Shekinah’s parents’ struggle with drugs and alcohol quickly brought them to the attention of the Department of Community Services (DOCS). At the age of three, Shekinah and her younger sister Sara were placed with the Barratt family. The Barratts had a child of their own and two older foster children. Shekinah told the Commissioner that her foster family were cruel and that school was her ‘getaway’.
‘I got it the worst, just because I spoke back and I fought back.’ The children’s crimes could range from ‘a biscuit missing from the cupboard to being five minutes late home from school. Anything really’.
Mrs Barratt’s punishments included ‘the wooden spoon, putdowns. She tried to burn my hand on the stove, threw the jug of water on me. She’d get her husband to pull our pants down and smack us with a wooden spoon continuously. She’d wrench me round by my hair, kick me down the stairs’.
When Shekinah was 10, a school counsellor noticed bruises on her legs and filed a report with DOCS. She was taken out of the foster home but asked her caseworker to go back. Shekinah didn’t want to be away from Sara and also, despite the abuse, the Barratt family was the only home she knew.
It was on her return that David Barratt, her foster father, started sexually abusing Shekinah. ‘He just came into my room one night, put his mouth on my breast, then it was every night after that for two years.’
The abuse lasted until Shekinah was in her early teens. ‘When I came out and told them, my foster mother actually walked in while it was happening.’ She was very angry for a few days and talked about putting locks on doors. ‘Then after about a month, I was a little tart and a little slut and I asked for it.’
When DOCS caseworkers came to visit Shekinah, the Barratts made sure she never got to speak to them alone.
Shekinah ran away to a refuge when she was 14. Soon afterwards she was raped at a party. When Shekinah reported the rape she also told the police about her foster father. After making that report, she never returned to the Barratts.
Over the next four years she lived in refuges with her sister and was released from care at the age of 18. She worked with the Joint Investigation Response Team to make a case against David Barratt. He received a 12-month suspended sentence.
But then another victim came forward. Barratt was charged again and this time received seven years in prison.
The Barratts had been fostering children for nearly 30 years.
‘What I don’t understand is how two people can be fostering for that long ... and not have any suspicion brought to them at all.’
Shekinah’s file shows that counsellors and teachers did make reports over the years but they were not acted on. Shekinah was also self-harming. Her file quotes her as saying, ‘Why can’t I hurt myself if other people hurt me?’
DOCS didn’t apologise to Shekinah but her case managers did. DOCS lodged a victim’s compensation claim for her but Shekinah threw a table at them, saying she didn’t want the claim.
She later received a lump sum from the Victims of Crime Tribunal.
Shekinah, who is in her early 20s, didn’t trust anyone for a long time. ‘Nobody, no counsellors, nothing.’ She’d started smoking and drinking at 14 and then developed a methamphetamine habit.
Shekinah was just opening up to counsellors when she went into custody. She had been clean for seven months, but lapsed the week before going to jail.
Shekinah thinks protecting her sister Sara kept her strong. Sara told DOCS that Shekinah would stand at her bedroom door every night while their foster father was saying good night and wouldn’t go to bed until he left.
Shekinah wants to put it all behind her now. She hates the fact that she missed out on being a kid but now just wants to get a job and get on with her life.
She firmly believes that more could have been done for her mum and dad before she was taken away from them.
‘Before DOCS comes and takes kids they should try working with the biological parents first ... You can’t just see a drug and alcohol issue and go “Right, I’m taking this kid”.’
Her father had been given custody of the children but lost it because he kept seeing their mother, which was not allowed.
‘Because of that stupid little rule, I went through all the shit I went through. You know what I mean? Parents aren’t always bad … Sometimes people need to look a bit deeper to the core.’