Sophie’s father was an alcoholic who physically abused Sophie’s mother. In the mid 1980s, when Sophie was two or three, her mother organised with the Queensland Department of Human Services (DHS) for Sophie and her two brothers to be placed in care. ‘I guess she put us in care so she wouldn’t have to have anything to do with my father’, Sophie told the Commissioner.
The three children were placed in a foster home and spent about two years there. When Sophie was five, they were moved to a different home, under the charge of Barbara and Max Flockham. The arrival of Sophie and her brothers meant the Flockhams were caring for eight children altogether: three of their own, Sophie and her brothers, and two other foster children.
That quantity of people meant the abuse Sophie suffered there was not as bad as it might have been, she said. She was sexually molested by Max Flockham on multiple occasions but not actually raped. ‘I put it down to how many people were living in the house. It would have been very hard for him to try and do that and get away with it’, she said.
The foster children in the Flockham home received ‘shocking’ care, Sophie said. Barbara Flockham punished the foster kids severely – Sophie remembered being made to eat soap – while favouring her own children, giving them all kinds of treats she denied the others.
Max’s abuse of Sophie began one day when he asked her to lie down beside him on his bed. ‘I just remember him putting his hand down my pants and moving my hand onto him, inappropriately. I remember staring at the ceiling and thinking – well, actually I don’t think I was thinking anything, I was just blank.’ Sophie was six or seven at the time.
Other episodes of abuse included Max picking up Sophie and rubbing against her as he carried her with her legs wrapped around his groin. She also remembered him coming into the bathroom when she was having her bath. She would turn her back to him because his presence made her uncomfortable, and would hear him making strange noises that she didn’t understand at the time. ‘Now I know what he was doing’ – he was masturbating.’
When Sophie was nine or 10, Max Flockham left the family. Sophie didn’t know why; the children weren’t told. Sophie and the other foster children stayed on with Barbara Flockham for several more years. Sophie has forgotten a lot of details from that time, but she remembers that her behaviour changed. ‘I became very abusive towards people and just wanted to get out of there.’
When she was 12, Sophie returned to the care of her father. It was what she’d been pushing for but it was a difficult outcome because her father was still an alcoholic. ‘I spent a lot of time in bars and pubs, and things like that … I don’t know which was worse to be honest – living with him or in the foster home.’
Sophie didn’t do well at school and left early, finding work in hospitality. She struggled with anger issues and depression, and turned to self-medication. ‘I was binge drinking a lot and taking drugs’, she told the Commissioner. In recent times though that has changed. She credits her boyfriend, who she has been with for nearly five years. ‘He knows what I went through. He’s the one that slowly got me off the drinking’, she said.
Sophie first talked about the abuse she’d experienced in her late 20s, when she told a family member. A year later she contacted police about it. An investigation was carried out and at the time Sophie spoke to the Commissioner, Max Flockham had recently been charged and was awaiting trial.
Sophie was also put in touch with a counselling service and has found it very helpful. With the support of her counsellor, she’s now considering pursuing a case against Queensland’s DHS. They should have taken better care of her, she said.
‘The main concern with me is that I left my family at a young age, I went to a foster family where [DHS caseworkers] are meant to protect you and they didn’t. And then they were quick to send me to my Dad who obviously wasn’t fit to look after children.’
She also believes more training is needed to help caseworkers and others better identify when children are at risk, and that more experience in dealing with child abuse and improved follow-up is also essential. As it was, she was on her own.
‘There wasn’t anybody I could have told. I wasn’t close with any of my family – my dad, my grandparents. There was no one around, for many years.’