Tillie decided to come to the Royal Commission not so much because she was abused but because of what happened after she was abused. ‘It’s about how it was handled’, she told the Commissioner.
Tillie grew up in a small New South Wales town in the 1990s and attended the local primary school there. She was a quiet girl, she said – not one of the popular ones – with a small group of friends. In Year 6, she was repeatedly sexually molested by her classroom teacher, Artie Johannsson.
‘During that year I often came home crying or upset but my parents thought I just didn’t like the teacher.’
Tillie didn’t speak about the abuse to anyone until she was at high school. One day in Year 8 she became very upset, almost hysterical. Sobbing and crying, she told the teacher on duty that she hated Johannsson, and the way he was always in her head.
Her unexpected collapse set Department of Education (DET) protocols in motion, and a few days later she was interviewed by a Department of Community Services (DOCS) officer, at a meeting also attended by her mother.
Tillie found it impossible to reveal the full story of her abuse at this meeting. She disclosed some of what Johannsson had done to her, but found it hard to talk about in front of her mother. At the end of the meeting the DOCS officer advised her not to proceed with a formal complaint against Johannsson. She felt he’d be able to provide convincing excuses for the behaviour Tillie had described.
Tillie’s mother organised a counselling session for her, but Tillie only went once.
‘After DOCS I felt so embarrassed because I felt like I’d wasted everyone’s time and I was making a fuss out of nothing. And I thought even I’d got it wrong and I’d made it up or something.’
Soon after this Tillie became very depressed. She started cutting herself. She told her parents she wanted to die. Her depression continued throughout her teenage years and into adulthood.
In her early 20s, Tillie finished university and moved into a share house. One day one of her housemates touched her inappropriately. The episode triggered feelings of acute anxiety, exactly like those she’d had while being abused by Johannsson. She developed new phobias. And she returned to self-harming. ‘I started cutting myself again and quite frequently’, she said.
‘I never imagined something like that would happen and set me off. The feelings were so familiar to 10 years ago.’
Her partner, James, urged her to see a psychologist. She had been with James for some years by then and little by little had told him about the abuse. Tillie took his advice, and over a series of sessions eventually told the psychologist the full story of what had happened to her.
‘That helped a lot’, she said.
In 2014 Tillie heard about the Royal Commission, and after getting in touch decided to report Johannsson to police. She also decided to re-examine what had actually happened after her meeting with DOCS while at high school.
The matter had been referred by DOCS to the New South Wales Ombudsman, and to the Child Protection Investigation Unit within the DET. Tillie lodged freedom of information requests with all three agencies for any documents relating to her case.
The results took her by surprise.
The initial referral had been made in 2001. Two years later, the DET had sent a letter to the Ombudsman’s office, noting that the matter was marked for inquiry only, not investigation. ‘I’m not sure why it took a whole two years to get between departments’, Tillie observed.
The Ombudsman’s office had responded with a request for further information, seeking to understand the decision not to investigate. It then wrote to the DET. This letter, which arrived in Tillie’s hands some 10 years after it had had been written, raised several concerns about how the matter had been dealt with.
It pointed out that the DOCS officer who’d interviewed Tillie had a conflict of interest – she knew Johannsson, and had commented she’d be ‘surprised’ if he’d acted in any way inappropriately. It cast doubt on the DOCS officer’s belief that Johannsson would have been able to explain his actions. ‘It’s not clear how she had drawn this conclusion’, the letter said. And it noted that Tillie’s extreme behaviour was agreed to be out of character by her teachers and parents and should have flagged that something was seriously wrong, even if Tillie couldn’t express what that was.
But in the end the letter concluded that given the two years that had passed since the initial referral, nothing more needed to be done.
Tillie is angry that none of this was ever shared with her or her mother. ‘I’m pretty certain that I wouldn’t have started cutting myself, and felt that bad’, she said. Two years might be long from a government bureaucrat’s point of view, but at that time Tillie was still a child and the teacher who abused her was still teaching – ‘It wasn’t too long from that point of view’, she said.
Tillie’s complaint to police is still being investigated. It’s a slow process and she has no particular expectations of the outcome. Just reporting Johannsson felt like an important step. ‘Even if they aren’t able to do anything, at least it’s there on record if someone else comes forward.’
She is not pursuing compensation but would like to see the system’s failures acknowledged. ‘It’s the apology, I think, is the biggest thing.’ She doesn’t blame the school but would like to see the different agencies involved held accountable.
‘It’s DOCS, the DET and the Ombudsman that I want the apology from’, she said.