‘Regardless of the ambiguity that exists because of disability and because of the person not being able to speak, I have no doubt something happened that shouldn’t have. You know, her communication from my perspective was so clear. I have no doubt. The rest of it’s the ambiguity as to who exactly, what and where, because she can’t specifically verbalise any of that stuff, but I have no doubt.’
Maura wasn’t looking for respite care for her nine-year-old daughter, Jennifer, but when a friend pressed her and said it would give her a well-earned break, she reluctantly agreed. In the early 2000s, Jennifer spent several nights in a group home run by a Queensland not-for-profit community services organisation. A married couple, George and Margaret, lived on the premises and oversaw the children placed in their care. When Jennifer returned home from this first visit, Maura noticed that she was acting differently, in one instance running her face closely against Maura’s as she tried to kiss her mother in a way that seemed ‘odd’.
The following month, Jennifer went again to the group home and after five days, Maura was contacted and asked to pick Jennifer up because she was sick with a cold. At home, Maura realised Jennifer didn’t have a cold but had been crying so much that her nose was running and ‘she was just bereft’. She continued to cry on the couch for hours. Though she had little vocabulary, Maura understood that something had happened to her.
‘When you have someone that can’t actually say much by words to you, you’re just always watching and trying to – you are very aware of how the person is behaving and how they communicate and just when things are ambiguous you just take note and you just keep watching’, Maura said.
That afternoon, Jennifer was in her bedroom getting changed when she suddenly lay on the bed and raised her hips in the air, sticking out her tongue in a licking motion. Maura was shocked. ‘The first [time] was just a very big question and a concern that – what do you do with that? … But the second time, from my thinking, it just made me more concerned about the respite situation, given the timing of it.’
Maura told the Commissioner that she asked Jennifer if someone had kissed her, and felt ‘utterly overwhelmed and confused’ knowing Jennifer couldn’t tell her. She decided then that Jennifer wouldn’t go back to respite care.
Within a short period of time, Jennifer began acting out aggressively at school. ‘When something like that occurs with someone like Jennifer, you know the first thing is that you feel overwhelmed and scared and frightened and you have to start making decisions when you don’t really have all that much information about, “Well, what do I know?”’ Maura said. ‘And I knew I had two places that something definitely had gone wrong – in one or the other. It could only be one of two places.’
Given the timing of Jennifer’s change in behaviour and that no staff or circumstances had changed at school, Maura felt that something must have happened in respite care. She sought a meeting with the manager of the community services organisation overseeing the respite care program to tell her of her concerns.
‘That was jaw-droppingly awful and not what I expected … I went with the naive assumption that if I had even remote concerns that this had happened in their setting, they’d actually want to know.’
Maura said instead of being listened to she was given ‘the third degree’. The manager suggested that Jennifer’s behaviour must have come from something she’d seen on television and then cited other people as probable causes of Jennifer’s distress.
‘It was that whole, “How dare you come and have this conversation with us? It couldn’t possibly be us”, sort of thing. Then she said, “This is how the police will treat you”’.
A short time later, Maura called Queensland Police. She spoke to an officer who took brief details and said she’d get someone to call Maura back. When no one did, Maura ‘gave up’ but thought that the matter would be followed up, a decision she later thought was probably ‘naive and silly’.
‘It was more the experience of being left alone to raise a disabled daughter; when an ex-husband leaves you already feel overwhelmed enough. When something like this comes along, it just you know, multiplies it so much, you can’t even imagine. Then I think my guiding force you know, was just to do what I had to do to protect Jennifer. And beyond that, I did what I could with what energy I had, and beyond that I let it go and to try and keep her where she was safe.’
Maura told the Commissioner that even though Jennifer was receiving good support now, she couldn’t help thinking about the future for her.
‘The thing that’s really concerning … is, you know, I won’t live forever … [and] these organisations, particularly the way the services are going, they’re getting bigger and bigger. They run the group homes that my daughter is going to go in when I die. That’s what really is concerning.
‘And it was bad enough what happened to Jennifer but what really just complicated and made the whole anxiety thing worse is that when you realise that even the organisations aren’t taking it seriously. Or that particular one wasn’t.’