Trina was 11 when she started high school in the 1980s, and was one of the youngest in her year. It was a co-educational government school in Victoria, with many more boys than girls. She found it hard to fit in, and in her second year there found herself friends with the ‘wrong crowd’, she said – ‘and that’s where I got into trouble’.
One day, when she was 12 years old, the teacher was out of the classroom supervising a neighbouring class. Three boys pulled Trina off her chair, onto the floor. ‘It was very fast but each one of them digitally raped me’, she told the Commissioner. When the teacher returned, she saw Trina on the floor and the boys around her but said nothing.
‘And I think in the couple of weeks after, I waited for her to act on it. Was she going to do something, was she going to ask me, was anything going to happen? And in those couple of weeks my behaviour changed rapidly.’
When the teacher didn’t say or do anything, Trina’s most pressing feeling was that she couldn’t stay at the school. It wasn’t that people knew what had happened or that she was being bullied. ‘It was just that I couldn’t face those people again, and I wasn’t going to go back.’
Her behaviour deteriorated. ‘I didn’t tell anybody and I had to do things to get out of that school which involved writing on the teachers’ cars and I was expelled.’ It was difficult to find another school that would take her.
‘[My parents] probably did ask me why I did it, but I didn’t say what had happened … I don’t know, they were just very angry.’ At home, Trina began inhaling substances – liquid paper and petrol.
‘I found that that blocked out everything for me, and while I was under the influence of inhaling things, I just was in a different place and everything was okay. And I started at a new school and there was kids there that inhaled as well and so I did that with them and I would pass out at the new school.’
Her ongoing substance abuse landed her in a psychiatric hospital in her early teens. There she saw a psychiatrist who wanted to place her in foster care – against her and her parents’ wishes – and prescribed medications including Serepax, to which she became addicted. She was also sexually assaulted again, this time by a friend of another patient at the hospital.
The friend was an older woman, Joanie Lester. Lester met Trina several times at the hospital and then invited her for dinner one night. They ate together and watched television, and then under the pretext of showing Trina around the house, Lester took her upstairs to the bedroom. ‘She started to touch me and sexual abuse occurred, there was no penetration but pretty much everything else was touched. I am fairly sure my thoughts were, “Just when does this end?”’
Back at the hospital, Trina didn’t tell anyone what had happened. ‘There seemed no point. I felt it was my fault and I had been stupid and naive.’
The assault precipitated a relapse into substance abuse. As a result, she was sent for a short-term stay in an acute ward at an adult psychiatric hospital. Here she was drugged and raped by two male orderlies. Because she’d been drugged, the details of the assault were hazy; she didn’t report it at the time and clear memories of what had happened only surfaced years later.
In the following months Trina tried to end her life, and by the age of 16 had developed serious eating disorders, which have returned at different times since. ‘I typically struggle to eat when things become too intense for me or memories or triggers become too vivid’, she told the Commissioner.
When she was 14, her parents bought her a dog, and that’s what got her through, she said. ‘That’s what made me want to live.’
Trina first reported Lester’s assault many years later. She’d started having flashbacks. She was a parent by then and in her early 40s.
‘I realised I had absolutely no sexual feeling towards anyone under about 25 and that it really was not normal what happened between us … I saw that it was wrong. Until then I hadn’t seen that it was wrong. I just thought I went upstairs with her, I went along with it, and so it wasn’t wrong.’
She contacted Victoria Police and told them her story. ‘It sounded like they believed me. And then I went in two weeks later to report.’
Trina hoped her statement would eventually lead to an apology from Lester. ‘I didn’t think it would get to court. I thought she would confess … All I wanted was an apology. I didn’t want compensation … I just wanted an apology and an acknowledgement of what she’d done.’
Instead, the matter went to trial. Lester was found guilty on several counts. She immediately appealed, and at a second trial her conviction was overturned. Trina was cross-examined at both trials and found the process re-traumatising, especially the second time, when the judge wouldn’t allow a screen to be placed between her and Lester in the courtroom.
‘How I felt like is that most victims will feel they’re re-abused when they go to court. That will be normal. But when it’s high profile and then it goes to social media, and then it goes on the news and then hundreds of people say you’re doing it for compensation, “she’s crazy, she’s a substance abuser”, and they know everything about your life – I feel like I was abused a hundred times over again. I just didn’t cope with it.’
Trina is struggling to manage the effects of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, with specialist support hard to come by in her small town. ‘All the specialists seem to be in Melbourne, and the thing I want help with is that I blocked it for so long, and now I’ve remembered everything.’ She is also dealing with a return of her eating disorder.
‘It’s really hard to get proper assistance. There’s not much out there. I end up working it out myself.’