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Maddie Jean's story

‘I was a pretty happy kid’, Maddie told the Commissioner. She recalled spending a lot of time out on the street playing. She’d follow her older brother and his friends around, stealing lollies and skipping school to go to the park or to catch the train and ferry to Manly, some distance from the western suburb of Sydney where she lived.

One day when she was about seven, in the late 1990s, she got separated from her brother and was taken by a couple who found her to the local police station.

A police check revealed that the Department of Community Services (DOCS) had been notified several times about Maddie’s family. On one occasion her mother had been reported for hitting her children. There had been concerns that Maddie and her siblings were inadequately supervised. A younger sibling had been placed in care.

When the police couldn’t contact Maddie’s mother, they placed Maddie in short term accommodation. She was made a ward of the state soon after.

Over the next 10 or so years, some 15 different placements followed. They included foster homes, refuges, crisis centres and residential programs. Maddie also lived with extended family members, on the streets and with people she happened to meet. She didn’t stay anywhere for long.

Different issues brought the various placements to an end. One of the earliest ones concluded abruptly after Maddie was sexually abused by another of the foster children in the home, Nigel, who was 18. Maddie was about nine at the time.

She told her teachers what he’d done and the school contacted DOCS. She believes that Nigel was charged and convicted. DOCS removed her from the home immediately. She’d been happy at the home till then, and wished that Nigel, not her, had been relocated.

Several of her foster homes were with Aboriginal carers, and while Maddie, who is Aboriginal, appreciates that DOCS staff were trying to help her maintain her cultural connections, these arrangements weren’t always successful.

‘Like they try and put you with the Aboriginal foster carers – but some of them, like I guess just their background and how they were brought up, like they do struggle with stuff, and I guess looking after kids wasn’t the best move for them.’

She was abused again as an 11-year-old, when DOCS placed her with a couple, Simone and Tom. Simone’s two sons lived there too. Maddie hadn’t been there long before the older one, Danny, an 18-year-old, began sexually abusing her on a regular basis. She didn’t realise it was wrong, she explained. She didn’t report him to DOCS or to police. She eventually ran away.

There were other sexual assaults which she didn’t bother to disclose or report. She ran away several times. She started smoking marijuana, and that became another reason why her placements came to an end. The frequent changes in her life meant her education suffered. ‘Every time I’d go to a school I’d be re-learning the stuff that I learned before. It was just hard to catch up.’

Eventually, going to school got too hard and she stopped going. Her drug use increased and she started self-harming. ‘I was suicidal and it felt good cutting myself. There was no one that seemed to care … I cut myself for a few years.’

More attention from DOCS would really have helped at that time, Maddie said. ‘A good DOCS worker. Someone that cared. We had one at the start – she cared about our family … My last worker, he didn’t give a shit.’ DOCS turned up in her life to move her from place to place but otherwise they didn’t visit: ‘It’s just no contact at all.’ She has recently obtained her welfare file and found it records one two-year period as ‘the most stable placement during my teenager years’ – in fact over this time she was frequently homeless. As a 16-year-old she ended up in a Uniting Church-run shelter where she found some ongoing help.

‘Georgia was there and straight away she put me in a proper refuge. She was a caseworker so every week she’d be calling me which was a bit annoying, but – she’d call me and she’d say how you are going for this, and that … So that was lucky I had her.’

When Maddie came to the Commission, she was about to move to the New South Wales south coast, with her partner and two young children. She was being helped by a legal aid service to pursue a claim for compensation. She didn’t have any plans to report Danny to police. ‘I haven’t considered it. I just didn’t know if it was still relevant’, she said.

Maddie stopped self-harming when her first child was born. ‘I get a lot of happiness out of them but I need to do some parenting courses I think, where I can become a better parent.’ She’s been seeing a counsellor, and though she hasn’t fully disclosed her history – in case it becomes a reason to take her children from her – the support has helped her to feel less anxious.

‘Within the last six months it hasn’t been as bad as what it has been, where this has sort of played over and over again. But after starting counselling and even once I found out I was going to [come to the Commission], it’s sort of brought me to terms with everything.’

Maddie told the Commissioner that her mother had also been abused in care as a child. ‘So she’s definitely struggled with this. It’s sad that that support wasn’t around for her.’ After her children were taken from her, she’d done parenting courses and eventually was told the children could come back. But by then it was too late.

‘My mum just got so abused by everyone, she just thought she couldn’t look after us. We weren’t going to be good in her care and now you can tell she does regret it. She regrets that we had to go through all this stuff …

‘Hopefully I can get my mum to come in here one day. I’d definitely be here with her.’

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