After six months with no respite, Summer and Pete felt relieved when the agency finally got back to them and offered its best carer to look after their kids for a few hours each fortnight. It was the late 2000s and Summer and Pete were living in Canberra, caring for their six-year-old son Toby and his two older brothers, Lachlan and Mark, who both have disabilities.
Summer and Pete had recently had some poor experiences with the respite agency and were sceptical about the new carer, Gavin. But he quickly put their worries to rest.
‘He was the best carer that we’d ever had’, Summer told the Commissioner. ‘He brought toys for the kids to play with, he brought craft activities for the kids to play with. He was very engaging with them.’
Summer and Pete were completely unaware of what Gavin was really up to. Summer said, ‘He did a pretty good job of grooming us as much as he did the kids’.
One night Summer and Pete went out for the evening together. After a few hours they received a text from Gavin telling them to take their time and stay out longer. They thought the message was odd and ended up ignoring it, arriving home earlier than expected. There they found Gavin sitting with Toby in his lap, a blanket covering the two of them while they watched a movie.
Summer was surprised but didn’t think much of it until after Gavin left.
‘That was when Toby told me that his penis was sore and that was because Gavin had been touching it. I immediately expected that Toby had misconstrued something, that maybe Gavin had just knocked it or something. And so I just said to him, “On the inside or the outside of your trousers?” Toby told me it was on the inside and that’s when I knew that something happened.’
Summer and Pete didn’t know what to do, so while Summer put the boys to bed, Pete rang the agency. One of the on-call staff answered. ‘She absolutely freaked out’, Pete said. ‘There was obviously no system in place.’ The woman said she would talk to the director and call back.
More phone calls followed. Pete spoke to police and child protection. The woman from the agency rang back and told him that they were standing Gavin down. Two police officers arrived at the house. This marked the beginning of a prolonged, painful and ultimately disappointing encounter with the criminal justice system.
First came the pre-trial process. A few days after the incident Summer took Toby to the police station to be interviewed. The situation was not what she expected. ‘The child sex team was not on, we had the adult sex team working that day and they didn’t have a support person there. We weren’t told to ask what the process was going to be … I had no idea that Toby was going to be in there for two and half hours by himself with the police.’
A week or so later, Summer and Pete’s eldest son, Mark, was interviewed at the station. A week after that the police came to the house to interview Lachlan. The police did not bring along a specialist to help Lachlan through his speech difficulties. Instead the officers had a go themselves, quickly got frustrated and gave up.
‘Lachlan was furious when they left’, Summer recalled. ‘He was throwing things around the house, he was stomping, he was really angry. My only assumption from that is that he had something he wanted to say and wasn’t given the opportunity.’
When the trial started, nobody provided any witness support to Summer, Pete and the kids. They had to sit on their own outside the court with Gavin’s family nearby, glaring at them and making remarks. On top of that, they were limited in how much support they could give each other. The prosecutors had told them that it would harm the case if they discussed their evidence ahead of the trial. So they never got the chance to sit down and debrief about the matter as a family.
After all that, a mistrial was declared halfway through proceedings and the whole thing had to start all over again.
Ahead of the second trial the prosecutors convinced Summer and Pete that the jury would have sympathy for them because of their kids’ disabilities. But during the trial Gavin’s barrister managed to twist this around, suggesting that Summer and Pete were overstressed and neglectful and that Toby had been sexually abused by his brothers.
In the end Gavin was found not guilty.
Pete described the criminal justice process as a ‘joke’. He and Summer have no plans to pursue any further legal action. They only hope that by telling their story they might be able to make some changes to the system. They had several recommendations to offer.
Summer wants to see more training opportunities offered to parents. ‘We got recommended to have a male carer but we weren’t given any information about things we might want to be looking out for. There was massive, obvious grooming going on and we had no idea.’
Pete wants to see some changes made to the criminal justice system. ‘Gavin has got away scot-free with a lot of things because the children that he was preying upon were disabled. They don’t qualify as witnesses, so to find a way to make them qualify so that they can be heard and their situation can be dealt with is something I think can’t be understated.’