‘I just want to change this. I desperately want to be listened to.’
Lianna came to the Royal Commission to speak about her daughter, Nicole, who was sexually abused in the 1990s by a respite care worker at a residential facility overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS).
Nicole was in her mid-teens at the time, but because of her intellectual disability she functioned ‘at around a three or four-year-old level’, Lianna said. ‘Nicole didn’t have a clue about sex. To her if people were kissing she’d say “Oh! They’re having sex”.’
One afternoon, Nicole returned home after spending about a week and a half at the respite facility. Lianna quickly noticed that something was wrong.
‘Because she loves her food as much as her mother does and she wouldn’t eat. She went to her bedroom and it was days before I could get her out of the bedroom, and she’d been weeing on the carpet, which is something she’d never done before.’
Eventually Nicole’s brother coaxed her out of her room and she joined the family for dinner. In a written statement, Lianna described what happened next:
‘We were talking about common things. Then completely out of the blue Nicky said, “You know that Patrick, Patrick made me to do. He told me to put my hand on his doodle and I did it”.’
Lianna ‘knew straight away that it had happened, but I didn’t want to put words in her mouth. So I put forward an unlikely scenario. I said, “Okay, was that in the kitchen when” – and named a female staff member – “was there?” … And she said “No, no, no. He come into my room at night time”.’
Later, Lianna reassured Nicole that the abuse wasn’t her fault. The next day she took her to her doctor’s appointment. The doctor got the story from Nicole, believed her ‘a hundred per cent’ and told Lianna to go to the police, which she did.
After further conversations and an interview with police, more details of the abuse emerged: ‘He didn’t penetrate’, Lianna said, ‘but he used her body … He made her touch him’.
Then, to Lianna’s shock, police revealed that this was not the first complaint against Patrick. There were allegations that he had sexually abused two other children in his care at the same facility.
Despite this, and the fact that police ‘believed the assault had taken place’, they decided not to charge Patrick. It would be pointless, they told Lianna. The charges would never get to court because the children – aged between five and 14, with diverse disabilities including Down Syndrome, verbal communication impairment, autism and intellectual impairment – would be considered unreliable witnesses.
Meanwhile, Lianna was fighting for a response from DHS. Staff at the respite facility had ‘rallied around’ Patrick. Lianna believes this was partly because ‘none of them wanted to believe that he was doing it’ and partly because they didn’t want to get into trouble. After all, the staff knew that Patrick had breached some rules of the code of conduct (such as when he locked himself alone in a room with a child), but they hadn’t intervened.
Patrick had been stood down for part of the police investigation, but as soon as DHS discovered that no charges were being laid, they reinstated him at a different facility. Lianna ‘raised hell’ and Patrick was stood down again while DHS launched their own investigation.
DHS insisted on recruiting their own expert to question Nicole and were ‘shocked’ when he concluded that she was telling the truth. After that, Patrick resigned and moved interstate and DHS ceased their investigation.
‘It was all just at the end of the day swept under the carpet.’
Worried that nothing had changed and Patrick might go on to abuse other children, Lianna considered legal action. But when the lawyers told her that Nicole would have to take the witness stand ‘I backed right off because I … thought that any monetary compensation wouldn’t be worth dragging her through that’. Also, Lianna learned that Patrick had become ill and ‘couldn’t hurt anyone’.
Since then Lianna and Nicole have tried to move on, but it hasn’t been easy. Nicole does well when she’s with Lianna but ‘creates havoc for everyone else’. Lianna herself has had some bad days, including what she described as ‘the worst, worst day of my life, besides [when I found out] what happened to Nicole with him …
‘She’d been having a talk with the counsellor and I was there, and I was sitting down and all of a sudden Nicole jumped up and came towards me, absolutely screaming at me “It was your fault” … and she was hitting me and hitting me and hitting me, you know, in the face, everywhere.
‘And it was like at the end of the tunnel somewhere I could hear, way in the background, this … counsellor screaming, “Lianna, defend yourself! Defend yourself!” But I didn’t. I didn’t feel like I deserved to be defended for it. Because she was right.’
Qualifying these comments, Lianna described herself as a ‘reasonable person’ who only considers herself responsible ‘to a certain extent’ for what happened to Nicole. She knows that the real blame lies with Patrick. When she heard that he’d died she thought, ‘Maybe my prayers are answered. Because there’s not going to be any justice on this Earth’.