‘I’m not as broken as I once was. If you want to hear my story – I’m a bit spun out, but if you want to hear it, I’ve got something to say.’
Paige was already a damaged and vulnerable child before she met John Willoughby. She grew up in New South Wales in the early 1980s, in a household where violence and abuse were common. There was physical abuse from her mentally unstable mother, and physical and sexual abuse from her father.
But by the time Paige was 13 years old, things were changing for the better.
‘I was actually doing okay. I was starting to make friends. Dad was out of our lives, Mum was actually getting counseling and treatment. She was going good. And then this happened and everything fell apart.’
Paige was sent to stay with John Willoughby for respite care one weekend. She hadn’t stayed at Willoughby’s house before but she knew him quite well because he was the leader of the cadet group she’d joined some weeks earlier.
‘I think he’s targeted me from that moment, from me being the cadet. Because he knew, he knew my whole story, spent the whole weekend wanting to know all the details, cuddled up tickling me, until it escalated to that evening.’
On the Saturday evening Willoughby sexually abused Paige. The next morning she summoned her courage and told Willoughby’s wife, Laura, what had happened. Laura called her friend Danielle and the two women sat Paige in a room and lectured her for hours on all the awful things that would happen if she mentioned the incident to anyone else.
‘She said he’s going to lose his job, lose his kids.’
They kept Paige from contacting her mother until Monday morning, and when they did, both Laura and John Willoughby stood in the room, listening to the call. Though she was scared and intimidated, Paige told her mother what had happened. Later she reported the abuse to the Department of Community Services (DOCS) and the police. But it didn’t do her any good.
‘No one believed me, not even my mother.’
Looking back now as an adult, Paige said she can see that the ‘poor woman’ who interviewed her at the police station was genuinely trying to help. Unfortunately, Paige was so distressed she couldn’t appreciate the police woman’s efforts at the time. She thought the woman was trying to ‘get off’ on the details of the abuse.
‘I remember her asking me, “How did he touch you?” And I flew off in a rage. I went, “You’re just as bad as the rest of them”. I think that’s why they decided I was no good as a witness.’
Paige’s life went quickly downhill from there.
‘I ended up knocked up at 16, a state ward, DOCS didn’t give a shit. My kids got abused. I lost my kids. Ended up on drugs, in and out of serious DV [domestic violence] stuff … And it can all go back to the lack of support post being abused both at home and then in care, and then being on the street.
‘And then they tried telling me it was my fault that I stuffed up with my kids. And I spent years thinking that that was my fault. And you know what? It’s bloody not. My kids are old enough now to say, “Mum, it wasn’t your fault. You’re the one that put your body over us as he beat us. It’s not your fault”.’
Eventually, after many dark years, Paige regained control of her life. She kicked the drugs, ‘blitzed’ a bridging course and started uni. She re-established ties with some of her kids and started working in a great job that she loves.
Around this time Paige also started her first ‘real’ relationship, the first one ‘that’s not abusive’. Paige described her partner as a strong support in her life, but added:
‘He’s not my hero. Because there’s no such thing as fairy tales. The only knight in shining armour in my world is me. But because I was able to be my own knight in shining armour I was able to make a good choice and find somebody that was actually going to be good for me.’
Looking outwards now from a place of strength, Paige made this recommendation to the Royal Commission:
‘I would really like there to be social-wide acceptance that we’re allowed to be broken, but at the same time no expectation that we always are.’