Arriving one afternoon to pick up her daughter, Lara, from the school bus, Nadine was shocked by what she saw.
‘She was crying, there was screaming. Lara went one way, James and Amy went the other. And there was screaming across the front of the bus, he was calling her stupid, an idiot, all these sorts of things. I was pretty horrified with Lara’s behaviour because she was very, very distressed, throwing her arms around and carrying on like a pork chop, and it’s really not in Lara’s nature to be that aggressive.’
James and Amy were two students who attended a special school with Lara in the early 2010s. They both have intellectual disabilities. Lara has Down Syndrome.
For the rest of that day Lara was distraught. Unusually, when she got home, she got changed out of her school clothes on her own. Nadine entered the room later and found Lara’s school dress. All of the buttons had been torn off. She calmed Lara then asked her to recount what had happened.
Lara explained how she had felt tired during lunchtime that day and had gone inside to the ‘quiet zone’ for a rest.
‘She was laying on a beanbag trying to have a sleep’, Nadine told the Commissioner. ‘Now this boy [James] has come up to her, laid on top of her. This room’s supposed to be supervised. There wasn’t many children in there by all accounts that I can get. He’s ripped open all the buttons on her school dress. She said she did push him away, that she tried to bite him.’
James then put his hands down the back and the front of Lara’s dress and into her underpants. A teacher then appeared and kicked James out of the room.
Later Nadine took the dress to the school and demanded an explanation from Lara’s teacher. The teacher gave her a watered-down version of what Lara had said. Then, at Nadine’s insistence, the principal promised to keep an eye on James and Lara and make sure they weren’t left alone together.
Friday of that same week Nadine got a call from a welfare officer who worked at the school. She was calling to inform Nadine that Lara and James had been discovered in the library together after lunch, and the teachers believed they’d spent the whole lunch break in there, unsupervised.
Nadine was outraged.
‘They had promised me faithfully that they would not be in any classes together, there would be a complete separation and division.’
On top of this, the welfare officer tried to diminish the significance of the incident, telling Nadine that the relationship between James and Lara was consensual, and that, while the teachers didn’t approve, they didn’t think it was much of a big deal.
That day, Nadine was unable to follow up on the matter with Lara herself. It was her ex-husband’s turn to pick up Lara, and due to the custody arrangements, Nadine was not allowed to go near him or Lara during this time.
‘And the school knew this and they were playing on it. And the school did not inform [Lara’s father] Craig of any of these events. … Completely disempowered him as a parent and not able to make any enquiries himself.’
On the Sunday, Nadine’s mother collected Lara from her dad. In the car on the way home Lara broke down. She later told Nadine her version of events.
‘She said she actually went into the library to be away from James who had made rude comments to her during the day … She said that James later followed her into the library, kicked other children – there was only a couple – out of the library and he locked her in the library, detaining her for the whole of lunchtime.’
Lara said that James had again put his hands down her dress and that she had fought him, punching and kicking. Later she had reported James to the teachers but hadn’t told them about the punching and kicking because she didn’t want to get into trouble.
Nadine went to the police. This marked the beginning of a long struggle during which her complaint was bounced back and forth between the police and the Victorian Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA). The police, Nadine said, emphasised how traumatic the process would be for Lara and how unlikely it was that her complaint would succeed in court. CASA said that there was nothing they could do to influence the police.
Similarly, when Nadine tried to pursue the matter with the Education Department she was ‘juggled’ from one officer to the next until they wore her down and she gave up.
In hindsight, Nadine suspects that the police might have been right, and that Lara may have been harmed by the official complaints process. But at the time she was so frustrated and exhausted she wasn’t thinking clearly. After all, in the midst of navigating the bureaucratic battlefield, she still had to care for a traumatised child.
‘She wouldn’t go in her own bed, she had to sleep in my bed. To get her to sleep I had to cuddle her to sleep. And then because she was in my bed I wouldn’t sleep. So we’re having bad behaviours, tantrums.’
Nadine has dropped the official investigation and moved Lara to a new school. Throughout the ordeal Lara’s schoolwork and social skills diminished, but after some therapy and lots of hard work, she was getting back on track. When the Commissioner mentioned how fortunate Lara was to have a mother like Nadine, Nadine said that the truth lay the other way around. ‘Not everyone’, she said, ‘gets a daughter like Lara’.