time in the library. I just didn’t socialise’. She developed an obsession with certain celebrities. ‘My family thought I was nuts ... It’s been suggested to me now that it was probably a coping mechanism. I really obsessed about them ... I think they got me through a difficult period.’

When she saw a psychologist about this fixation, she did not disclose the abuse. She had already tried telling people, but nothing had been done to help her.

‘The way people were then, I don’t think it was spoken about. It’s like bullying. I was told by family and teacher alike that bullying would make me stronger. I don’t think that’s the case.’

As a child she ran away from home often and, until recently, self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. She avoided relationships, making excuses to herself why she could not be involved with anyone.

Karen has now been married for a decade. She and her husband moved away from her ‘toxic’ family, and settled to a regional area interstate.

‘My husband is straitlaced, he doesn’t smoke or drink ... He’s been a really great support. I don’t know what I would do without him.’

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