Vika came to the Royal Commission to talk about a national sporting organisation which regularly recruits young men and boys from overseas. After signing an employment contract they’re brought to Australia, where they go to school, train and compete for different clubs.
Every year, more than 200 boys are signed up. ‘And it’s growing … in the next five to seven years that number … will double if not triple.
‘They will bring them in, but then they isolate them from their families.’
Vika herself was born overseas and said, even as an adult, she found the transition to living in a big Australian city quite difficult. ‘It was like a little tadpole in the pond.’ She realised that, after leaving their communities and their culture, these boys needed a lot of support. So, in the late 2000s, she and her husband decided to start taking them in.
‘It started off by just families and parents contacting us and asking us if we could look after their child. Either I knew the parents personally or my husband knew the parents personally, or our extended family members knew them … I realised quite early that I needed to be qualified in some form because I was dealing with welfare issues …’
Throughout her career Vika had often worked with children and young people, and she had to have the necessary credentials. But when she met with the organisation’s welfare team, she discovered that their house parents didn’t need any of that. There was no vetting or Working with Children Check, which is required by law.
When Vika questioned this she was told that the organisation didn’t have to explain itself and it had no intention of instituting any kind of ‘best practice’ system for house parents.
Vika also discovered that the boys were treated as commodities. Often she’d be told when to pick them up at the airport, but nothing else. ‘[The organisation] wouldn’t even know their names half the time.’
In the early 2010s Vika was asked to take in two boys in their mid-teens who had been sexually abused by a house parent. She explained to the organisation that they needed professional counselling and support, something she wasn’t qualified to do.
‘They told me that they weren’t interested … that I needed to go and see the police, which I thought was a really bizarre response … this is someone’s child.
‘So from there I started to talk to the boys a lot more about the ins and outs of what was happening inside their club.’
One thing Vika learnt was that some of them wouldn’t shower at the club after training because people would watch them.
But again, the organisation wasn’t interested. All they cared about was that the boys played well and fulfilled their contracts. Their welfare was not a priority.
If a boy was homesick or depressed he would get counselling, but only for a maximum of three sessions. If any more were needed, he had to pay for them himself.
Vika was then contacted by a member of the organisation’s welfare team, a woman she knew well. ‘She threatened me and said that I have to let all these issues rest and I have to shut my mouth … If I raise these issues outside of the [organisation], they’ll be seen as lies … And I took that to be a clear threat.
‘I mean, I’m not into causing trouble either, but I do believe that we need to look after the young kids, because who is their voice?’
Around this time, after receiving some bad news about his sporting career, one of the players, a young man, took his own life.
‘If they do not succeed, because there’s a lot of pressure put on them, if they do not succeed then it’s like a failure but it’s also a put-down. It’s like a shame, a shame for their families. So then they cannot return back, they will stay here in Australia.’
Vika later learnt that the player was also struggling with some personal issues which he spoke about to his club, but they gave him no help or guidance.
After his death, because he was a friend of all the boys staying with Vika, a psychologist was brought in. But, Vika said, because the organisation has little or no understanding of their culture, the boys didn’t know the man and had no interest in talking to him.
‘We ended up getting a whole welfare counselling team to sit with the boys. That whole incident turned my house upside down and we never got one ounce of support.’
Within a year two other young men ended their lives, and Vika has heard that the reason may have been sexual abuse. She believes one of the suicides was covered up by the organisation and reported as an accident.
Vika came to the Royal Commission because she wants things to change. There has to not only be much more support for the boys and the people who look after them, but also ‘a vetting system in regards to house parents, that they are qualified, that they have a case management or counselling background of some sort …
‘You have to be qualified, you have to have empathy and understanding, you have to be there for … the person first and foremost, not money.
‘It’s ruthless. It’s a business and they clearly will tell you that the [organisation] is a business, but they’re dealing with people’s lives …
‘I’m trying to help them, but they don’t see me as help, no, they see me as a threat.’