Libby and Craig did all the right things and yet every step of the way they encountered a response from police, welfare and the department of education that was slow, disorganised and sometimes antagonistic.
The story began in the 2010s while Libby and Craig were living in a small town in rural New South Wales. The pace was getting increasingly hectic at Libby’s work so she and Craig decided to put their four-year-old daughter, Bella, into care for an extra day each week. Their preferred childcare centre was full so they sent Bella to a family daycare placement in the home of a woman named Julie.
Libby and Craig were happy with the arrangement at first. After a few weeks, however, they noticed a change in Bella’s behaviour.
Bella had always seemed to get along well with Julie’s husband, John, who also lived in the house. On this particular day, however, Libby’s reaction to him changed significantly. As Libby recalled, ‘I watched her walk down the path, we were walking together, and she just turned her back to him and walked into the garden, right around him’.
Libby asked Bella if something was wrong and Bella said she didn’t want to talk about it. So Libby dropped the matter and let Bella stay at Julie’s for the day. At home that afternoon Libby and Craig saw a change in their daughter’s behaviour. She switched back and forth between angry and clingy, throwing her dollhouse across the room one minute and then reaching for Mum the next.
Libby asked again if anything had happened with John, and this was when Bella told her how John had touched her inappropriately and encouraged her to touch him. Immediately after settling Bella, Libby and Craig reported the matter to police.
The initial police response, they said, was prompt and thorough. The officers took down all the details, told them that the matter would probably be referred to the Joint Investigation Response Team (JIRT) and promised to get back to them soon. From there the situation deteriorated.
‘There didn’t seem to be very good communication coming back to us’, said Craig. ‘Every time we’d ring they’d say “We’ll get back to you”. And it would be a few days, or four days, or a week.’
For the next two months Bella’s case was bounced from agency to agency. The local police sent the matter to a larger police station in a nearby town. That station tried to refer the matter to Sydney police, who refused to accept it. They then tried to refer the matter to the JIRT squad in another nearby town but JIRT refused to take the matter because it didn’t meet their ‘threshold requirements’.
‘They didn’t explain what the threshold would be’, Libby said. ‘They were implying, I took from that, that it wasn’t a significant enough event or disclosure to warrant an investigation. And on top of that they did say, “She is four, she will be an unreliable witness so we’re not willing to take that further”.’
Bella’s age was the primary reason for the back and forth between the agencies: the local police didn’t have the expertise to interview a four-year-old child and wanted JIRT to step in, but JIRT refused. The police kept asking, JIRT kept refusing, and on and on the argument went.
Meanwhile Libby and Craig had already pulled Bella out of Julie’s house but they knew that several other kids were still there and so were at risk of being assaulted by John. Libby and Craig wanted to warn the other parents about the danger but they had been told by police not to mention Bella’s experience to anyone.
They decided, after a short while, that they couldn’t in good conscience follow this advice, and spoke to some friends who then withdrew their kids from Julie’s house. Around this time Libby also rang the Department of Community Services and the Department of Education. In both cases the officers expressed concerns and promised to get back to her. No one ever did.
Two months after Bella’s disclosure, Libby and Craig had managed to settle her down and get her back into a routine. Reevaluating the situation, they concluded that because so much time had passed it would be pointless and potentially harmful to try to get Bella to recount the incident. So Craig went to the police and told them that he and Libby were no longer interested in having Bella interviewed.
The police, now freed of the most complicated factor in the case, commenced investigating by other means, eventually interviewing John. But, again, they didn’t keep Libby and Craig updated about what was happening, and the couple only learned that the interviews had taken place after hearing about it on the local grapevine.
Craig called the police to find out what was going on. A detective told him that John had denied the allegations. ‘They said “We’ll continue to monitor John and he’s on our radar but we’ve got no other evidence to go on so we can’t do anything more”.’
Several years have passed since then. Julie has closed her daycare business. Libby and Craig are still shunned by some families in the town, but Bella is safe and happy, and so they have no regrets.