When her mother’s drug use came to the notice of New South Wales child protection services staff in the early 1990s, Kirsten was removed from the family home and placed in foster care. Until then, the six-year-old had been continually on the move, and in the two years following, she stayed in five different foster homes.
She was happy then when a permanent placement came up with Peter and Laura Bader, a couple in their early twenties, who welcomed Kirsten with open arms. ‘I called them Mum and Dad, but I did that with everyone that I went to. They were very religious. They were into their Christianity and whatnot. They went to church. They preached at church. At the beginning, I really liked them. They were friendly and they were kind, seemed kind and yeah, it was happy at the beginning.’
Kirsten told the Commissioner that early on in her new life with the Baders, Peter often played physical games with her. ‘He’d wrestle and tickle and, you know, accidently touch me and then he’d go quiet and sulk away and you know, make me feel bad for it, I guess. And then it progressed from there, from just the tickling and touching, and it would be more so when Laura went to work, and that’s how it started.’
When she was 11 years old, Kirsten asked Peter one day what the most embarrassing thing was he’d ever done. ‘He went really sulky and quiet and the energy just changed and he said, “Falling in love with you”, and that’s, from then on that’s when it changed.’
A little while later, Laura had the couple’s first child. The marriage became strained and soon afterwards broke up, with Laura and the baby moving out of the house. Kirsten remained with Peter in an arrangement agreed to by child protection services. When staff asked Kirsten what she wanted to do, she volunteered to stay with Peter because she didn’t want to move. In the years she was with the Baders, staff had never taken her aside or spoken to her without Peter being present. ‘I didn’t really get to talk to them. It was Peter talking to them, or he said he was.’
In the new living arrangement, Peter put it to Kirsten that from now on they could have either a father-daughter relationship or live as boyfriend and girlfriend, and that it was up to her to decide. Throughout the next four years they alternated between the roles.
‘He would manipulate it, you know, if I wanted the father-daughter relationship I’d get locked in my room. He’d put phone bugs in the phone … If I wanted the boyfriend one, you know, I’m allowed to see my friends.’
In the early 2000s, Peter told Kirsten that he wanted to live in Victoria. He said she could come with him or go to a women’s refuge. She chose the former and after the move stayed with him at his mother’s home and later a flat. Kirsten thought child protective services had knowledge of and consented to the change of address but she was never spoken to, nor was a referral made to staff in Victoria.
Soon after arriving, Kirsten started thinking about how to get away. She told Peter she wanted to visit friends in Sydney and he agreed to her going for two weeks. ‘I knew that I was going to escape from him, but … in his mind I was going for a visit. But in my mind I think I saw a gap, I saw a break where I could get away and I took it.’
Once in Sydney, Kirsten reunited with a boyfriend she’d previously kept hidden from Peter. She also stayed briefly with Laura and disclosed Peter’s abuse. ‘She turned around and said, “Well, I thought you always wanted each other”.’ Kirsten had the impression that Laura was offended, and ‘thought that I was stealing her man’.
Kirsten went to see child protection services’ staff and told them she wasn’t returning to Melbourne. She also disclosed Peter’s abuse, but didn’t tell them the full extent of it. ‘I said that there was touching, that he was touching inappropriately.’
Staff then rang Peter with the allegations and he responded by telling them Kirsten was an ‘alcoholic and druggie’. When asked if she wanted to make a report to NSW Police, Kirsten replied that she didn’t.
For several weeks Peter menaced Kirsten with telephone calls. ‘He was ringing my boyfriend’s house and he sort of threatened, said, “Go to the police. Do it. What are you waiting for? Go on. I dare you”, like kind of taunting me.’
Kirsten told the Commissioner that the calls stopped after a month and the foster family with whom she next lived was good and kind.
She’d disclosed the abuse to a few people over the years – once to a girlfriend when she was drunk and at other times to boyfriends. She’d told her current partner about the abuse early on in their relationship, but hadn’t told him or anyone else details.
Kirsten said soon after her phone call to the Royal Commission she became depressed and sought advice from her local doctor who referred her to a counsellor. It was early yet, she said, but talking to someone had been helpful, particularly in addressing feelings that she had been responsible for the abuse.
‘I look back now and I think, “Why did I put up with that?” To me now it’s so wrong and I don’t know, I guess I just didn’t feel like I had a choice. I didn’t want to keep going through the system. I knew what he was doing was wrong … I guess I was just, I don’t know, ashamed.’
She is reconsidering making a report to the police. ‘I want him to be brought to justice because I don’t think it’s fair that he’s still out there.’