‘William Shakespeare said “grief needs words”, and that is what this is about. It’s about speaking.’
Laura came to the Royal Commission partly ‘to clarify my mental health challenges ... but in a meaningful way and with a purpose, and in some way be recognised not just as a survivor but also a leader by example for those whose journey of recovery is at a different stage than mine’.
Born in the 1960s, Laura grew up in a farming community in regional Queensland, and started at the local government school when she was four. Being a small town without many children, the school only had one teacher, Mr Farrell, who was single and in his 40s.
When Laura was in Year 1 she was sexually abused numerous times by Farrell. ‘My abuse was severe in nature – it involved vaginal, anal, and oral assault.’
Laura believes Farrell was also abusing other girls. At some stage her father and other members of the school parents and citizens committee became suspicious of the teacher, and sent a letter to the education department requesting he be removed from the area. The education department sent the letter straight to Farrell, without addressing the concerns with the committee.
‘Mr Farrell enjoyed the support of some of the farmers and they stood up for him and he kept his job as a teacher.’
It seemed that after this the abuse became more severe, and Farrell started threatening to kill Laura’s mother if she disclosed the abuse to anyone. When he finally left he was moved to a boys’ school.
When Laura was around nine she was sexually abused by another man who worked casually on the family property. ‘This experience reinforced my being able to hold on to massive secrets and started the daily sense of a death wish.’ During therapy she also started to have some flashbacks to incidents of sexual abuse when she was very small and still in nappies.
In her teens Laura ‘was very depressed and had begun to hear voices’, and by the end of high school was seeing a psychiatrist. She began having dissociative episodes and nightmares, which were always related to Farrell.
When she first began a traineeship she was sexually harassed by two male colleagues, so left her job. ‘I was too scared to make a complaint. I just froze.’ As these incidents ‘were also in a learning or training environment’ Laura was left ‘with a core belief that it’s a dangerous place to be’.
It was around this time that she started drinking heavily. In her 20s she was raped twice by a man she knew, who was much older than her, ‘and told no-one’.
Laura has been admitted to mental health wards multiple times, and has attempted suicide. At other times ‘I have periods of high functioning and I can be very productive’. She feels like the onus is on her to manage the logistics of her support and treatment, with conflicting diagnoses, and poor coordination and information-sharing between services.
‘The health industry needs to sit up and say “well, what are we really doing here?” Because most people who present to psychiatric settings have some form of child abuse, usually some kind of sexual abuse, involved in their early years.’
Accessing the mental health care she requires is also costly, even with private health cover, and she relies on respite services to get her to appointments. ‘It makes it very hard for people on a budget to get the counselling they need.’
Laura has been married for many years and her husband supported her when she spoke to the Commissioner. ‘We did not have children primarily because of my fear of being physically exposed, even in medical circumstances.’
A couple of years ago Laura contacted the police and reported the sexual abuse. It was confirmed that Farrell is alive, and an investigation is now underway. As yet she has not taken any civil action, but would like an acknowledgement from the education department that the abuse occurred.
‘My abuse was severe. I have struggled all my life with feelings of loss, guilt and shame. My early experiences have had a devastating impact on my adult life.’