A growing list of things made Tanya feel concerned about the safety of her son, Caleb, when he was at the childcare centre with a particular worker, Rob Essey.
In 2013, Essey sent the first of more than 130 text messages to Tanya about Caleb. The messages included photos of Caleb as well as offers of money and gifts, and invitations for Tanya and her partner to go out for dinner while Essey babysat Caleb. Essey wrote that he loved Caleb, and made references to Caleb’s “bottom” and changing his nappy. In one message Essey said that he’d laid on the ground and let Caleb ‘ride him like a jockey’.
Tanya rejected Essey’s offers to babysit and requested that he stop putting toys and lollies in Caleb’s bag to bring home. She also refused to accept $150 that was left in Caleb’s bag with a note claiming it was from a winning horse. When Tanya tried to return the money the day after finding it, Essey became angry.
‘It was an awkward situation’, Tanya said. ‘It’s in the playground – you know, I don’t want to be seen with him dealing money, like big money. I just wanted to give it and walk away. I didn’t want to make a scene.’ When she tried to hand back the cash, Essey became very aggressive and refused to take it.
Tanya told the Commissioner that at one point Essey had told her he’d been accused in the past of being a paedophile. She went to the centre manager, Judy Farrell, and after outlining her concerns was surprised to be told none of them were true and that she was discriminating against Essey because he was male.
Tanya said that she’d noticed behavioural changes in Caleb. He would become upset when they turned into the driveway of the centre in the morning – and whenever he saw Essey, he’d run away. ‘He was very uncomfortable when Essey came in, picked him up and, you know, threw him around’, Tanya said. ‘He’d cry and so that was my initial gut feeling.’
After Farrell’s response to her concerns, Tanya started looking for another childcare centre. ‘I definitely felt that somewhere I’m leaving my child, I should have had a better feeling.’
The next year, when Tanya picked Caleb up on his last day, Farrell approached her and said, ‘Just so you know, I feel I’ve done everything right here, so before you go further with it you should rethink what you’re doing’. The only action taken, as far as Tanya knew, was that Farrell had told Essey to stop sending text messages. In one conversation Farrell had told Tanya that maybe one day Essey would do ‘something like that, fiddle with children – but for now he’s fine and he’s an asset to our centre’.
While Tanya was looking for a new centre for Caleb, she rang the Queensland authority overseeing childcare to report her concerns. The person to whom she spoke said it was likely Essey’s text messages indicated an interest in her rather than Caleb, and that he was probably a lonely man. The person said they’d look into it, but suggested if Tanya was concerned, she should contact the police.
Some months later, Tanya spoke to Queensland police and was advised there were no grounds for a case. ‘It was another brick wall’, she said. ‘They said there was no evidence that a crime had been committed. Well, isn’t that their job to investigate whether a crime has been committed?’
The police suggested she could take action in relation to the text messages but that it would be framed around a stalking charge. ‘I felt that was missing the point of what was actually happening.’
Tanya’s mother also made numerous calls to the regulatory authority but none were returned. Complaint letters likewise yielded no response. Staff from the authority contacted Tanya only after they received notice that she’d contacted a community organisation specialising in child sexual abuse and she planned to give an account to the Royal Commission.
The authority said they’d reopened their investigation and demanded copies of the text messages Essey had sent. They again ignored what Tanya had described to them as grooming behaviour. After a second review, the authority said they wouldn’t be taking further action. In one letter they wrote they had ‘assessed the service in relation to the educator’s code of conduct, and discussed the matters raised in the complaint with the approved provider in order to assess compliance with the national law’.
‘Just like generic letters that say nothing’, Tanya said.
Tanya’s mother accompanied her daughter to the Commission and said she’d been frustrated by the lack of response. ‘It’s a system that gives no feedback to the complainant, and there’s no report on any progress. And this is with me ringing them every three or four weeks to find out what’s happened, because I’m concerned.
'This person works around children and what have they actually done? Because as far as I can see, they’ve looked at some policies and procedures, and they’ve put up this fog of privacy.
'So who is accountable? Where is the duty of care to Caleb? The childcare centre hasn’t shown it and nor has the regulatory authority. They made some noises about it to get the text messages but after they got those they suddenly lost interest again. There’s been no apology from anyone, and no accountability that we can see.’
Tanya said she was pleased Caleb was now happier and liked going to his new centre. She’d become hyper-vigilant and rarely let him stay with anyone. It had taken a toll emotionally and financially, but she was more worried about the children and families who still trusted Essey.
‘I feel some parents may be a little bit naive or think, “Oh, money, night out – you know, presents”. Some people might not look further into it, and that's a worry. I feel bad for them if that's happening.
'I just hope that something can be done and people’s actions can have consequences, because it’s just wrong that organisations can cover their tracks and get away with it.’