Why abuse victim Hope feels she was let down by the legal system

STRENGTH: Survivor Hope feels the legal system let her down. Photos: Kate Healy
STRENGTH: Survivor Hope feels the legal system let her down. Photos: Kate Healy

Attempting to achieve justice can be a long and arduous road for victims of sexual assault.

First there is the huge step to report the assault to police, the ensuing investigation and then the court case, where victims are the subject of intensive cross-examination by the defence.

This difficulty is reflected in a document compiled by the Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA), and the statistics are harrowing.

Statistics reveal that of all offenders, 93 per cent are male. And of the reports of rape detailed to police, one in six result in prosecution, while the rate is less for cases involving incest and children, at less than one in seven. For those that do make it to court, only about 17 per cent of sexual offence cases result in a conviction.

Ballarat resident Hope* reported her sexual assault several years ago and for her and her family, navigating the legal process was taxing.

This is her story.

The case

Hope was a fragile and vulnerable 13-year-old girl receiving treatment in a psychiatric hospital at the time she was abused.

She was in treatment for a substance abuse problem, which stemmed from a previous sexual assault committed by school peers when she was 12, when she met her abuser, a high-profile identity who was not affiliated with the Catholic Church.

The impact of the sexual assaults has tormented Hope throughout her life: she was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, complex post traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) and has suffered under the grip of an eating disorder throughout her adult life.

She felt immense shame and guilt due to what she was subjected to, suppressing the incident for decades until she felt strong enough to report it.

The reporting process

After years of triggers causing flashbacks and night terrors, the catalyst for Hope to report the assault to Victoria Police's Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Team (SOCIT) was her son turning the same age as she was when she was abused.

"When I looked at him, I realised he was so young and I was the same age when I was molested. It wasn't right," she said.

It took her several weeks to make the trip to the police station as she was extremely anxious to report what had occurred, but her worries were allayed by the female police officer she spoke with.

Hope's biggest fear in reporting the secret she had kept for so long was that she wouldn't be believed.

I didn't tell my parents or anybody that I was removed by [my abuser] and molested. I was a kid in a psych hospital in the '80s. Who was going to believe me? Nobody was.

Hope

But when the police officer, who she recalls as being very kind and professional, did believe her story, she was reassured.

A thorough investigation was conducted and Hope, supported by CASA, gave several statements to police.

The court process

The case reached the Magistrates Court a couple of years later.

Hope was shown around the courtroom a few weeks prior to her case being heard, when it was explained where both she and the accused would sit.

At this time she was also shown the remote witness facility at the court and upon finding out she would be in the small room without her supports, she decided she felt safer testifying from the courtroom as she knew she was likely to dissociate (a coping mechanism that many trauma victims experience as a way to deal with stress).

She felt safer being in the courtroom where she would be near more people including the judge, court security and her SOCIT detective.

When you are testifying about sexual abuse from your childhood you begin to feel that age again and feel very unsafe. I felt at all times I needed to be aware where this person was who had harmed me as a child and being in a very small room was not going to be achievable.

Hope

Hope testified from behind a blocking screen so she did not face her abuser, but the defence still employed a number of tactics in an effort to shake her.

She had been warned about the techniques the defence could use, but she still felt the cross-examination was 'traumatising', with the whole process made worse by how isolated she felt, given that she was unable to speak with her husband as he was called as a witness to her behaviour throughout their marriage.

"I'd never been to a court before so I felt very isolated," Hope said.

She dissociated during the court proceedings, with the case propelling her back to feeling like that vulnerable young girl again.

Reliving her trauma again and again drove her into a dark place.

"It's not as if you just talk about it once, by that stage you have spoken about it with detectives a number of times so you are reliving it often. You start having nightmares, significant symptoms of PTSD and by the time it gets to court you are fairly traumatised. It is very stressful."

The accused was convicted of a number of charges but in a devastating blow, appealed the decision.

The appeal process, essentially a re-trial with a different judge in the County Court - in which the accused is presumed innocent in what is known as a hearing 'de novo' - was different.

Hope chose to testify from the courtroom again but her request for a blocking screen while giving her evidence was denied. She believes this decision impeded on her ability to give her evidence clearly.

"I found it quite hard to testify because I was looking at [the accused] and I was looking at him, the lawyer. And by that stage, I'd lost quite a lot of weight. I wasn't well. It was quite difficult," she said.

She broke down after the judge handed down his decision to overturn the conviction on the basis of not feeling satisfied with the evidence beyond reasonable doubt.

Despite consistent support from SOCIT detectives as well as support from CASA and the Witness Assistance Service, Hope feels she was let down by a legal system that is weighed in favour of the perpetrator.

Though the verdict itself was damaging, what was more detrimental was the fact that her mind was reliving the memories she had suppressed for so long.

"I wasn't coping very well with it because I had blocked it away for a very long time. And that was what was protecting me," she said.

"A court can make a ruling that it can't be proven beyond reasonable doubt but I know it happened. And so those feelings don't change, that feeling of not being believed, and feeling as if you are silenced once again. That doesn't go away and it's really disempowering."

The emotional toll

The impact the court case had on her mental health was significant.

Hope first attempted to take her own life when she was aged just 14. To add to the trauma of her first two assaults, when she was moved to a different psychiatric facility, she was raped.

She survived her suicide attempt but continued to inhale substances to numb the pain.

The stress of the court proceedings - 'the worst experience she's ever had' - caused her weight to plummet by more than 25 kilograms and she began feeling suicidal.

Between the guilty verdict and the result of the appeal, which was covered extensively in the media, Hope tried to end her life three times.

One great source of frustration with the process was the fact the accused was able to mount character references, while she, as the victim, was not.

The best way I would describe it is as though it is actually the victim who is on trial. The defence puts the victim on trial and then, when it's a high-profile case, the victim is put on trial within the community, because of what they're allowed to say about them.

Hope

Reading comments on social media made her feel invalidated as a victim, with the majority deeming her a liar for falsely accusing her abuser - an adored high-profile Australian identity - even though they did not know what kind of person she was.

"When the stories would be posted online, people would comment and say horrendous things about me, that I was lying, that the media should name me and that I should be charged with making a false report," she said.

"I didn't lie at any stage so I found it really traumatic because my family and my kids read those comments. It destroyed me."

The healing process

Hope left school at 14 but found full time work the following year. She remained employed until she returned to school as an adult.

She ceased abusing substances when she was given a puppy to care for, with the responsibility giving her a reason to live again.

The puppy was her constant companion for 16 years until she passed away when Hope's first child was a toddler.

Hope is often triggered by living in a city plagued by historic sexual abuse. She is healing, but is still exposed to the accused in the media, who has begun to share their own story about the court process impacted them.

Hope said this was traumatising for her as a victim but as a way of moving forward, she invests time in loving her three children, gardening, yoga, mindfulness meditation and advocacy work.

"As a way of moving forward with my own grief in not achieving justice from the appeal and feeling very much again not believed, I found solace in advocacy work largely via public speaking as a volunteer about reducing the stigma still found in mental health conditions and around suicide prevention," she said.

She has faced a lot of turmoil during her journey but many good people have helped her through, including when she needed to be hospitalised in recent years.

Explaining the effects of childhood trauma is one way she can help to reduce the stigma around mental health and educate others.

Speaking about parts of her story, including how she has overcome her struggles and managed her C-PTSD and mental health with the help of professionals and her own management techniques fosters discussion and is empowering for her.

*Not her real name.

If you need support contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or 1800 Respect (737 732).


This story 'Who would believe a kid in a psych ward?' first appeared on The Courier.