Matilda was kicked out of home as a 14-year-old, in the mid-1990s. She was considered too old to be made a ward of the state, but the Department of Community Services (DOCS) was involved in her care, and helped organise short-term accommodation. When she was 16 her mother died, and it was DOCS she went to for money to buy flowers for the funeral.
It was also DOCS that put Matilda and her best friend Rosie in contact with a youth intervention program, which ran camps and other activities for teenagers at risk. It funded one of the youth leaders in the program, Leonie Cowen, to be a mentor for Rosie.
Matilda and Rosie spent a lot of time with Leonie. She had a swimming pool, and would invite the girls over for parties and other events. ‘She used all kinds of techniques on us to make us trust her and have that loyalty, and all kinds of stuff’, Matilda recalled.
Rosie was a ward of the state, and had a DOCS case officer. Leonie began sexually abusing the two girls, and after it had been happening for some months they reported it to the officer. Leonie had sent them a sexually explicit letter. ‘It was really inappropriate and made me feel really uncomfortable, and we decided well, we’ve got some sort of proof now’, Matilda said.
The officer took the letter, but nothing came of it. ‘She didn’t seem to really care’, Matilda said.
Eventually Rosie decided to report Leonie to the police. She made a statement that resulted in two police officers coming to Matilda’s workplace one day. But they didn’t want a statement from her – quite the opposite. They told Matilda she wouldn’t be believed in court, and that she’d find it a difficult, confronting experience.
‘They basically came to my workplace to tell me not to bother.’
Matilda took their advice. ‘I was not in a position to take on police and courts and all that kind of stuff. I was 16, I was out of home, I was on all kinds of drugs, my mum had died. … That was okay by me at the time.’
It was a different story a few years later. Matilda had left the small regional town she’d grown up in and moved to Adelaide. She’d stopped using drugs and was going to university. ‘After a while I felt a lot stronger’, she said. She decided to report Leonie to the Adelaide police.
Trying to get the case brought to trial and then the trial itself became a six-year ordeal. The court case was worse than the abuse itself, Matilda said.
The first issue she faced was trying to get the police to investigate the matter at all. They had a record of Rosie’s original statement but had lost the actual statement. They told Matilda they couldn’t get another statement, as they couldn’t locate Rosie. Matilda found her, and also found other people she’d mentioned in her statement.
DOCS provided the letter the girls had given Rosie’s case officer years before. But because the case officer had interviewed the girls together and not separately, in a violation of procedure, their evidence was later said to be tainted by collusion.
It took Matilda 34 plane trips between Adelaide and her home town before the matter came to court. The prosecutor changed seven or eight times. In the end Leonie was charged with 13 or 14 offences relating only to the first night the abuse had occurred. ‘I felt like I was lying, to have to exclude all the things that came after that’, Matilda said.
As well, because getting to court had taken so long, she didn’t feel she could claim exact recall of everything that had occurred.
The judge found Leonie guilty of the charges, but she appealed and won. ‘She won the appeal based on how long it had been from the time of the incidents to the time of the outcome in court’, Matilda said. So much time had elapsed, the appeal judge doubted the accuracy of the testimony.
Matilda hadn’t even known an appeal was underway, until she got a call from the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) telling her it had been successful.
‘They said, “You’ll still be able to get victims of crime compensation, don’t worry about that”. As though that was the important thing. When to me it was that this person is walking around, and they can apply for jobs with children, they can do anything they want like that’, Matilda said.
‘To me the whole court case was for nothing.’
Matilda said that she has come to terms with the abuse. ‘These days it doesn’t eat me up the way it used to.’ She received victims of crime compensation, but remains angry about the failures of the system that was meant to protect and represent her.
‘If DOCS had done their job, and the police had done their job, we could have been in court a hell of a lot quicker. We were accused of colluding, and we were told that our memories were so bad that maybe it never even happened, and we’d distorted things because we were on drugs …
‘The person that caused this was just one person. But all the people that I dealt with and the systems that I dealt with was far more traumatic. I could have just left it, and done nothing, but I didn’t because I was concerned for other people.’
The drawn-out demands of the case meant Matilda had to withdraw from her university course. As a result she’s lost two years of Austudy and has a HECS debt for a degree she hasn’t completed. She believes there should be a fixed timeframe for the handling of matters by the police, the DPP’s office and the court.
She also believes the nature of the abuse was a factor in the way it was handled.
‘I’ve found that when you talk about a female sexually assaulting you it’s discounted or dismissed, or it’s merely curiosity or exploring – or they couldn’t possibly do something so bad, simply because of their gender. If that was a male that had done those things, I wonder if DOCS would have reacted differently, and whether the police would have reacted differently’, she said.