When 12-year-old Shevonne found out she and her sister were to be placed in foster care, she was relieved. Home until then had been with their mother, who neglected and physically and psychologically abused them.
‘When I was told that Caroline was taking us, she also had young grandchildren … I was very excited. And she was a single lady, and when I saw her house and saw her I clicked with her straight away, I felt at ease with her and I was excited and relieved – really relieved; I felt like, “This is going to be my home”.’
The following year, Shevonne and her sister were made wards of the state. But by then the promise of her new home with Caroline had turned sour. The girls had been placed in short-term care with another family, while Caroline travelled overseas. While there, Shevonne was sexually molested multiple times by the father, Martin Stafford.
The Shevonne who returned to Caroline’s care was a different person. She was angry, aggressive and destructive. She shaved her head. She started smoking cigarettes, and self-mutilating. She’d go out without telling anyone where she was going. Caroline, a ‘very conservative lady’, wanted ‘perfect role model people’, Shevonne said. ‘I was an embarrassment to her.’
On one occasion Caroline drove Shevonne and her sister to visit the Staffords. ‘I still remember it, and I still remember the smell of the seat. Instead of saying anything … I just started kicking. She was driving and I was kicking the back of her seat and she pulled over and said, “You know, you’re so ungrateful”’, Shevonne said.
Shevonne didn’t – and couldn’t, she said – tell Caroline what had happened to her at the Staffords. And neither Caroline nor anyone else ever asked.
‘Nobody ever said to me, “Has something happened there?” No. No, not at all … That would be the first thing that would go through my head is, “She’s pretty upset about going back there”, and maybe I’d ask a few questions as to why.’
Shevonne’s behaviour was too much for Caroline, and she was returned to Department of Human Services’ care. For the next four years Shevonne was moved from place to place – group homes, foster care and temporary facilities. She began self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. She struggled at school. ‘I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t comprehend, so I would act out in school.’
And she struggled with all the changes. ‘Everywhere I’d become attached to people’, she said, ‘and they always leave. They still do, you know? That’s their job. It’s really hard to digest that and keep yourself removed when you’re a child. You do feel like you’re forming bonds, not knowing these people arrange a schedule and it’s their job description.’
One important exception was Shevonne’s social worker, Margaret, who became an enduring friend and came with her to the Royal Commission. ‘I am pretty much where I am now from Margaret. She never gave up on me. She’s the only person who … through all my tantrums and drugs and toxic relationships, Margaret never gave up, ever, ever, ever. [She was] my only constant’, Shevonne told the Commissioner.
When Shevonne was 18 and finally ready to disclose what Martin Stafford had done to her, it was Margaret she told. At Margaret’s urging, she then reported the abuse to the Department of Human Services. Margaret went with her, and they took the diary Shevonne had kept at the time of the assaults. In it Shevonne had written ‘Martin made a pass at me’ – as she explained, it was the only language she had at the time to describe what had happened to her.
‘I went [to DHS] thinking this is evidence, this is proof … And they were like well, he’s not here in Victoria anymore and really that doesn’t mean anything, that he made a pass at you … I left there embarrassed that I even went there in the first place. I felt stupid, because they were mocking my wording.’
The two DHS officers at the meeting didn’t suggest any follow-up action. They asked Shevonne what she wanted them to do and she didn’t know. Her main concern was that Stafford should not be able to do to other children what he’d done to her.
‘I remember walking back to the car’, Margaret added, ‘and Shevonne saying, “I’m never going to talk about that again. I can’t believe I did that to myself. I can’t believe I trusted them to listen to me and I can’t believe that I put myself through that”’.
In the years since, Shevonne has rung the police many times, planning to make a complaint about Stafford. But she hasn’t managed it yet. ‘I felt [the police] were just like, “Oh my God, here’s Shevonne again. What’s her drama?” … One of the times I rang, they were like “Well, that happened a long time ago”.’
Stafford’s assaults were not the only episodes of sexual abuse Shevonne suffered as a child. At 14 she was raped by an older boy in a group home. Again, she felt unable to disclose what had happened at the time, but she believes that had the adult carers been more attentive it wouldn’t have occurred.
Shevonne has three children, and has gained qualifications to work in health services. She’s in a ‘much better place’, she said. After talking to the Commissioner, she had resolved to go back to the police and file a complaint about Stafford. Her visit to the Commission represented important closure.
‘I’m hoping I’ve broken some rusty link which should have been broken’, she said.