Sonja recalls that, from the age of four in the 1970s, her father would come into her bedroom at night and touch her under the bedsheets, telling her it was ‘our special game’. Sonja never told anyone at the time because her father told her she would be taken away from her family if she did.
Sonja’s father was well respected in the community and had many friends in the local police force.
‘When I was in Grade 1 I tried to tell Mrs Carmody, my Grade 1 teacher, but my dad was a well-known person and well respected. So, “Your father wouldn’t do anything like that”. The first time I was actually abused by another person was when I was around six or seven. My dad took me on a camping trip.’ On the trip, Sonja was sexually abused by both her father and his friend.
After that trip Sonja’s father and his friends, including uniformed policemen, regularly sexually abused her. The abuse took place in a purpose-built shed they would take her to, and occasionally the police would restrain her with their handcuffs or threaten her with their guns if she told anyone. Before long, Sonja began escaping her reality by dissociating.
When Sonja was 13 she remembers that another girl, who was around nine years old, was brought into the shed. ‘I had to tie her up and I remember telling her to keep her eyes closed and think of something happy. She screamed and I made them stop. Told her that no matter what she hears don’t open her eyes.’
Sonja’s father and his friends continued to abuse Sonja until she was 24 years old. During her early adulthood she tried to make an official report to the police but was told ‘You do realise that these allegations are against uniformed police officers and they’re very serious allegations …
‘I was my own worst enemy. Dissociated because of the abuse by the police. I came across as uncooperative, when in fact I was petrified and running scared … Said they were going to contact my parents and I shut down and recanted my statement. Police threatened to charge me with being a nuisance and making false allegations.’
Sonja was in her 20s when she had her son. She tried a second time to make a report to the police, this time providing journals and drawings. Although an investigation commenced, several months later Sonja was told that there wasn’t enough evidence and the case was dropped. The documentation she provided was never returned. She was also told that, because some of the incidents took place after she turned 18, they were deemed consensual. The police officer named was counselled but no charges were laid.
‘He got off with counselling because he said it was consensual and it was after I turned 18, so it was consensual. And he told his wife that he was having an affair with me and he just got counselling from that … He’s still a serving officer.’
Sonja has been diagnosed with complex PTSD with dissociative identity disorder, and spent a year in a mental health facility, receiving electro-convulsive therapy to treat her major depression. ‘When my son was first born he took his first steps in a mental health unit.’ Her son was removed from her care at a young age because of her mental health issues, and for most of his life has been cared for by Sonja’s sister.
‘You know how bad it is to be declared an unfit mother?’
Both of Sonja’s parents are now deceased and, apart from her sister, the rest of her family no longer speak to her.
‘I lost all my family because of this. Not my sister, poor thing, but we don’t talk about it … We don’t talk because it ends up in an argument. And I believe she was probably abused too but she has said she wasn’t so I don’t know. And my father was “It’s all lies. She’s been in a mental health institute. She’s made it all up”. And my aunts and uncles basically disowned me …
‘And then, you know, one of the worst things was when my mum died 17 years ago of cancer, one of the last things she asked me was about Dad’s abuse. And I lied to her … She was laying in a hospital bed and I think she went unconscious that night. And I said “No, Mum, everything’s fine” … I know I did the right thing but it doesn’t help. I still lied to my mum, it was the last thing I said to her.’
Sonja receives regular support from her counsellor, as well as a psychiatrist. Although her son still lives with her sister she is able to see him frequently. She has spent her whole life being doubted when she tried to talk about the abuse, and strongly believes that children need to be given better support when disclosing to an adult.
‘Children can find it … very, very hard to trust people, and going to the police to start with is very hard. And if you have one police officer deal with it on the day they come in and then another police officer and then another one, it just gets really confusing … Yes, I know there’s a specialised unit and everything, but if they make a connection with the first police officer … let that police officer follow through even if it’s not their duty. Because those kids need the reassurance and support of whoever they can get …
‘I’m never gonna get my life back. I never had a childhood. No-one will ever be held accountable for what happened to me. And I don’t ever wanna see this happen to anybody else. And it’s ruined my life. I should’ve had a decent job by now. I should’ve had my son living at home with me, and I haven’t.’