‘I could sit here all afternoon and tell you about all the different ways that the system has let my family down, but I don’t think you have that kind of time.’
With their mother addicted to alcohol and drugs and their father dead from an overdose, Shayna and her brother were taken by the New South Wales Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) in the 1990s and placed with their great aunt Yvonne.
Over the next few years, when their mother had more children, they too were removed and placed with another aunt and uncle, Joyce and Howard Menkin.
In the 2010s, after noticing Shayna had put on significant weight, Yvonne took her to the doctor. An ultrasound revealed she was eight months pregnant.
‘So I had fallen pregnant when I was 11 years old. And when I was 12 I gave birth to a son, as the result of being sexually abused, by multiple people in my family.
‘Pretty much the whole time that I was in care with Yvonne, I was being abused by my two cousins ... Paul Menkin and Tom Menkin.’
Shayna said she didn’t feel ‘safe enough’ to tell anyone. ‘I had younger brothers and sisters, so for a very long time I was of the opinion that if they were doing it to me, they wouldn’t be hurting my brothers and sisters.’
After her pregnancy was discovered, Shayna was interviewed by the NSW Police Joint Investigation Response Team. ‘That was a day that I’ll never forget, no matter how old I get … I went into what can only be described as, like, an interview room and there was cameras and microphones and that sort of thing. And it was very darkly coloured, there was no sort of bright or happiness in there at all. And the way they were sort of asking questions … yeah, really quite intimidating.’
In two separate interviews, Shayna named Paul Menkin and then Tom Menkin as the perpetrators. Both men were arrested and charged, but DNA tests showed neither was the father. The police advised Shayna to drop the matter.
‘So they thought, rather than taking it to court and me having to testify and all of that, they would basically just admit that there was not enough evidence and not take it any further.’
Soon after this, Shayna and her siblings were removed from kinship care and placed with foster families. However, they were still taken to visit the Menkin family, visits which were supposed to be supervised by FACS caseworkers.
‘These people knew that they weren’t allowed to be alone with us, everybody knew that it had to be a supervised visit, the whole time had to be supervised. But they were letting us walk off with them, you know, go to the shop with them, do things with them where we completely unsupervised.
‘And the thing that really grinds my gears about that is, you know … I haven’t done anything wrong. I haven’t taken, you know, any drugs or been a drug addict or an alcoholic or anything like that over the years, and I had to fight to get unsupervised time with my son. I had to fight really, really hard to get unsupervised time with my son. So it’s just like, “Well, what the hell’s going on with the system?”’
Recently, despite Shayna’s hope that she was the only one who had been sexually abused, some of her siblings reported Paul and Howard Menkin to police. A DNA test revealed Howard was the father of Shayna’s baby.
While she has no memory of being raped by her uncle, she discovered that her mother had made similar allegations against him years before.
‘And what makes that whole situation worse is that community services, who is an organisation to help children who, you know, are being abused, they knew what type of person he was, they knew that there was previous allegations against him, and they allowed me to go and live with somebody who was having regular contact with him. And not only me, my brothers and sisters as well.
‘The organisation that was supposed to protect us has really let us down from day one. And I think that’s really something that needs to change as well.’
At the time of Shayna’s private session, Howard was soon to face trial. However, despite the DNA evidence, and the fact that his occupation brings him into daily contact with children, he was granted bail, a situation she described as ‘ridiculous’.
‘I feel, you know, there’s a lot of different things and parts of the system that have really let me down. Being told, “Well, there’s not enough evidence”, it made me a little bit feel like nobody believed what was going on and what was happening ...
‘The way I felt was that they wanted me to have, you know, a photographic memory with exact times and exact dates; a very exact recollection of what happened. And I feel like, if I wasn’t reporting all the bad things that were happening, well then it just wasn’t going to be enough evidence.
‘And some of the questions that they asked me were very hard for a child to understand. Like, the language that they used, and the way in which they asked their questions, wasn’t very child friendly …
‘Even after I had come into care with my good foster parents … we weren’t really sure who we should’ve been talking to about any problems that we had or anything like that … We had one caseworker one week and then the next week our caseworker was completely different. From the time I was 12 to when I left care I think I would’ve had about at least 15 different caseworkers …
‘So I can imagine there’s probably thousands of children out there who are getting, you know, even more damaged and even more hurt with their foster carers than they were with their parents, and they just don’t feel safe enough to tell their caseworkers …
‘They’ve got to get some people into the system that just give a shit. The bottom line is, we need people in the system who care ... I feel that the caseworkers, the managers, the people I’ve had to deal with over the years … they don’t have that quality. They don’t care.’
Shayna recently applied to regain custody of her son but was told, because he’s been with his foster family for so long, it would be ‘very damaging’ to remove him from their care. ‘And that was a very tough thing for me to accept. The system has let me down in the way that, it’s so hard for me to now try and get my son back, even though I’ve done nothing wrong.
‘The system sort of makes me feel like a criminal in that way, too …
‘It wasn’t my fault that he sort of came into the world, and it wasn’t my fault that I got abused. But then he was taken away from me when he was only three days old and I sort of never got the chance to be a mum …
‘Good things have come out of it, though … I now have a beautiful son as the result of all those bad things happening. Actually, I now have two beautiful sons. I have one son that was the result of being sexually abused which was the best thing that possibly could’ve ever happened to me. I feel, you know, that he really was a saviour because if he didn’t come about then I would’ve still been stuck in that bad place. My brothers and sisters would’ve been still stuck in that bad place.’
Shayna has had many years of support from a counsellor, Wendy, even after their professional relationship ended. She’s still very close with her foster parents and now has a new, ‘amazing’ partner.
‘Even though a lot of bad things have happened in my life and there’s been a lot of injustice, and … breakdowns in the system and the system not sort of protecting me, I’ve really turned my life around. And I can honestly say, for the first time in many, many years that I’m happy.’