Lianne and her son Jordan live in a small, remote town in the Northern Territory. At the time of Lianne’s visit to the Royal Commission, Jordan was nine. Four years earlier he’d been a new entrant at his local public school. As the months went by during that first school year he’d become very moody and a reluctant school-goer.
‘I wondered why he didn’t want to go’, Lianne said.
Initially, she thought it was because of incidents on the school bus. The bus driver would often get to Jordan’s stop before the designated time, and just drop him off at the side of the road - ‘which is not correct practice’, Lianne said. As well, if the bus was early in the mornings or Jordan was late, the driver never waited.
‘There was no exact time and you don’t always know – I don’t have a crystal ball … [Jordan] was anxious about that quite often as well, and he was also anxious about being beaten up on the bus.’
One day however, Liane discovered there was more that was troubling Jordan. It was at the end of the school year, during holidays. At home, Lianne walked past Jordan while he was in the shower.
‘He said, “Andy touched me down here, and sucked me down here”. And I went uh-oh … I said, “What happened?” And so he told me – and he was just telling me like a normal conversation and releasing information. I think he must have realised he’d held onto it too long.’
Andy was a boy in Jordan’s class, just a few months older than him.
When school resumed, Lianne contacted Jordan’s teacher. She wanted to make sure Jordan and Andy were placed in different classes.
‘We had an explicit discussion and I told her what had happened. Then she did absolutely nothing.’
In the months that followed, Jordan’s behaviour deteriorated.
‘My child has become absolutely unbearable’, Lianne recalled. ‘He has started hitting me … He’s saying you’re going to keep sending me to that place and I keep getting hurt and I’m sick of it and you’re not protecting me.’
Lianne made an appointment to see the principal. She put in a ‘full complaint’ detailing all her areas of concern: ‘The bus, the beatings, all the things, plus the sexual assault.’ She followed up with a written query: ‘Since my son’s been sexually assaulted, can you direct me to any help, or what should I do? … I get, “Good luck with that – cheers”. At that point in time I had steam coming out of my ears.’
Throughout her dealings with the school, Lianne had no idea of their obligation to follow up on complaints of sexual abuse, she said. She only found out from a friend some time later.
‘I did not know about mandatory reporting laws … I had no knowledge of this whatsoever. And it doesn’t sound reasonable but every parent who entrusts their child to someone else should know these laws. It should be part of the protocol within the education system that if anything happens to your child – there’s definitely a duty of care here that was avoided and [my] child has been left in a high risk situation – all of the students were in a high risk situation.’
As it was, the principal essentially denied anything had occurred and didn’t offer any kind of support.
‘I actually got treated and have been ever since by the education department [as if] we are liars … Nothing. Nothing. No offer of any counselling, nothing. No mandatory reporting. I need to stress that.’
Frustrated by the school’s response, Lianne decided to move Jordan elsewhere. This wasn’t simple: education department regulations meant he could only enrol at another public school with the permission of his current principal, and the town’s small population meant there were few other options. Eventually though, the principal provided Lianne with a letter that ‘released’ Jordan from the school without referring to the abuse. Instead, it supported his enrolment at another school ‘because it’s better for his social and whatever wellbeing’, Lianne told the Commissioner. ‘No recognition whatsoever and totally denial.’
Once Jordan left the school, he revealed to Lianne that Andy had sexually assaulted him not once but about six times. He said he’d been too frightened of Andy’s threats – he told Jordan he would ‘bash’ him – to tell her. The assaults had come to an end when Jordan stood up to Andy one day.
‘He wasn’t being tough. He’d had enough, he was feeling really sick and distraught about it all.’
This disclosure led Lianne to renew her attempts to get action taken against Andy. The education department eventually investigated, but she doesn’t know what the outcome of this was - ‘I am not privy to that information’, she said. When she asked, she was knocked back.
She reported the assaults to police, but discovered that Andy’s young age meant what he’d done to Jordan was not considered to be abuse. ‘You can tell me if you like, but nothing will happen’, the sergeant she spoke to told her.
‘I said, “Beg your pardon?” He said, “This is game play”,’ Lianne recalled.
Lianne also continued to seek access to services, as Jordan faced growing mental health issues.
‘He eventually had a complete breakdown on me’, she said. ‘He was an absolute write-off … I couldn’t even go to the toilet; he was like, “Don’t leave me, I’m too scared” ... As soon as it all started to come out, he fell to pieces.’
She wanted counselling for Jordan, and her petrol costs subsidised so she could afford to get him there. But again, because technically Jordan had not experienced abuse but sexual play, he didn’t meet the criteria for most of the available specialised services. The school principal referred them to Anglicare, while another service told her it didn’t have the funds to do an evaluation. A counsellor Jordan saw didn’t have the skills to recognise his issues, Lianne felt.
‘All she saw was a slightly quiet, nice little boy.’
Jordan has recently started at a non-government school, and so far it’s going well.
‘Yesterday when I picked him up he was smiling from ear to ear, and I said “Are you all right now, mate?” And he said ‘Yeah, I’m finally safe, Mum”.’
Lianne remains angry about her treatment by the school where the abuse occurred and by other education department officials. ‘[Jordan’s] the only one I’ve got. And then a system like this has messed him about, through lack of professionalism, no duty of care and, seriously, people protecting their careers and their mates’, she said.
She believes there should be more support specifically for people in remote areas, such as outreach programs and fuel subsidies. It should not have been such a struggle to access the help Jordan needed, she feels.
‘There’s been so many things where I go – because no one informs you, because I don’t know … what the system can allow you to do to help your own child. What I need to advocate is these things have to be in writing and provided to people or you don’t know. You don’t go into a school system going oh, hang on a minute, my kid might get sexually abused, how do I deal with that – you know?’