Nicole’s daughter Amy has autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as well as learning difficulties. In the mid-2000s, as a Year 6 student at her Queensland government primary school, Amy was sexually abused by another student.
Nicole only discovered what was happening when Amy was in the bath one night and complained of pain.
‘She said, “Mummy, my bottom hurts. Front bottom hurts”. And I said, “Maybe you just need to have a bath and just wash”. And she said, “It’s bleeding”.’
When Nicole examined Amy she found her vaginal area to be red and scratched, with scars from what appeared to be old scratches as well. She asked Amy how it had happened and Amy lowered her head so Nicole couldn’t see her face. ‘Amy doesn’t cry. She doesn’t know how to cry. But her whole body language said to me there was a guilt.’
When she asked Amy if she’d scratched herself, Amy told her that it was another girl, Natalie, who’d done it. ‘Amy still says today, “Natalie gave me sex”,’ Nicole said.
Natalie was a year older than Amy, and had developmental delay issues. She was Amy’s only friend at school. Eventually Amy revealed that Natalie had been taking her into the school toilets and locking the door. ‘She would take her own clothes off, take Amy’s clothes off, and perform sexual acts, [including] rubbing and penetration’, Nicole said.
Natalie was physically much bigger than Amy, and had a strong personality. Amy was very naive. ‘If you suggested that she go to a room to do something, she would feel awkward about it but still go under your power to do it.’ Her willingness to be compliant remained an issue that years later was still being worked through with education and training. ‘She’s getting stronger but she’s not there yet’, Nicole said.
Nicole reported Amy’s story to the acting principal the next day. ‘She was incredibly helpful. Supportive.’ She suggested counselling for Amy and asked if the family wanted to press charges against Natalie.
‘I said, “No, but I want you to investigate what’s happening to Natalie. She has knowledge of sexual behaviour practices that are not appropriate for her age. Where does she get that from?”’ I said to the school, “I want it looked it into … I’m not angry but I’m concerned for her welfare”.’
Natalie and Amy both stayed on at the school, and remained friends. Looking back, Nicole believed that what occurred was probably ‘extreme child play’. But she was very upset when some time later she approached the principal and was told not only had there never been any follow-up, but also the school didn’t even have any record of her reporting the abuse.
Nicole had since reported the matter to Queensland’s education department. She wanted to know why Amy’s school hadn’t recorded or reported it. She was also concerned that the school didn’t have a set of clear guidelines on how to deal with and follow through on sexual abuse like that which Amy experienced.
She also told the department she believed better classroom resources on abuse were urgently needed. ‘There is a chasm between the children and what they can access.’ And, she said, even if there is material available, they don’t know how to access it. Kids need to know what they can do if something at school or elsewhere makes them uncomfortable, and that information needs to be drilled into them as it is for other action plans – ‘Just like “This is what we do in an emergency”,’ she explained.
Nicole was a long-time member of the Salvation Army, and had further experiences in that context of leadership failing to act on issues of sexual abuse. In the congregation she attended, Leonard Wilkins, one of the members, had been convicted of child sex abuse offences. Another member told Nicole she thought Wilkins had been targeting Amy after sermons – following her around, stroking her arm, offering to show her how to kiss.
Nicole immediately reported this to the Church leadership. They downplayed the threat. The senior minister told her that Wilkins had been framed. Nicole and her husband, who were deeply involved in the ministry, found themselves ostracised. ’Nothing was said to us … We were bullied from the leadership.’
Nicole went higher up and in one conversation was called an ‘over-reactive mother’. She was told to leave the matter with Church leaders. ‘I did that, stupidly. I left it with them. Nothing was done.’
In the end Nicole took matters into her own hands. She organised a meeting between herself, her husband, Amy, her other children and Wilkins. At that meeting she told him she didn’t want to see him commit more crimes or hurt more children. ‘I said to him, “Leonard, I don’t want to see you back in jail, I want to see you journey towards being a different person, a changed person”.’ She told him he was never ever to approach her children. ‘If you do and if I see that, I will go to police.’
In the end Nicole’s concerns about Wilkins’ activities led to him being reported to police. No longer a member of that Salvation Army congregation, she remains angry that the Church leaders didn’t respond adequately to the matter. Once again, the absence of clear guidelines was a problem.
‘It is a sensitive issue but nevertheless it needs to be addressed in a genuine way’, she told the Commissioner. ‘I want to see change. I’m angry that this is not taken seriously within the Salvation Army… I want to see change and tools put in place for children across the board.’