Rose didn’t know what to think when she first saw that Ben, a man barely 20 years old, had started working at her daughter’s childcare centre.
‘I remember doing a double kind of cognition in my head. On the first turn feeling a bit strange and mildly suspicious about a young man going into childcare. Then being aware of the judgment I was making, and then swapping that with an idea of “This is great”.’
In the end, Rose decided that Ben’s presence at the centre was probably a good thing. Her daughter, Jenna, didn’t have a lot of men in her life so Rose thought it would be healthy for her to interact with a fun, energetic man like Ben, within the safe confines of the centre.
It was the late 2000s and, at the time Ben arrived, Jenna was only a few months away from leaving childcare and starting school. In those few months her behaviour changed dramatically.
‘She was extremely difficult’, Rose said. ‘For a start I noticed she would always insist on wearing leggings with everything. … And it was very, very difficult for me to get her there. There would be massive tantrums, screaming.’
There were physical problems too – soreness and redness around Jenna’s vagina. Rose took her to see a doctor who diagnosed worms. Rose never suspected the real cause, until the night Jenna told her. Ben had been touching her, she said, and he’d told her not to tell anyone about it.
The next morning Rose rang the centre and spoke to a staff member who didn’t seem to know what to do. Later, Rose spoke to the director of the centre.
‘She told me that Ben had been moved from the floor, but the point that she made was how shocked everybody was. She kept reinforcing how popular he was with the kids and how Jenna really liked him and was always playing with him. A definite message of disbelief.’
A while later the police charged Ben, and a long while after that he went to trial. Rose found the trial process confusing and callous and felt that it was particularly tough on Jenna.
‘She was cross-questioned for an hour. It was awful for her. She was really frightened. Really traumatised.’
For the duration of the trial Jenna had nightmares about ‘Mr Ben’ and would wake up screaming. During the day, she was menaced by intrusive thoughts. ‘He’s in my mind’, she said to Rose. ‘I can’t stop thinking about him.’
Most disturbingly, Rose discovered that Ben had planted certain ideas in Jenna’s head. She explained that he had told her that he knew where she lived and where she was going to school next year. She was terrified.
‘Terrified that he was going to become a teacher or that he was in fact another student in disguise – really elaborate, imaginary fantasies. It sort of disturbed me from a psychiatric perspective.
‘She would think that maybe he was inside a “kid suit”. So he was kind of inside a kid and had put this kid suit on and was in her school. And she even thought that of me once or twice, actually he was inside me and had put me on as a suit.’
Much of this information did not emerge until after the court case had started. Rose thought that it was relevant evidence so she tried to get it included in the trial. She was baffled and enraged when the lawyers told her that the evidence was inadmissible. They said that because it wasn’t in her original statement, they couldn’t raise it in court.
For most of the trial, Rose didn’t know what was going on, and there was no one there to explain it to her. She felt abandoned.
‘That was the most stressful part of the whole process. The disclosure was stressful enough and then there’s a huge emotional fallout from that, and then secrecy and not knowing who to tell and then regretting telling certain people, and it’s just horrendous, and you feel so shameful and underground. It’s horrible. But in the court case you’re expected to accept an awful lot of what seemed illogical and unfair.’
Ben was acquitted. Rose doesn’t know how to explain this outcome to Jenna.
‘[She asked me] “Did he go to jail, did we win?” I said, “I don’t think he went to jail”. And I’ve reinforced – I’d said all along that he had consequences, the consequences of the bail, and I’ve just reminded her of that.
‘I’ve never directly said no, because I can’t lie, but I have to sort of make her believe that something was achieved. I have to make her believe that. And at some point in the future when she’s old enough she’ll obviously find out that he wasn’t convicted.’
Rose doesn’t know what Ben is doing now and she fears that he might still be working with kids. As for the childcare centre, ‘I never heard back from them. I never received any kind of question or apology or acknowledgement. Nothing at all.’