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Rhonda Helen's story

‘The outcome I would like to see is compensation paid to all the victims as child sexual abuse is a life sentence for us. Also help with medical, dental, and a care leavers card similar to war veterans as most of us suffer post-traumatic stress. Maybe funeral costs as well and ongoing counselling, and free counselling for our children as they have also suffered. And for us to be recognised.

‘If in the process of our death before an outcome, for our children to be able to claim our compensation. Tougher penalties imposed for paedophiles – forget trying to rehabilitate them, they never change. Tougher laws for the people that turn a blind eye.’

Rhonda and her sister were both sexually abused by their stepfather (who, among other violent acts he’d committed, had once tried to set the girls’ bedroom on fire), while living with him and their mother during the 1970s.

They were removed from the family, made state wards, and placed in a number of residential care arrangements. ‘I remember the police coming to the house and taking me away, and my mum just stood there and my grandmother was crying, telling them not to take me.’

Rhonda was not provided with appropriate support to deal with her experiences with her family. ‘I was never offered counselling. I was sent to a psychiatrist, but to find out why I was a bad child, why I was maybe promiscuous. But an eight year-old child isn’t promiscuous ... They knew I’d been abused but it didn’t cross their mind that that’s why I was the way I was.’

After spending time in a couple of homes, Rhonda was placed with her sister in a government orphanage in regional Victoria when she was around 10 years old. Throughout their time there they were regularly sent back to visit their family on holidays (though not sleep at their house) even though their stepfather was still living there, and he continued to abuse them.

‘The thing that I’m most angry about is the fact that I was removed for care and protection ... and I was sent back. And the fact that the children’s home knew I was being abused, and they kept sending me back. So I was in a no-win situation.’ Finally her stepfather went to police and confessed that he had been sexually abusing them, and received a $250 good behaviour bond.

Rhonda was raped by a teenage boy, James, who also lived at the orphanage. ‘I just remember he was really tall, and he was definitely older.’ During this assault one of his friends held her down with a knife to her throat. She also overheard James raping her sister.

The boys threatened her ‘not to tell anyone’ but she ‘told the staff members’ anyway as ‘I wasn’t scared’. She does not remember any action being taken as a result of this disclosure, but has copies of her files from the orphanage which mention James raping her, and also that her stepfather was sexually abusing her on home visits.

At one stage Rhonda was sent to a host family during vacation. The father got into her bed and rubbed up against her, and one of their older sons ‘said if I gave him oral sex he’d give me chocolate ... I wanted the chocolate so I did that ... I didn’t tell anyone about that’.

This ongoing abuse had significant impacts on Rhonda’s mental health. ‘I used to self-mutilate. I took overdoses. I think the first time I tried to overdose I was 13.’ Around a decade ago she had a ‘nervous breakdown’, and has been on antidepressants and other medication for anxiety. She has also used alcohol and marijuana to cope.

After a couple of years at the orphanage she was sent to a different children’s home, then a family group home, before moving in with her boyfriend at the age of 14. She told him everything that had happened to her, and they eventually married.

‘He used to say I was beautiful and what happened was wrong. But then I didn’t understand him, like the love he was giving me I didn’t understand. So I cheated on him and when the marriage broke up he was devastated and I didn’t understand why.

‘So then I went to counselling to try and find out why the marriage broke up, and they said it was probably due to being abused and growing up in a home.’

In the 1990s, Rhonda sued the state government for her experiences in care. She received around $60,000 after paying legal fees and refunding Medicare the costs of health care. She doesn’t consider it an adequate amount. As well as this claim she received $13,000 in victims of crime compensation for the abuse by James and her stepfather. Rhonda then reported James to police, but due to lack of evidence the matter did not proceed.

Her second husband was supportive of her at first, but ‘once he’d read all the information about me he turned it all around ... he was abusive ... he used to rape me as well’. She went to police and obtained an intervention order, but they told her rape ‘was too hard to prove in a marriage, and that’s it’.

His violence brought back the trauma of the abuse in her childhood ‘after I’d done a lot of work to overcome all that, like gone to counselling, gone to the rape crisis centre ... Once I had that court case it was like a big relief ... I had decided I was going to start putting that all behind me. And he just re-triggered everything’.

Rhonda would like to see better and more accessible support for survivors of child sexual abuse. ‘Paedophiles they go to jail, they get rehabilitated – well, they think they do – but what about the victims?’

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