In the late 1970s Natia was sexually abused at least 780 times – ‘three times a week’ – between the ages of eight and 13 by her foster family’s son, Lance.
When her abuser was finally brought to court decades later, she was appalled that he was merely fined and had no conviction recorded.
And Natia remains mystified about why, when Lance was prepared to plead guilty to 13 out of 14 charges of child sexual abuse, the Director of Public Prosecutions [DPP] reduced the charges to just six that were ‘indicative’ of the offences.
‘He [the prosecutor] said it wouldn’t have made a difference to the outcome’, Natia said of Lance’s sentence in the mid-2000s.
‘Well, it might not have made a difference to the outcome but it would have made a difference to me. It would have made a difference for him to stand up … 13 times and say “I did this”.’
Among some strong recommendations she hopes may help others, Natia says a federally-funded social worker, independent of the DPP and any state government, should be allocated to abuse survivors. This would avoid the inevitable disruption that occurs when cases are handed on, sometimes to a number of different prosecutors.
With heritage from the Pacific islands, Natia’s parents split up when she was three. Her mother took her younger two siblings overseas with her new husband, and her father returned to Australia with Natia and her older brother. But after an incident of domestic violence, they wound up in foster care.
Natia was soon placed with a family who lived on the land and who she later found from her departmental records were ‘non-approved persons’. The abuse by Lance, six years her elder, began on the last weekend of her orientation period.
‘At that stage I was really excited, I’d been told about it, all the plans had been made and then that was the day that he abused me and I felt like I was stuck.’
Lance sexually abused Natia for the next five years with the knowledge, she was sure, of his mother, Nicola.
‘I remember one time we were in the car and he was abusing me … it was night time … there was a blanket on us and he was literally penetrating me and I remember looking in the rear view mirror and seeing the foster mother’s face and something just told me that she knew what was going on.’
Natia’s foster father Bruce also sexually abused her, ‘once every three weeks’, she said.
‘There was no penetration or digital penetration there. He mostly would come and touch my chest, when I didn’t have one, and then later on when I did. And he would touch on the outside down there … He would squeeze my chest like he was really, really angry.’
Bruce – now dead – also abused Natia’s sister, Evie, when she was temporarily housed with them. The sisters disclosed the sexual abuse to each other, but not to anyone else.
Natia was also fostered when she joined her siblings overseas. Despite difficulties, she finished school, graduated from university and returned to Australia where she is now married with children.
She was in her 30s when she disclosed for the first time to ‘authority’ – the police.
‘It just took me seven years to finally get round to doing it. I was in counselling before that and I blamed myself a lot for what happened. I had approached the foster brother [Lance] and tried to deal with that outside of court but he then said things like “it was your fault and you asked for it and you wanted it” – that I wasn’t an ordinary eight-year-old girl. So I took a lot of that on board because I was already feeling like it was my fault and I must have contributed to it.’
A lasting impact is her constant anxiety about the safety of her children, which limits her employment possibilities to those that permit school pick-ups.
Her older brother, living overseas, encouraged her to speak with the Royal Commission. ‘He said go in and talk for all of us who can’t.’
Natia is hopeful someone can investigate why her complaint against Bruce, made at the same time as her complaint which ended in the ‘extremely lenient’ treatment of Lance, did not proceed.
After assuring police she did want to go ahead, and there was sufficient evidence, Natia found out from Freedom of Information records that the case was closed ‘617 days’ after her original complaint was made.
Natia also wants victims given more help from the DPP in navigating the legal system. She had to forcefully resist repeated entreaties by both the prosecutor and the defence for initial mediation of her criminal case in lieu of proceeding to court.
In cases which result in convictions, particularly following guilty pleas, an individual’s victim impact statement should be taken into consideration. Natia felt ‘humiliated’ that Lance’s character references were given more weight at his sentencing than what he did to her.
‘In doing this, whether intentionally or not, the legal system only served to minimise and add to the abuse that I had already endured’, Natia said in documents provided to the Royal Commission.
When a complaint of child sexual abuse is made, a trusting relationship is fundamental. Fewer child safety officers, and more continuity in who the kids talk to is paramount, she said.