‘When I started to understand the extent of sexual violence that is happening in Aboriginal communities today - and I’m an Aboriginal woman, I’ve been out on the ground working for a long time - I was stunned and it became – I guess that’s what has driven my work’, Paulette told the Commissioner.
Paulette is an academic, working in the area of trauma. She was sexually abused as a child, as were her mother and daughter. Her family illustrates the widespread problem of generational abuse, she said.
In her work she has examined the way this issue and many others come together to impact on Aboriginal children in complex ways that are often poorly understood by the agencies and institutions meant to care for them. It was this, rather than her own personal experiences, that she wanted to talk to the Commissioner about.
‘That’s the only reason I’m here’, she said.
But she began by sharing her own story of abuse.
This took place in the early 1950s. Paulette’s mother was a devout Christian and regular church-goer. The minister at the church the family went to molested Paulette over a two-year period, starting when she was seven.
‘I was never really sure what was happening. It was like he would just pick up my hand and he would put it somewhere and I’d think, “What was that?” Then he would touch me’, Paulette recalled.
‘I didn’t know how to get out of it and I didn’t know how to tell my mum’, Paulette said. ‘Because this man was esteemed.’
Oral sex and digital penetration followed. Eventually he tried to rape her.
‘And it hurt’, said Paulette. ‘You’re going to laugh when I say this, but it stopped because somehow out of my mouth came “I’m going to tell Jesus on you!” and he stopped long enough for me to be able to run.’
Paulette told her mother, who took her to the doctor. The doctor theoretically reported the abuse to the police, but Paulette never heard from them and the abuse was never followed up.
As an adult, she received counselling about what had happened and it was at that time her mother told her she’d also been sexually abused.
Paulette went on to study domestic violence and sexual assault in Indigenous Australia and internationally.
Child on child sexual abuse emerged as a big problem, and one she wants the Commission to take note of. She spent 10 years working with Cape York communities, she said. ‘We had evidence then of little kids in packs sexually assaulting smaller kids, with sticks and things like that … Yes, there were adult men involved with the children. But what dropped through the cracks was the children who were involved with the children’, she said.
‘I can pick up the phone to the cops and get them to respond to an adult, but these children fall through the cracks.’
Over the years Paulette’s work expanded to include trauma theory. She developed and ran programs that helped Aboriginal people deal with the trauma of sexual violence.
People’s traumatic experiences become imprinted in their bodies, she said.
‘People who know me now say “Paulette, you’re coughing again”, and it took me a long time to understand that a hand here and a penis down there, with stuff going down my throat, is still an imprint I have’, she explained.
‘Coming into here, I started to cough again and my family is saying, “What are you coughing for?” and I’m spitting, and I realised that it’s the trauma imprint again working.’
Paulette is now retired from her university position but still works with a regional learning centre for students who’ve been expelled or suspended from school. An incident from her own life helped explain the approach that’s been introduced there.
It happened one night when she was staying in a motel and she went out to buy a meal. As she walked alongside the six-lane highway she was suddenly impelled to dash across it, in front of oncoming traffic on both sides. ‘Cars went this way and that way, people were screaming abuse at me.’
Standing on the other side of the road she tried to work out why she’d acted so dangerously. And then she noticed that nearby was a church just like the one where she’d been abused as a child. Subconsciously, seeing it had triggered her impulse to run.
‘The point I’m making, the kids I’m working with at the moment are being expelled from school because of their bad behaviour, but their behaviour makes sense when you see what they’ve been through’, she said.
At the learning centre, staff try to decipher the story that lies behind a child’s acting up. ‘We would have in our minds the child’s behaviour was telling us something’, Paulette explained.
Understanding those stories is a first step. But children also need support services that can work effectively with complex needs. For example, health and education agencies should work together, she said, and specifically address ways to work with kids who are sexually aggressive and/or have been sexually assaulted.
At the moment, she said, ‘the services are just not there.’