Public hearing 17 (Part 2): The experience of women and girls with disability, Hobart - Day 1
CHAIR: Good morning, everyone. I would like to welcome you to this, the second part of Public hearing 17 of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability. The first part of this hearing took place in October 2021 and examined the experiences of women and girls with disability and also of the experiences of L(G)BTIQA+ people with disability, with a particular focus on family, domestic and sexual violence.
The second part of the hearing, which will take place for five days this week, will continue that theme. Before proceeding further, I shall ask Commissioner Andrea Mason OAM to make the Acknowledgment of Country.
COMMISSIONER MASON: As a Ngaanyatjarra and Kronie woman, I wish to pay my respects and acknowledge the First Nations people of the land on which the Royal Commission is sitting today. We acknowledge the Muwinina people, the traditional custodians of the land on which Nipaluna, the city of Hobart, is now located. We recognise the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, where the city of Melbourne is now situated. We recognise Meanjin, Brisbane. We recognise the country north and south of the Brisbane River, as the home of both the Turrbul and Jagera nations, whose land is now where the city of Brisbane is located.
We also wish to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the various lands on which you all virtually appear from and any First Nations peoples who are participating in this hearing especially women, Minymaku, and children, tjitjiku, with disability. Thank you, Chair.
CHAIR: Thank you very much, Commissioner Mason. In my opening address at the first part of Public hearing 17, I explained how that hearing could not be conducted with people appearing in person because of COVID 19. At that stage, it was, of course, the Delta variant. The hearing, therefore, had to be reconfigured to take place virtually with Commissioners participating from four different locations. This hearing has been planned to take place primarily in two locations, Hobart and Brisbane, with witnesses and counsel appearing in person in each location and with three of the four Commissioners present in person in Hobart.
Fortunately, this is the way the hearing will be conducted, but implementation of the plans for the hearing prove to be even more challenging than usual. The Omicron variant has made its presence felt and some members of staff have been unable to travel to Hobart, while Law in Order, which provides the admirable technical support for the hearing, has had to improvise to deal with some of the problems that have arisen.
The Omicron wave and the disruptions associated with it also made it more difficult for some witnesses, but they are determined to tell their stories and we are extremely grateful to them for their perseverance and willingness to do so. As always, the logistical challenges have been met with great determination and flexibility, for which all Commissioners are particularly grateful. I'm sure that everyone who is following this hearing will understand if we have to make the odd adjustment as the five day hearing proceeds.
I should mention that Senior Counsel Assisting, Ms Kate Eastman and Ms Mary Anne Ryan, are participating in the hearing in person in Hobart. Ms Simone Fraser and Ms Avelina Tarrago of Counsel are participating from the Royal Commission's Brisbane hearing room. Most witnesses will give their evidence in the Hobart hearing room. Others will give their evidence in the Brisbane hearing room or, in some cases, remotely.
On Friday I should mention also that on Friday, 25 March 2022, the Royal Commission published an issues paper on impact of and responses to the Omicron wave of the COVID 19 pandemic for people with disability. I strongly encourage any and all people with disability, their families and supporters and disability representative organisations to tell us about how the Omicron wave of the pandemic has affected them over the last few months. We want to understand the personal challenges that people with disability have experienced, and how that situation has changed compared with the early stages of the pandemic.
On this occasion, as I've mentioned, Commissioner Andrea Mason OAM is with me in the Hobart hearing room, Commissioner Barbara Bennett PSM is also in the Hobart hearing room with Commissioner Mason and myself. Commissioner Galbally, Rhonda Galbally AC is participating in the hearing from Melbourne.
As with the first part of the hearing, we will hear from women and girls with disability, as well as from LGBTQI+ people with disability. They will tell us about their experiences of domestic, family and sexual violence. We shall also hear evidence about the services that respond to people with disability who experience those forms of violence. Ms Eastman will provide details in her opening, which she will give shortly.
In my opening remarks at the first part of Public hearing 17 I said this:
"Just as the Australian community must confront and address the reality of domestic, family and sexual violence, so the entire community has to confront and address domestic, family and sexual violence directed at women and girls with disability and at LGBTQI+ people with disability."
The delegates to the 2021 National Summit on Women's Safety stress that the experiences of women with disability must be listened to, and embedded in all prevention strategies and responses. The statement said this:
"All definitions, legislation, policies and reforms from primary prevention through to responses and recovery must be inclusive of women and girls with disability, including the unique types of violence and the settings in which it can be experienced. Women with disability must be central to all discussions and responses, and responses must recognise the intersections with other forms of discrimination experienced by women, girls and other people who will be part of this hearing across a range of backgrounds."
The evidence in these hearings will address those issues. I shall now take the appearances of Counsel Assisting and the parties who have been given leave to appear at this hearing.
MS EASTMAN: Thank you, Chair. I appear in the Hobart hearing room with Ms Mary Anne Ryan, and, Commissioners, you will see on the screen Ms Fraser, and I understand Ms Tarrago is also with her from Brisbane. We appear as Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission.
CHAIR: Thank you very much, Ms Eastman. I shall take other appearances, starting with the Commonwealth.
MR DIGHTON: Thank you, Chair. My name is Dighton. I appear for the Commonwealth, led by Ms Kate Morgan SC, instructed by Gilbert + Tobin.
CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Dighton. The State of New South Wales.
MS FURNESS: Thank you, Chair. My name is Gail Furness, and I appear for State of New South Wales, instructed by the Crown Solicitor's office.
CHAIR: Thank you, Ms Furness. The State of Queensland.
MS MCMILLAN: Yes. Good morning, Chair. My name is McMillan, initials KA. I appear with Ms Clohessy and am instructed by Crown Law for Queensland.
CHAIR: Thank you, Ms McMillan. The State of Victoria. I think, Ms Bedford, you may be on mute.
MS BEDFORD: My name is Rebecca Bedford from MinterEllison, and I appear for the State of Victoria.
CHAIR: Thank you, Ms Bedford. Are there any further appearances on behalf of witnesses today?
MS EASTMAN: I don't think there are today, but there may be during the course of the week.
CHAIR: Very well. All right. In that case, thank you very much, and I will now ask Ms Eastman to deliver the opening.
MS EASTMAN: Thank you, Chair. As Counsel Assisting, we also pay our respects to the traditional custodians of the lands on which we are meeting today and across Australia. We pay our respects to First Nations Elders past, present and emerging, as well as to all First Nations people present here in the hearing room today, and following the public hearing.
Well, Commissioners, this is the second part of the hearing that we started in October 2021. I said on that occasion that wasn't the hearing we expected to have. We are very pleased to finally be in person in Hobart and to have the opportunity to meet with our witnesses in person, but also to have a hub in Brisbane where many of the witnesses will appear during the course of this week.
As I said last year in October 2021 after consulting with the women who wished to share their experiences as witnesses at a public hearing, we had to make that very difficult decision to defer that part of the hearing to the present time. Chair, as you've said, that was before the Omicron strain arrived in Australia, and that has also had an impact on the preparation for this hearing. It means that some of our witnesses may also be appearing remotely if they are not in Brisbane or here in Hobart.
Well, I want to start by providing a warning that the content of the evidence that will be heard over the course of this week may be very distressing to people following the proceeding. It will include accounts of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of women with disability, and that includes women with disability from First Nations backgrounds and from CALD backgrounds. I put up the warning slide which contains some contact numbers. Anybody who feels any distress during the course of this hearing has access to the services available on our warning slide, and the telephone numbers I hope are accessible to everyone following.
Our opening this morning is not intended to repeat what we said in October. Our opening remarks are available on the Royal Commission's website. But, Commissioners, in October last year, you heard about issues concerning the respect in respect of sexual and reproductive rights for women and girls with disability. You heard about the nature and extent of services to support women and girls with disability who experience sexual violence or violence and abuse in family and domestic settings. You heard about the gaps in the specific services to support people with disability. In October, you heard about the gaps in the legal protections for women and girls with disability who experience violence and abuse in relationships and domestic settings.
You also heard in a closed session that occurred on 15 October and continued on 1 December last year about the nature and extent of violence and abuse of people with disability who identify as members of the L(G)BTIQA+ communities. Can I just Commissioners, just give me one moment. Commissioners, you heard that violence of women and girls with disability is preventible. Prevention requires a recognition of the drivers of violence. You will recall that ableism and gender inequality are drivers of violence against women and girls with disability.
Preventing violence requires a commitment to change the norms, practices and structures to allow gender inequality. A community's attitude and norms shape the context in which violence occurs. Attitudes and norms can be based on misconceptions and myths. The Australian Institute of Criminology says that there is a lack of understanding about the nature and dynamics of sexual violence.
The Institute looked at over 40 years of research and its evidence to identify what it describes as significant myths and misconceptions about adult sexual violence. These myths have developed about how the had an effect in developing the prevalence and the nature of sexual offending. The myths touch on how victims should behave. The myths affect reporting violence. The myths impact on relationships and how women respond and whether they will be believed.
Misconceptions of sexual crime and victim behaviour are likely to influence the police, lawyers, courts, and those in the justice system. The misconceptions may contribute to underreporting and low conviction rates. In its research, the Australian Institute of Criminology said:
"People with disability are overrepresented as victims of sexual crimes and often face barriers to reporting. Ableism and gender inequality also shape these myths."
The researchers found that perpetrators often target those with intellectual disability because they perceive them to be people who are less powerful, vulnerable, and unable to make accusations. The evidence, though, shows to the contrary. People with disability can make reports. The evidence also shows that people with disability often live with the myth that they are presumed to be unreliable witnesses. There are myths that people with disability are least likely to want to report and want to have their cases heard.
The evidence showed that people with disability are least likely to have their cases heard in court and are twice as likely to have their stories seen by investigators as false reports. Case studies show that people with mental health issues may make disclosures of sexual assault that appear implausible but actually, on proper and further investigation, are found to be genuine.
The research from the Australian Institute of Criminology highlights ableism and gender inequality. The compounding effects of these myths and misconceptions are further exacerbated for First Nations women. This can result in First Nations women with disability being mistaken as the aggressors in domestic violence situations. The compounding misconceptions are also reflected in the experience of women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, refugees, L(G)BTIQA+ people, and older women with disability.
Commissioners, earlier this month, the Royal Commission published its Overview of Responses to the Royal Commission's Issues paper on Violence and Abuse of People with Disability at Home. A copy of the Overview is available on the Royal Commission's website. A consistent theme in the responses was that while people with disability are disproportionately impacted by violence in the home, these incidents are commonly hidden from view, misunderstood and mischaracterised.
We were told that violence and abuse against people with disability in group homes or other disability supported accommodation is often characterised as "a service incident" or "behavioural challenges" as opposed to a form of domestic violence. The responses to the issues paper indicated that violence against people with disability in their homes is perpetrated by a range of people, including people who provide support, both paid and unpaid, and people who live with people with disability, such as co residents and family members.
People with disability experience all forms of violence and abuse in their homes, including physical, sexual, emotional abuse, threats, intimidation, coercion and disability specific abuse. This may include interference with mobility aids, equipment, and medication. It may include the use of restrictive practices, forced isolation and threats to withdraw essential care and support. The responses to the Issues Paper also highlighted concerns about the removal of children, reproductive violence and abuse, including forced sterilisation, forced abortion and contraception. The responses emphasised that people with disability often experience multiple forms of violence and abuse simultaneously, and their experiences of violence can take place over many years.
Several of the responses describe the connection between financial abuse and other types of abuse. People in supporting roles, including family members and support workers, asserting complete control over all aspects of an individual's life. This included restricting their movement, controlling their finances, limiting access to supports, and subjecting them to emotional or physical abuse when they challenge this control.
The responses described how violence against a person with disability can further disable them and add to what was described as a spiral of vulnerability. Other responses outlined the negative impact of violence and abuse on individuals' economic security, self esteem, independence, social networks, and overall health and wellbeing.
Trauma resulting from past experiences of violence and abuse can impact a person's ability to live in shared accommodation settings and to trust people of a different gender. Intimate partner violence, violence perpetrated by support workers all can continue the potential to inflict complex and long lasting harm. This is because of the nature of the relationship with the worker, including physical proximity, presence in the home, and often deep involvement in personal affairs.
The responses to the Royal Commission told us that violence and abuse against people with disability in their home is seriously underreported. The responses identified barriers leading to underreporting which included not being believed or having their experiences minimised; losing supports or becoming homeless; feelings of shame or self-blame; lack of trust due to previous negative experiences of reporting; physical barriers to accessing services; fear of having children taken away; negative consequences of reporting including retaliation, retribution, and criminalisation; and a lack of awareness of rights and access to information about how to make a complaint or report.
Some responses said people with disability who have experienced violence and abuse over a long period of time may not report abuse because it's normalised. That means that they do not recognise that what has occurred to them is violence and abuse and should be reported. Responses emphasised how these factors are heightened when the perpetrator of abuse is a person with disability is a person with disability's key provider of support.
Commissioners, the hearing this week will be led by women with disability. You will hear from women victim survivors of violence, abuse, and exploitation. For some of them, the violence and abuse started as children, it occurred in their homes, in their intimate relationships, in their families, by people who support them and people who had the care and trust.
We have asked the women to share their experiences with you and they want you to listen to them. Over the next five days you will hear about the experiences of women, and many have recommendations for change. Commissioners, in the hearing room, we have some artworks that have been developed and created during the Royal Commission's community engagement with women with disability from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
You may see behind me a bright green piece of that work which is a tapestry and a craft work prepared by the women as part of the consultation. The women spoke about domestic and family violence and their experiences and what they wish to change. In addition to the tapestry, we also have two pieces of work that really describe the experiences of women but also what women would like to see. I'm going to tender into evidence the artworks so that they are available to everyone, not just to those of us in the hearing room. And I will do that in a moment.
For each day of this hearing, I will start by describing what will happen during the day. I will provide an outline of the witnesses attending and who will be speaking each day. All of the women will share their experiences of violence and abuse. Their stories will be confronting and distressing. We want you to listen to their stories in their own words. This Royal Commission, though, is not a court, and we will not be asking to you make findings of a kind that a court would make.
We are not conducting criminal trials, and we don't have the role that police have. Our purpose in this hearing is to listen and bear witness to the experiences of women who are participating in this hearing. In addition to the direct experience of women, later this week, you will hear from other witnesses. We have worked over many months now with Women with Disabilities Australia, WWDA, and Women with Intellectual Disability, WWILD, in the preparation of this hearing.
WWDA and WWILD have supported many of the women participating in the hearing, and on Thursday, we will be very fortunate to have a panel from WWDA to talk about the importance of understanding violence and abuse as a human rights issue, recent initiatives, and they will touch on matters such as the recently announced Australian Disability Strategy. Most importantly, they will tell you, Commissioners, what needs to change.
You will also hear from the Yellow Ladybugs. It's a support group for women living with disability and specifically women living with autism. The Yellow Ladybugs have a number of recommendations and suggestions for change that they wish to share with you, and one of their members will also speak about her personal experience. On Friday, we will turn to the National Disability Insurance Agency. We will ask the NDIA about its initiatives and supports for women and girls with disability who experience, family, domestic and sexual violence.
On Friday will also be an opportunity to look at some specific matters concerning Tasmania. While we are here in Tasmania holding a hearing, we wanted to understand what is the situation in Tasmania. Tasmania has a population of 542,000 people or thereabouts. 75 per cent of Tasmanians live in urban areas. And according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics Survey on Disability, Ageing and Carers in 2018, applying a broad definition of disability, 18 per cent of the Tasmanian population lives with disability.
According to the NDIS data from December 2020, there are close to 10,000 people in Tasmania who are NDIS participants, and women and girls comprise 37 per cent of the NDIS Tasmanian participants. In Tasmania, there have been a number of strategies and actions taken by the Tasmanian government. Since the introduction of the Australian Government's National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010 2022, Tasmania has released two implementation plans to support the Australian Government's National Plan, as well as some specific action plans to address family and sexual violence.
Some of the plans include Tasmania's Implementation Plan: Building a Strong Foundation, 2010 2013. A Tasmanian implementation plan described as moving forward. An important initiative has been Safe Homes, Safe Families: Tasmania's Family Violence Action Plan 2015 2020. And then Safe Homes, Families, Communities: Tasmania's Action Plan for Family and Sexual Violence 2019 2022 and Taking Action: Tasmania's Primary Prevention Strategy to Reduce Violence Against Women and Girls 2012 2022.
In addition, Tasmania has both a Women's Strategy and a Disability Strategy, and on 8 March this year the Tasmanian Attorney General tabled the Family Violence Reform Bill to introduce new criminal offences in relation to domestic and family violence. Commissioners, you will have an opportunity on Friday to hear from the CEO of Tasmania Legal Aid about its work in supporting women and girls with disability in accessing the justice system in Tasmania.
We will also have the opportunity to hear from Commissioner Darren Hine. He's currently the Commissioner of Police but I think on Friday or Thursday last week announced that he is shortly retiring. But he's also the Secretary of the Department of Police Fire and Emergency Management. He will tell you Tasmania has been a world leader in responding to family violence. And we will ask him specifically why this is the case. And we will ask him about the Tasmania Police experience in responding to violence and abuse in family, domestic settings and also the experience of sexual violence where the women where victims are women and girls with disability.
We will hear about the training of police officers in Tasmania and the extent to which they are equipped to support victims who are women and girls with disability. So turning to today. Today, we will start with our first witness, Chloe. She is a survivor of sexual violence, torture and degradation in her home in 2016. She will tell you about her experiences, including her experiences with the police and a court case.
Today we also welcome back to the Royal Commission Ms Nicole Lee. Commissioners, you will remember Ms Lee spoke at Public hearing 5 in August 2020 concerning the impact of COVID and particularly the impact on women with disability accessing support in terms of family and of domestic violence.
Ms Lee told you back in August 2020 that she was also a survivor of family violence, and she is now an advocate. She focuses on family violence perpetrated against women with disabilities, or those who depend on carers and family members for support. She experienced a decade of abuse at the hands of her former husband, and she now uses her lived experience of family violence to speak out for those who don't yet have a voice. She will share with you her personal experiences and also her reflections on what needs to change.
Our final witness today is Claire. Claire has provided you with a statement, and Claire has made the decision that she would like Ms Fraser to read her statement to you today. All our witnesses today will speak frankly and directly. Their experiences will be confronting, and some people may find the language explicit. So I will put up the slide again. These are the contact numbers for anyone who feels that they need to speak to someone. We encourage people to seek support during the course of this hearing if they need that support.
Finally, I will remind those following the proceeding of the provisions in the Royal Commissions Act which have the clear object of protecting witnesses who give evidence before the Royal Commission. In particular, I want to draw people's attention to section 6M of the Act which provides as follows:
"Any person who uses, causes, or inflicts any violence, punishment, damage, loss or disadvantage to any person on account of the person having appeared as a witness before the Royal Commission, or given evidence before the Royal Commission, or producing documents to the Royal Commission commits an indictable offence. The maximum penalty for committing such an offence is imprisonment."
Commissioners, before we break, can I formally tender the artwork as it appears in the hearing room, and we've got some photographs we will put on to the Royal Commission's website so those following the proceeding here in Hobart can also see what we can see. So if the three pieces of artwork can be tendered and marked exhibit 17.21.8, 17.21.9 and 17.21.10.
CHAIR: Yes, those three artworks will be admitted into evidence with those exhibit numbers. Thank you.
EXHIBIT 17.21.8 TAPESTRY AND CRAFT WORK
EXHIBIT 17.21.9 ARTWORK BY WOMEN DESCRIBING THEIR EXPERIENCES AND ALSO WHAT THEY WOULD LIKE TO SEE
EXHIBIT 17.21.10 ARTWORK BY WOMEN DESCRIBING THEIR EXPERIENCES AND ALSO WHAT THEY WOULD LIKE TO SEE
MS EASTMAN: Thank you. Commissioners, we propose that we would adjourn now for a short morning tea, and then we will resume with our witness Chloe.
CHAIR: What time would you like to resume?
MS EASTMAN: Perhaps if we have 20 minutes and we can resume in 20 minutes.
CHAIR: All right. We will resume at Hobart time, 10.55.
ADJOURNED 10:35 AM
RESUMED 11:03 AM
CHAIR: Yes, Ms Eastman.
MS EASTMAN: Thank you, Commissioners. Our first witness is Chloe, and Chloe is with us in the Hobart hearing room. I will also let everybody know that we are also joined by Ziggy. Ziggy is a therapy dog. He may not be on the screen, but he's joining us today and will be part of the hearing over the course of this week. So we have Ziggy with us as well. The first thing is that Chloe will take an affirmation. And then we will start Chloe's evidence.
CHAIR: Thank you. Chloe, we would like to thank you very much for coming to the Royal Commission today to give evidence and particularly coming in person. I would just like to explain where the Commissioners are. I know that you've met some of us. Commissioner Bennett is on my right, of course, in the same room as you are. Commissioner Mason is on my left, and Commissioner Galbally I think you can see on the screen; I hope you can is joining the hearing from Melbourne.
So we are the four Commissioners who will be hearing your evidence and the evidence of all the other witnesses this week. So thank you again, and in taking the affirmation, I would ask you just to follow the instructions of my associate, Kasia, who is over there, and she will administer the affirmation to you. If you just listen to what Kasia is asking you to do and then follow that, I would be grateful. Thank you.
CHLOE AFFIRMED 11:04 AM
EXAMINATION BY MS EASTMAN SC
CHAIR: Thank you, Chloe. Now Ms Eastman will ask you some questions.
MS EASTMAN: Well, Commissioner, Chloe has prepared a statement for the Royal Commission, and I'm going to ask you to receive that statement into the evidence and mark it Exhibit 17.10.1. And in discussions with Chloe, I'm going to read part of Chloe's statement, and there might be an opportunity for us to talk about a few of the points at the end of reading the statement.
CHAIR: So would you like that to be admitted into evidence now?
MS EASTMAN: At an appropriate time, yes. It can be now. It can be at the end.
CHAIR: Let us deem this to be an appropriate time. So we will admit into evidence Chloe's statement, and that will become Exhibit 17.10.1. Thank you.
EXHIBIT 17.10.1 STATEMENT OF CHLOE
MS EASTMAN: Thank you. My name is Chloe. My favourite thing to do is to be with my dogs. I have a sister I will call her Shaniqua and she helps me out. My mum was the only one who really helped me out, but she died a few years ago. My favourite colour is pink. I enjoy a good life and getting up to mischief. My disability is called Cerebral Palsy. I use a wheelchair all the time. I need supports from my personal assistants for personal care and going out to the shops and doing things. I can't walk at all and I struggle to move my arms.
Commissioners, I am now going to read Chloe's statement about her experience of violence and abuse. There is strong language, and some very distressing evidence that I'm going to read. So with that warning, I will continue.
The heading the Rapist Motherfucker. My abuser was my paid personal assistant. He was from another country and had worked as a nurse. He was originally the flatmate of another personal assistant who offered to help me when my personal assistant was sick in 2016. All my personal assistants are recruited privately. He tricked me into thinking I was special. He used to tell me I was a princess. He promised me lots of things. He told me he loved me. He sucked me in with his charm. He groomed me and my sister. My sister thought he was a good guy.
I was living on my own, living in my own house. He would take me out to buy some nice things, but he would pick up something for himself. He would get my bank card off me to pay for it. And he did that all the time. He stopped trying to charm me pretty quickly. He then had his bad face for me and his good face for everyone else. He used my phone for phone calls. He would take it home with him so I couldn't call anyone else. He would
control what I did. He kept me from seeing friends and family. He would charm everyone. He threatened to kill me if I told anyone what had happened. And I thought I was going to die.
All right. I'm just going to check in with Chloe. All okay? Do you want me to keep going?
He forced me to have sex. He raped me. He put his dick in my vagina and my bum hole. He would punish me by burning cigarettes around my vagina. He treated me like a dog. He tortured my dogs as well to punish me. There were so many rapes and physical assaults, it was awful. I tried to fight back by scratching him, so he would cut my nails. I was a smart arse and he wouldn't give me food. I would pretend to be asleep by playing dead. But he soon knew what I was doing.
One time I threw a mug at his head, but I missed. So when he offered me my dinner, he threw it on the floor and told me to eat off the floor. I said "No. It's disgusting. The dogs
are on the floor." He then picked me up out of my chair, put me on the floor and told me to eat the food off the floor. I didn't. He dragged me by the hair to the bedroom, put me on the bed and raped me from behind like a dog.
I can't use my electric wheelchair any more because of my anxiety. He used to trigger the button on the chair so I would run into the wall all the time. Another time, when he thought I might be pregnant, he made me take a pregnancy test and found I was. He then beat the crap out of me from head to foot, kicking me in the belly over and over again, trying to kill my baby. The baby died inside. I bled all over the floor and I nearly died. He was drunk on power, and I thought I was going to die.
When my other personal assistant noticed the bruises all over my face, it was the day after he had beat the crap out of me for being pregnant. He had punched me in the eye 10 times and told me he thought the blue bruise looked good on me. My other personal assistant said if I wanted her to, she would take me to the police. Just pausing there. Okay? Yes.
The police believed me. The Queensland police officer who helped me was very friendly, helpful, very understanding and he listened. We went to court. He was charged with multiple counts of rape, grievous bodily harm, torture and assault charges. He charmed and lied to the jury. They didn't believe me. They saw me as disabled and a liar, and he got off. I think the prosecutor did a shit job. He didn't look into it properly. And I thought he acted he put on an act like he cared but he didn't. All he cared about was his job and not my feelings.
The person from the Victim Support Unit helped me go to court and did a good job. I think the justice system needs to be more considerate. The jury, judge, and prosecutor, they think you're making this all up and telling lies. They believed him because he's not disabled.
I can't trust anyone any more. It's been about six years of hell. I'm scared to be in my own house because he raped me in my bedroom, my lounge room and the kitchen, and I can't move without help. I'm scared he's going to come back to my house and kill me. One of my dogs has never been the same. She's now on anti depressants. She bites strangers who come near me. She's terrified as well. But I am a survivor. I'm glad to be alive, and I'm becoming more confident to leave the house and to be in the community.
Commissioners, that is my story.
Thank you, Chloe. Thank you for letting me read your statement.
CHLOE: No worries.
MS EASTMAN: There's a couple of things that we've talked about, if you feel like you want to say anything, and one is to talk about your dogs. What would you like to tell the Royal Commission about how your dogs have really helped you and how your dogs are always there for you?
CHLOE: They just keep me going, like, every single day. They just they give me a reason to get out of bed. And that's just so it makes me happy that they're still there. So.
MS EASTMAN: They trust you and you trust them?
CHLOE: Yes. Yes.
MS EASTMAN: And they look after you and you look after them?
CHLOE: They sure do.
MS EASTMAN: And the other person who's really important and special to you is your sister, who we are calling Shaniqua. And she's here today as well. And what would you like to say about Shaniqua?
CHLOE: If it wasn't for her, I would still be in the house today, sitting in the dark and not go out ever.
MS EASTMAN: What does Shaniqua help you do to give you the confidence to go out?
CHLOE: Just give me a push.
MS EASTMAN: Well, she gives you a push, doesn't she? She's like, "Get out there, get into it. Do it."
CHLOE: Yes, she does.
MS EASTMAN: And what about WWILD? You have become part of WWILD and Victoria from WWILD is here, and we have heard WWILD is a pretty full on advocacy group for women with disability. How have they helped you as well?
CHLOE: Just when it all started, they just helped me a lot. And I'm grateful for that.
MS EASTMAN: And there's the policeman who you talked about. Let's call him Mick.
MS EASTMAN: Now, when you said in your statement that he believed you and he did a good job, can you tell the Royal Commissioners what did he do that you thought was really good?
CHLOE: Because he could see right through
MS EASTMAN: The person.
CHLOE: the person, yeah, and he just believed me all the way. So
MS EASTMAN: And when you went to court, that was pretty hard, wasn't it?
CHLOE: Yeah, it was.
MS EASTMAN: And you had to speak in court?
MS EASTMAN: And you were asked questions?
MS EASTMAN: And you found that pretty hard, didn't you?
CHLOE: Yeah, I did.
MS EASTMAN: And one message that you've got for the Royal Commission is you would like what happens to women who have had your experience going to court
MS EASTMAN: to make sure that people understand them.
CHLOE: They notice.
MS EASTMAN: They notice you.
CHLOE: Yeah. And understand and yeah.
MS EASTMAN: Yes. And you wanted me to ask you about being stronger. Because one of the things coming to talk to the Royal Commission today is, it is hard to share these very personal experiences, and you wanted other people to know about your story because it helps make you feel stronger, but you want other women to also feel strong.
MS EASTMAN: What do you want to say about say anything about that?
CHLOE: Just believe them.
MS EASTMAN: Just believe them.
MS EASTMAN: Commissioners, unless Chloe has got anything else that she would like to say and I will just pause for a minute. You can say whatever you would like to tell the Royal Commissioners today.
CHLOE: Just thank you for listening to my story and taking notice of my story. Thank you.
CHAIR: Chloe, thank you very much for giving evidence to us. We have listened and listened very carefully to what you have said.
CHAIR: And it is very important to us. So thank you very much. Thank you also to Shaniqua, who I know has supported you and is here today. And if you would be good enough to pass on our thanks to Ziggy, that would be good too. So thank you very, very much for coming today and for giving evidence. We very, very much appreciate it. Thank you.
CHLOE: Yep. Thank you.
MS EASTMAN: So, Commissioners, as I said, today will be a day where we will slow down. There may be a few more breaks than we would normally have. That completes Chloe's evidence. I think I've asked her enough question for one day. And we are also very grateful for Chloe working with the Royal Commission to be able to come and give your evidence and also to travel to come to Hobart today. It's your first time in Hobart.
CHLOE: Yes. Yes, it is.
MS EASTMAN: So we are very, very glad to have Chloe with us in person. But we might take a break now, and I might check with Ms Lee about what she's comfortable with, and we might resume maybe in an hour or so. But, Commissioners, could we have a break, and then we will let everybody know what the precise timing might be shortly.
CHAIR: All right. We will adjourn now and we will let people know the time at which we will resume. Again, thank you, Chloe. Thank you, Shaniqua. And we hope you have a very good and safe trip back to Queensland.
CHLOE: Thank you.
WITNESS LEAVES COURT 11.21 AM
ADJOURNED 11:21 AM
RESUMED 12:15 PM
CHAIR: I understand Chloe's statement is 17.10.1. We will change the exhibit number to that but, of course, that statement is admitted into evidence. So, yes, Ms Eastman.
MS EASTMAN: Thank you. My next witness is Ms Nicole Lee, and you will recall that Ms Lee participated at Public hearing 5 back in August a couple of years ago, and Ms Lee's evidence on that identification was marked Exhibit 5.18. So we have had regard to Ms Lee's earlier evidence as well. But she has prepared a statement for this proceeding. I think the first step is that Ms Lee will take an affirmation.
CHAIR: Yes. Thank you, Ms Lee. Thank you very much for coming to the Royal Commission to give your evidence today. And we are very glad to have you here in person. I'm sure you know where the Commissioners are, but just for the sake of completeness, on my right is Commissioner Bennett, on my left is Commissioner Mason. Commissioner Galbally, whom you can see on the screen, is joining from Melbourne. If you would be good enough to follow the instructions of my associate, she will administer the affirmation to you. Thank you.
NICOLE LEE AFFIRMED 12:17 PM
EXAMINATION BY MS EASTMAN SC
CHAIR: Thank you very much, Ms Lee. Ms Eastman will ask you some questions. If at any stage you want to have a break let us know and we can do that.
MS EASTMAN: Before I start, Commissioners, I will again give the content warning that some of the material that we will cover in Ms Lee's evidence, some people may find distressing, and the telephone numbers that we showed earlier today remain available to people if they wish to get any support and assistance. Can I also remind everybody following this proceeding about the provisions in section 6M of the Royal Commissions Act:
"Any person who uses, causes or inflicts any violence, punishment, damage, loss or disadvantage to a person on account of the person having appeared as a witness before the Royal Commission or given evidence before the Royal Commission commits an indictable offence."
Commissioners you take that requirement as it exists in the Royal Commissions Act very seriously, and those following the proceeding need to be aware of that provision. Ms Lee, you are Nicole Lee.
MS LEE: Yes.
MS EASTMAN: You have provided your address which is known only to the Royal Commission?
MS LEE: Yes.
MS EASTMAN: And you are a family violence and disability activist.
MS LEE: Yes.
MS EASTMAN: You prepared a statement dated 16 February this year, and you've got a copy of the statement with you.
MS LEE: Yes, I do.
MS EASTMAN: Are the contents of the statement true?
MS LEE: Yes, they are.
MS EASTMAN: So this morning I'm going to ask you some questions arising out of the statement. At parts of our discussion, you may want to read parts of your statement or refer to the statement, but just let me know how we are travelling in terms of how you would like to discuss the various topics. So can I start by introducing you. You are, as you've said in your statement, a woman who experienced 10 years of trauma. You are a mother of two adult children and a survivor of domestic and sexual violence.
The man who is now your ex-husband was verbally and emotionally abusive and physically violent towards you. And the most significant part of his offending was that he regularly sexually assaulted you with increasing severity and regularity towards the end of your relationship, especially in the last 12 months. It started six weeks after the birth of your son, and there was a cycle of sexual assaults that would happen every four to six weeks. You have spoken about your personal story on a few occasions, and each time it's hard to talk about the personal experiences. But I think you've said today you will talk about these experiences.
MS LEE: Yes.
MS EASTMAN: But this might be the last time. So let's start with the matters you've got in your statement. And I've just covered the matters that you've identified in paragraph 3. You've said that your ex, who we will use that to describe him in your evidence today, used your disability as an excuse to justify his offending. In describing the sexual assaults, he told the police:
"She couldn't feel it anyway. I didn't think that it mattered. She has no feelings anyway. I thought she would learn to like it."
And he was referring to your physical disability.
MS LEE: Yes.
MS EASTMAN: Do you want to say anything to the Royal Commission about the impact that description of you and how that contributed to that 10 years of trauma that you experienced?
MS LEE: I remember hearing that for the first time when he he gave his statement to
police and being shocked about it because after assaults he would always apologise and say how sorry he was and that he was such a bad person and he would try not to do it again, and realising for the first time that was pure manipulation of me and his true thoughts around the offending and his thoughts towards me had sort of had come out. And to hear that my you know, physical disability, being a spinal cord injury and nerve damage, as being used as an excuse for you know, she doesn't have any sensation, she can't feel that, I thought she would learn to like it. It was that's the impact of that is ongoing with me into any intimate relationships I have with somebody else. The person I thought that he was, that I wanted to believe that he was, was completely shattered and my sense of trust in my own body, trusting anybody else to be intimate with, was completely shattered, and that has taken a very, very long time to rebuild. And I'm still rebuilding it.
MS EASTMAN: Can I ask you about how you first met him. And you've talked about this in your statement. You met him in 2003 because you were involved in wheelchair tennis at the time and he's also a man with disability.
MS LEE: Yes, he is.
MS EASTMAN: And you say in your statement that disability sports is a trusting environment and you tend to let your guard down.
MS LEE: Yes.
MS EASTMAN: And your ex moved into your house at the end of 2003 or the start of 2004, and you had a son together at the end of 2004 and married in December 2007. Then you changed from wheelchair tennis to Paralympic swimming. And the training you did the training. That was exhausting. But swimming was a safe place. Why was swimming a safe place?
MS LEE: Well, these sporting environments become sort of, you know, safe places for women to connect with our disabled people. We do let our guard down. We feel that we're with like minded people. You learn a lot in those spaces, you make a lot of connections in those spaces, and, for a lot of us, we are very disconnected from the community around us. And then going into, you know, swimming where we're very integrated into able bodied sports and with a club, the training was intense. It was away from the home. It was an environment where he was comfortable for me to go into, so I was able to go there on my own. I was able to focus on something else. I was able to throw my energy into something else and had that distraction from home. You know, it was a place where he didn't invade too much. It was a place where I was with people that I trusted. I had a coach that I that I trusted very deeply. It's you know, it's creating those environments where we're still connected with the community. It gave me even though all of my friendship networks and my family were slowly being disconnected away from me, you know, sports for me, and for other disabled people and disabled women, is it keeps you connected with that outside world so you're not purely locked up in the home and being disconnected from everything. And maintaining those things was something that I worked very hard to continue to be maintain and be part of sport. Because that's what kept me going for a lot of the time, was knowing that I could get out of the house to a training camp or knowing that I could go to a training session and I could chat with my coach afterwards. You know, continuing to find ways to connect with the world around you is really vital for supporting your mental health and just, you know, reminding you that the outside world is still there, you know, to try and counter some of that breaking down of who you are as a person and breaking down your confidence in yourself and the outside world.
MS EASTMAN: So that changed for you in 2012 where you had some further spinal surgery.
MS LEE: Yeah.
MS EASTMAN: The first surgery had occurred back in 1988. But the surgery meant that you were not going to the London Paralympics, which was something that you really wanted to do, and in 2012, that signalled the retirement from the swimming at that competitive level.
MS LEE: Yeah.
MS EASTMAN: So not having swimming meant there was no way to get out of the house, and this had an impact on you, and you lost that sort of swimming in terms of having that connection with the community and, in a sense, giving you this balance in your life that you weren't feeling at home. Is that right?
MS LEE: Yeah, it is. I lost a lot of friends through that, you know, because they were all busy training. Unfortunately when para athletes retire, compared to able body athletes, we don't have a lot of wellbeing and follow up support once leaving professional sporting environments, so feeling like I'd just been dropped and forgotten was was really hard. And those connections that were really vital with, you know, sort of keeping myself, you know, going and my mental health that was slowly deteriorating from deteriorating further were taken away. And I was you know, more resided into the home. I lost a lot of movement with that surgery, and my disability was exacerbated from that surgery. And that took a lot of rehab. So then my reliance on him increased as well in that time. Yeah, and it was a difficult time. I'd lost I'd lost a dream. I also lost that safety network around me as well.
MS EASTMAN: So in your statement, we asked you to talk about particular topics. And so if it's okay with you, we might go through some of those topics, and one of those topics is financial power and control. And you may have heard me say this morning that in the responses the Royal Commission has received to the Issues Paper about the experience of violence and abuse in the home, financial control is one of the matters the Royal Commission has heard about. And you wanted to speak about that today.
So your ex paid all the bills when you were living together, and you didn't use a computer or have a computer of your own at that time. He paid things through BPAY, and he told you it was too complicated or you weren't smart enough to deal with the bills. And was that a way of controlling you?
MS LEE: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely a way of controlling. You know, when he moved in, it was before everybody had a computer in their home. I'd go down to the post office and pay it. And I and I don't know at what point during all of that time that I lost that autonomy and ability, because I was independent. I was living with my young son. I was paying my own bills. Admittedly, it wasn't with a computer and and he came in and offered this, you know, easier way to do it and but then didn't allow me to learn how to use these things or or be able to be competent in having autonomy over paying these bills.
You know, and it did become a way of controlling. It meant that, you know, we were slowly running out of we lived on a pension and we were slowly running out of money and saying that we're never going to have enough to make ends meet, and because I didn't know the mechanics of how that was working, I didn't know where all the money went. You don't question those things, because questions are met with aggression as a defence mechanism, which I understand now. But at the time, I just thought, I just he's doing a great thing to help me and how ungrateful of me not to, you know, be supporting him in that or thanking him for that. Yeah.
MS EASTMAN: Can I ask you about early 2013, take you back to that time, you were in hospital. You were receiving some treatment for your eating disorder. And your ex came in with some papers. And this concerned selling your house. What can you tell the Royal Commission about how that came about and reflecting back on those events now in relation to what ended up being your house being sold? What happened?
MS LEE: Yeah, I was in hospital, yeah, as you said, with my eating disorder treatment. And like I do now, you know, I have a nasogastric tube in. I was very unwell. And in comes a real estate agent with my partner with paperwork to sign over to, you know, put my house on the market and sell it.
MS EASTMAN: This is a house your great grandmother owned.
MS LEE: Yeah.
MS EASTMAN: So this is a family home. What happened?
MS LEE: Yep. Yeah, so it was my family home that my mother had spent, you know, such a long time making sure that she could sign that over to me legally and that myself and my children always had somewhere to live, and he took that away from me in that moment. I didn't think that I could push back on it. I don't know what was going through the estate agent's mind. I think the issue of the disabled woman and the carer, nobody questioned what was going on.
If there was no disability involved, would she have come into this scenario and said, "This is not ethical. I don't think that you know, you're able to sign this"? You know, would questions have been raised? Would red flags have been identified and touched on? And in that situation, disability became, you know, the rose coloured glasses where all of the red flags all of a sudden just looked like flags and everybody ignores them. You know, it's constantly this thinking of because they're your carer, they're doing the right thing, or you're not capable of making a decision.
The hospital also allowed this meeting to happen as well. And you know, and he
constantly put it as because I didn't want to sell my house. I knew that things weren't happy. I knew that like, deep down, I knew that I was experiencing violence. But then it's that breaking down and and the you know, emotional abuse and the, you know, verbal put downs just like with not being able to pay bills and being the horrible ableist slur of being told that, "You're too stupid. You're not smart enough. You're not educated enough. You don't have a mechanical mind like me."
The you know, disabled people disabled women hear this all the time as a way of just taking away our sense of even wanting to try, because, you know, you take those things on board deeply. And you believe it.
MS EASTMAN: Just jumping in. I mean, you also had that experience when you had to approach the bank and
MS LEE: Yes.
MS EASTMAN: you needed some extra funds in terms of buying a new house. And what the bank manager had a view that you should have joint accounts.
MS LEE: Yes.
MS EASTMAN: What can you remember about being pressed about having a joint account?
MS LEE: Yeah, I remember that, you know, going into the bank and we were lucky to get the loan because he'd put us in so much debt, so we had to borrow more on disability pensions to pay off a credit card debt that I didn't even know was there. And the bank manager and my partner were saying, well you know, pushing me and I pushed back on it saying, "Well, this just makes sense. Why don't you understand that?" You know, two men saying to me why do I not understand the benefits of doing this, and, "What's your issue with this?" And being spoken of as being, "This is just you wanting control. This is just you being a control freak" versus this is actually about his control.
And I knew that if he had control of my money, that we would be in so much more danger. I couldn't understand why. I just had a sense that I can't let this happen. I pushed back on that. I received a lot of verbal and and, you know, abuse that night and the days following, pushing back on that. I had to stand my ground. And I paid the price for it as well. But just they wouldn't take no for an answer. We ended up with a joint bank account, but I flat out refused to have my pension put into his joint bank account where he had total control over all of our money.
MS EASTMAN: And that meant that you would have to give him money from your
MS LEE: Yes.
MS EASTMAN: to pay for petrol or groceries and household things.
MS LEE: Yep. Yes. Yeah.
MS EASTMAN: And I think you describe looking back on that control over the finances as a form of gaslighting. So the Royal Commission has heard that expression, gaslighting.
MS LEE: Yeah.
MS EASTMAN: It is part of sort of common parlance, but does gaslighting mean you just sort of question yourself and you think, "Did that really happen to me?" Because the way in which the control can occur can really cause you to doubt whether you see in front of you what's actually happening. Is that what you mean by gaslighting?
MS LEE: Yeah. Yeah, well, the yeah, that's what I mean by gaslighting, is that, you know, I felt that that was a really inappropriate situation. I could identify the risks. And then, you know, having that reversed on you, "You're just the control freak" or, "Oh, it wasn't anything like that" or, "I didn't mean anything like that" or, "That wasn't my intention with these things", you start to doubt the reality of of what you're watching, what you're listening to or or what you remember of the scenario. And you start to doubt yourself as a person. And then they bring in that, you know, the mental health side of things it and you go, "Well, it just must be my mental health." It must just be that, as he said you know, put it all the time is that, "No, you're just crazy and this is an issue for you to deal with. You know, you need to go get some help." It's that whole breaking down of your sense of of being able to see what's going on around you and, "Maybe maybe I'm not seeing this right. Maybe I am deluded in my thinking here."
MS EASTMAN: Right, can I turn to another topic now, which is disclosing violence. So, Commissioners, this starts at page 4 of the statement, paragraph 18. So this is where we are up to. And, Ms Lee, you said you started to see a private psychiatrist from about 2006. And you were going regularly. And you would tell the psychiatrist about the violence that you were experiencing and you would sit there crying and telling him what had happened.
He listened to you, he believed you, and he told you that you didn't deserve to live by that in that way. He offered to talk to the police, but you were not ready, and his hands were tied with the doctor patient confidentiality, and you think that's the only reason that you kept disclosing to him, is that this was a safe place to go. I think you've said this in your statement, that if you had been under 18 years of age, then in that particular relationship with the psychiatrist, there would have been mandatory reporting.
And you've, again, looked back on that time, and what do you want to tell the Royal Commission about why it is so difficult to disclose, but that tension between having someone to disclose to, where there is confidentiality, but also someone who might have to do mandatory reporting, how do you balance that conflict for an adult person?
MS LEE: Yeah, I have actually discussed this with my psychiatrist quite a few times. And, for me, the balancing act of that, if you have a patient coming in over and over and over, saying, "This is happening to me", and you know and my psychiatrist has said to me, "I didn't think you would survive. I didn't think you would make it out of that relationship. I thought you were going to die." If you have a patient that is coming in over the course of years disclosing this, there should be a mechanism in there and just saying, "I'm really sorry, but I do have to speak to somebody."
There has to be a trigger point, where, you know, a professional like this who wants to do the right thing by you, is respecting your boundaries, and feels, you know, at a loss of what to do, at some point, "Your life is in danger. I need to you know, I am obligated now to do something." It could be after, say, you know, maybe a certain amount of disclosures or amount and severity of disclosures or an intimate threat to the individual.
So if I was going in there and I had made, you know, a threat to harm somebody else, he would be made to report that. But if I'm going in there and saying that this person is threatening to harm me, that my life is in danger, he was in no position to report any of that or to even just get a police officer to come in and talk to me through my options. You know, you're talking about you know, there was times where I would go into my sessions with my psychiatrist and I would be talking to him around, you know, not only just you know, suffering with an eating disorder and not wanting to eat because I just didn't want to live any more.
It was my way of having some autonomy in that situation. And passing out on the floor and being raped by my husband while I was unconscious and coming to, to finding that you're being raped on the floor you know, it's probably the most horrific one ever. He was charged with that one. And it happened twice. And having to say to my psychiatrist, who just sat me there sat there with me and said, "I wish I could hug you. I'm so sorry." Because the excuse was used, "Think of this as motivation to eat. This is your punishment if you didn't pass out, I wouldn't have to do this to you."
MS EASTMAN: The psychiatrist was important to disclose to.
MS LEE: And he validated it, and he's the only one that did, you know.
MS EASTMAN: Does this highlight sort of where the supports sit? So even if the psychiatrist said, "Well, I've got this doctor client patient confidentiality" but to know where did you need that support or to say to you what does support look like for you at that time? We've heard there's these gaps in the supports, and often it's now people like you, and the disability advocates who step in. So where where do you sort of see helping, maybe, practitioners know about reporting or not reporting? What do you see now?
MS LEE: Understanding, you know, I guess the desperation and the immensity or the
danger for someone, being able to being educated and trained on what are those high risk indicators for family violence murders. You know, what are those, you know, major high
risk indicators where they know that, you know that we know from evidence is where somebody is in, you know, quite severe and imminent danger from this person, that this person is capable of domestic homicide.
You know, having having an for them to have an understanding of that, I think, would deeply help. It would give them the language to sit and talk to me and explain the risk of the situation I was in, because he didn't know how to do that. Because he wasn't quite fully aware of what those high risk indicators were. Oh, sorry.
MS EASTMAN: Well, take a deep breath.
MS LEE: Yes.
MS EASTMAN: Because I want to ask you about hospitals, because you say there's a key moment when you are in hospital, you’re safe.
MS LEE: Yep.
MS EASTMAN: You are not in an environment you are not going to be overheard by your ex. He's not in a room next door. And you just feel that you have that safe place. But your experience with the hospital admission in 2012 ended up being something far less than a safe place.
MS LEE: Yep.
MS EASTMAN: That you disclosed at a ward round in so it is when all the doctors and trainees come in and sit look at the end of the bed and all look at you in the bed (indistinct).
MS LEE: Yes. Like you're in a boardroom. You've got the clinical psychiatrist there. Registrar, you've got all the OTs. You've got everybody all around this table. It's an intimidating environment.
MS EASTMAN: Okay. But you said, you told that meeting and you said, "This is what my ex said to me, 'I won't call an ambulance while you've got a heartbeat.'" So you disclosed that at a ward rounds meeting.
MS LEE: Yeah. Yes.
MS EASTMAN: At least a couple of days after disclosing that, your ex was invited onto the ward, and this then led to a situation where you were going to be discharged into his care and back at home.
MS LEE: Yeah.
MS EASTMAN: And as you reflect on those events, it's just like, "How could this have happened," you say, "when I told them a few days before, this is what he said to me." He's not going to call an ambulance while you've got a heartbeat. You've been in hospital.
You've been treated. And now you're about to be discharged back into his care. You were begging them not to send you home. One of the staff returned, gave you sedative. By this time your ex was also holding you down with another staff member, and you were forcibly sedated by an injection.
That experience, you've described in your statement, of saying "No one can recover in a system that uses the tactics of abusers. At that point I gave up. They discharged me the
next day back into his care." Later, in a family therapy session, the hospital that
experience in hospital, your ex spoke about that. And you've set that out in your statement as well. This time he was asked to leave the ward, wasn't he?
MS LEE: Yep.
MS EASTMAN: He was pretty angry when he did. This has caused you to sort of have some distrust
MS LEE: Mmm.
MS EASTMAN: in the confidence of the health system.
MS LEE: Yes.
MS EASTMAN: And this is an experience about health professionals listening and not dismissing reports of violence and not allowing your experience to be overshadowed by the fact that your ex was your carer and it was natural that you should return home into the care of your ex. So that's a point that you wanted to make in your statement.
MS LEE: Yeah.
MS EASTMAN: Another incident in hospital was 2014. And you took an overdose. You didn't know any other way out at that time. You passed out at home. Your ex rolled you on your back, left you on the floor to die and he went to bed. Your son found you. He was 16. He called the ambulance. The ambulance came, you arrived at the emergency department, and you disclosed the abuse, and you also said "I have two kids living in that house." At that time, you were asked, "Do you want to go to a refuge?" And you didn't want to lose your kids.
MS LEE: No.
MS EASTMAN: And you didn't want to leave your kids. You were then asked who your next of kin was. And you said it was your husband. And they said, "Well, we will call him to pick you up." So, Ms Lee, in these moments, you were in this acute crisis. At the same time you are seeing this overshadowing and not listening to what was happening with you. And is it right that each and every time you've had this experience, it just builds this layer of trauma?
MS LEE: Yes.
MS EASTMAN: This layer of distrust. And this layer about the sense of who you are and yourself. This occasion really caused you to be very worried about what was going to happen to you and your children. So you say you were terrified that your children would be taken from you. They are your reason to live. You needed help but your worry was that the help might come and the support might come in the form of your children being taken away. What was your experience in terms of any involvement with Child Protection? Is that something you want to talk about?
MS LEE: Yeah. Well, Child Protection were called in after that incident. Somebody in that emergency department, when I said you know, disclosed that, "My husband has raped me four times this week. I don't want to live any more" and they sent me home to him. But someone in that emergency department did call Child Protection in that moment and they came around quite a fair while later after that.
And, you know, and to start with, they left a letter in the letterbox, and I was absolutely terrified that you know, (1) they've just left their business card, saying, "Please call us. We came to visit." I knew exactly what they were there for. My partner didn't. But Child Protection, when they first came into the home, they sat us down together in the same room, and they asked me to start with if I wanted to, you know, discuss what had been going on at home.
I was so scared, I couldn't talk to them. I mean, I was the one that was in hospital with an overdose. I was the one who'd been in and out of hospital, you know, on involuntary treatment orders. You know, I was the one that was sedated on that floor, that you know, they had allowed me to hold me down, so, clearly, you know, I was the crazy woman, and the carer beside me was the one that was continuously listened to, the one whose voice was preferenced in every single conversation, no matter how much disclosure I made.
You know, when by the time Child Protection got there, the whole reason to want to keep going, the whole reason to live, was my children, and I didn't want to lose them.
MS EASTMAN: It's okay, take your time. And if you need a break at all just let us know and we can have a break.
MS LEE: So they turned to him in the same room and they said, "Well, she said to Emergency staff, that you raped her four times in one week. What have you got to say to that?" And they and he was honest. He told them straight out. I was absolutely shocked. He was he fessed up. He said, "All husbands do this. Men have needs." You know, "She's really crazy and hard to live with." So, again, all of that gaslighting where I thought I was the problem, I was the one that needed to get help. I didn't know what they were going to do.
They left after talking with us. They left me there with him. They went and they spoke to
the children's school, they chatted with the kids, and they came back to us. I can't remember fully exactly how long it was. It might have been four weeks. I don't remember. They came back and they sat us down again in the same room, and the conversation didn't last very long. They said to him, you know, "The children are scared of you." He exploded at two Child Protection workers.
Pushed me out of the way, swore and ranted that, you know, "Don’t tell me how to raise my children", left the house with, you know, tyres screeching out the end of the court. You know, I'm just dumbfounded that he showed that aggression to another person, because only myself and the children had seen that at that point, so that was incredibly confronting. But they left me there. They left me in that home after experiencing after witnessing that.
They didn't understand domestic and family violence at that you know, the worker that I had at that point. They left the home. They left myself and my children were there for him to return home later that night. You know, the – at no point did anybody identify the risk
we were in. At no point did anybody say, "We need get police and get an intervention order. We need to protect you." Nobody did anything but leave me there with this volatile man who returned later that night. And yeah. And
MS EASTMAN: Just take a pause there.
MS LEE: Yeah.
MS EASTMAN: Eventually, there was one Child Protection worker who did you remember taking you seriously. That person had empathy. And they actually asked you what you needed. And this then led to you saying, "I don't know what supports there are. I know " sorry, she said this, wasn't it?
MS LEE: Yeah.
MS EASTMAN: "I don't know what supports there are but I know Disability Services are in this building and I'm going to ask them." And that was a shift.
MS LEE: Yeah.
MS EASTMAN: Was that shift in the context of understanding the impact of disability
MS LEE: Yes.
MS EASTMAN: in what were you experiencing? Because your ex had had an intervention order and was out of the house but your ex came back and smashed things up. Is that right? And so this was a person who actually listened to you and said, "I don't know but I'm going to find out."
MS LEE: Yeah. Yeah. So
MS EASTMAN: Tell me about that person who did listen to you.
MS LEE: So early on after those first initial sessions with Child Protection where they came to the home, that worker had to leave, and I was appointed another worker who did have a better understanding of family violence, was a lot more gentle with me. I felt that she built rapport with me and started to build trust. I remember having the conversation with her, because I didn't know what I could ask for. I'd just been left at home by myself with my children to sink or swim with no supports.
I didn't have any family or friends around me. They'd been completely disconnected. The relationship with my mother was very disjointed at that point in time. And they were much older, so, you know, they weren't in a position where they could do those things. And I remember saying to her, that, "I don't know what to do. I'm going to have to go into that courtroom and have that intervention order lifted if something doesn't change some time soon."
I hadn't showered for eight weeks. My back door was completely smashed where my partner had my husband had smashed it. I couldn't feed my dogs. I was struggling to get my children to school. My poor 16 year old, who is you know, was traumatised from what had happened, was doing all the driving for us on his L plates. And that was at that point where she said "I know we've got the Disability Services in this building. I will go and ask them some questions."
And that was the shift. Because they were able to say to her, "Well, in Victoria, we have the family violence crisis" I always get the name of it wrong, sorry.
MS EASTMAN: The Disability Family Violence Crisis Response Initiative? Is that it?
MS LEE: Yes. Yes. And so that very day, they had they were able to access a pool of funding where they could get and they understood disability needs, and they understood family violence needs, and they were able to get workers in that very day, which took away that need for me to go to the court and say, "I need this order lifted." If I had done that and gone to that court, I would have lost my children, and I don't think I would be here today.
Without my children, I would have completely given up and I would have ended it. I would have ended my life. Or he would have. So that meant that I got to stay in my home with my children. I got to see another way to live, because I didn't know that there was any other way to exist without his support. And I thought that I needed a carer like him to look after me. They took away my need on him, and that was where I was given that space to be able to determine the or understand the difference between need and want.
I might have needed him to survive, which is what Family Violence Services what people don't understand for women with disabilities is that we have a physical need and reliance on care and support. And until someone takes away that reliance on violent caring relationships, then we don't go back because we want to. We go back because we have no other choice. Once they took that reliance on him away, I was able to see, I don't need him any more. And I was given that space to be able to identify, if I don't need him any more, I don't want him in my life any more. Unless he was to get help.
MS EASTMAN: Well, you said that that funding gave you, as a family, freedom.
MS LEE: Yes.
MS EASTMAN: And the funding meant that you would keep your children. They would stay with you. And they were the reason to keep going. So this funding at that moment in time was absolutely critical.
MS LEE: Yeah.
MS EASTMAN: And it was there. And I think one thing you are concerned about that other states don't necessarily have this funding in terms of leaving a situation of violence, and we are going to ask about that later this week in terms of the role of the NDIA in supporting women in similar circumstances. All right. Moving forward, your husband was convicted of
a number of offences in relation to his treatment of you and the violence that you experienced.
I want to ask you some questions about matters that you've got in your statement about the process of the laying of criminal charges. So this is working a way through a criminal justice system which the intervention order is you had one experience of. But the charges were laid, and you've said in your statement that you didn't have such a good experience with the police during the course of your relationship with your ex.
One of the things he would do would be to call the police himself, and he would tell them that you were hysterical and you would threaten self harm and that was the response to the abuse which then used calling the police as a form of punishment. So by the time the police might come to the house, you would be calm, they would have a chat, you might be taken to hospital. But looking back at that time when your ex calling the police because of your behaviour, you say that the police never questioned what was going on at the time. That it is the police would arrive, you looked calm, so what was the problem there?
MS LEE: Well, he looked calm.
MS EASTMAN: He looked calm.
MS LEE: He was always calm and collected and cool, after being volatile before they got there.
MS EASTMAN: Yes. And if you looked like upset and concerned, how did the police respond to that?
MS LEE: Well, positioned as you know, the horrible you know, narratives we understand of, you know, women who have been subjected to violence is that I was the one that was hysterical. I was the one who was refusing to eat. I was the one that, you know, looked like
I was the problem. And so I was the one that was forcibly taken to hospital. I was arrested.
I was taken to hospital for mental health treatment. He was you know, would chat with the police around, "You've done the right thing. We know what these women are like." You know, police were not a safe option for me. I was positioned as the crazy wife.
MS EASTMAN: Well, one time you say you were put on a stretcher handcuffed and off you went.
MS LEE: Yeah, I was I didn't want to go to the hospital. I was refusing to go because
they're not safe places. I didn't like being there. I didn't want to be there. So, you know, I was forcibly taken to hospital, you know, under the Mental Health Act without any understanding as to, "Why is this woman hysterical? What has gone on in the home here?" You know, that lack of understanding of, you know, women when they go into fight mode, that we do fight, we do fight back.
We do argue or we do yell or we do become hysterical because we've just been abused.
And that was then rather treated as my problem, and I was the one that was punished and taken away. It meant that the police were nobody that I thought I could trust. They were not a place that I would run to because they were not somebody that I felt was ever on my side or was ever going to be on my side due to that stigma of mental health, due to that stigma of disability and the fact that the man as the carer, you know, just came across as this loving, caring, devoted man that was genuinely concerned for my mental health and wellbeing when he was he was doing that as a punishment.
MS EASTMAN: Well, you said he was harnessing the system, using it as a threat and using it as a weapon. So he would say to you "Do you want me to call the cops?" So that trust in
the police was also an impediment, wasn't it, when your ex breached the intervention order by making contact with you, which he did through social media. Is that right? So he wasn't to have any contact with you, but a friend of his his friend's social media account was used to make that contact with you.
MS LEE: He would use his mum's phone to send messages. I remember there was one quite volatile abusive message that he sent from his mother's phone, but we couldn't prove it came from his mother's phone. He became so bold he was using his own Facebook accounts and other things like all sorts of random things like Pinterest, any way possible to remind me has was there, to send me coded messages as to whether or not he loved me or hated me that day.
And I would look at those to risk manage, you know, am I safe today? Am I not safe today? Does he love me? Does he hate me? And eventually I realised just how much control he had over me by whether or not I was in fear, or whether or not I felt relaxed that day based on what he was allowing me to see. He sent Facebook friend requests from his private accounts and that's what ultimately breached his bail and remanded him into custody.
MS EASTMAN: Okay. And then what happened after he was in custody? Was he charged with nine incidents of rape and one charge of assault and also for the breaches of the family violence intervention order?
MS LEE: Yes, so once he was in custody, that I had was it six months before we had the court hearing. When police first became involved and making statements around, you
know, it's the breaches of the intervention order, I know when they first arrested him and charged him, I refused to make a statement for quite a long time. I was so reluctant to engage with police because I didn't trust them. I was lucky I had a SOCIT, a sexual assault and child abuse investigative team, who understood that it might take me time or it might take me or I may not ever make a statement.
So after they questioned him and he confessed to everything, I could still not make that statement. But when he called me to abuse me to say that he was no longer going to you know, engage with behaviour change program and some quite expletive language around myself, the Child Protection workers is when I decided to make that statement.
MS EASTMAN: Were you still hoping even at this point that
MS LEE: Yes.
MS EASTMAN: Things would get better and if he went to some program or did some training then he would come back and
MS LEE: Yeah.
MS EASTMAN: The relationship could continue.
MS LEE: I did. And it took a while. And, you know, I honestly believed that if he finally
heard it from somebody else that I'd been saying to him all these days I remember waking up in the mornings and saying, "This makes me hate you." You know, this you know, this is I would even say to him, "This is rape. This makes me hate you. I want you to stop."
And he would cry at me, you know, over those things.
And I thought finally if somebody outside of me was telling him that this was an offence, that this is a crime, that maybe he would go get help, that maybe he would change what he was doing. And I guess because of that level of manipulation towards myself and all the apologies that, you know, men like this do that I've heard from so many other women, that cycle of abuse, is that none of that stuff was true and that he had no intention of ever changing.
And it was when I finally saw, you know, for the last time that he had no intention of ever changing was when I decided that, okay, he's just told me all of this. I need to come and make that statement. And the difference between having a police officer that doesn't understand family violence, doesn't understand the manipulation, is that on her day off, she came into the station, she got me in straightaway, and we started to get that statement then and there before he had time to apologise, before I got had time to regret or second guess what I was thinking and doing.
And she got that statement. And once that statement was done, I did not back down. I did not retract it. But it took that officer to do that. If she hadn't have done that, it would be a very different story. And, you know, that's the difference between having police officers that understand, you know, family violence, understand the manipulation, understand the all of those factors is the difference between having a good experience with police versus a bad experience with police. So in that regard, I was very lucky. But and it started to overturn some of those other poor experiences that I'd had with police up until that point.
MS EASTMAN: What about your experience with the police officer who responded in the way you have described as understanding disability and that interaction between your ex being your intimate partner but also your carer and the person on whom at times you relied on for support? Do you feel that the police officer understood and appreciated that aspect of the relationship and the impact it was having on you?
MS LEE: I think to some point she did. But she didn't know of what services were available and nothing was offered. So I remember being given the car keys to drive myself home and was I going to be okay to get home on my own. You know, they'd removed my carer and they knew he was my carer, but I don't think they were aware of what services were available. No questions like, well, what are your immediate needs right now. You know, I what do you need to go home and stay home safely on your own? None of those questions were asked.
Whether or not they assumed that Child Protection would do that, whether or not they assumed that a family violence service would do that, but they didn't do that, and none of those other services did that either until I went to them and just said, "I am desperate and I need help."
MS EASTMAN: Okay. All right. Going to the police and making a statement is step one in a criminal justice process. The criminal charges ended up being heard in the County Court, but your ex pleaded guilty. So you didn't have to appear at a trial and give evidence. Is that right? But you went to court and you went to watch the sentence, his sentence. So were you in court when the judge delivered the sentencing remarks?
MS LEE: I was at a remote witness facility.
MS EASTMAN: Okay. And you've got a copy of the transcript of the sentencing remarks.
MS LEE: Yes, I do.
MS EASTMAN: I think you are going to provide those
MS LEE: I will send those through. Yep.
MS EASTMAN: Not today, but you will send those through to us. So you said in the statement that he pleaded guilty and ultimately convicted and was sentenced to two and a half years' jail and four years' Community Corrections upon release. He also had to attend a Men's Behaviour Change program. He still thinks he is the victim. In the sentencing hearing, the judge described your ex as:
"A loving, caring, hardworking husband and father."
And that's what you've taken out of the sentencing remarks. And he described you this
"Riddled with problems."
And that it was a "sad and tragic situation." When you reflect on those comments, you were positioned as the problem. The judge, in your view, suggested that your ex husband was pushed too far and that your mental health was the cause of his offending. When you read those remarks on sentencing, there's no acknowledgment or realising that it's your ex's violence that was the cause of your mental health issues or, as I think you've told me, that you were even seen as a person in this.
So this has caused you to perhaps have not the best view about the court process and and what would you like to sort of tell us about that experience of the court process? This is a person who has pleaded guilty, so obviously all of the information has to be before the judge relevant to the sentencing. As a victim of crime, how did you feel about that?
MS LEE: I feel let down. I still wonder, if he hadn't pled guilty, I would have had a very, very different outcome. It has broken down my trust with the criminal justice system for myself, for other disabled women, for women with complex mental health. Nobody comes out of a violent family violence relationship or, you know, intimate partner relationship without some pretty deeply damaged mental health, and then that mental health is used against you in that courtroom, whether it be in a trial or a sentencing hearing.
And if I'm copping those sentence those remarks for a man that is pleading guilty, we have a problem with our patriarchal court systems in this country and they need to be overhauled from the ground up to represent render them safe. We're not safe in those environments. We are disbelieved, we are blamed, and and, you know, the carers and the men are positioned as being loving and caring. No loving and caring person rapes their wife for 10 years straight.
No loving and caring husband breaks their wife's ribs. No loving and caring husband rapes their wife on the kitchen floor unconscious and positions it as a punishment. That is not loving and caring. And that judge had those comments. He had those charges. That I was anally raped on my kitchen floor and the judge still classed him as a loving and caring husband. You know, that's just so emblematic of how we're failing women across the board in our criminal justice system, in particular disabled women when the person is a carer, when that care relationship is involved.
And that for me has put me in a position where no matter what happens to me moving forward, it would have to take something deeply, deeply serious for me to want to go back into that courtroom and be subjected to that narrative again, to have my life torn apart. You know, when it came to being a witness in a sentencing hearing because, you know, I didn't have to take the stand I became a list of charges. The person who I was, my dreams, my aspirations, my individuality, my motherhood, everything was stripped away, and I became a list of charges of what this man did.
They are clinical. They are graphic to hear. I was there by myself. His entire family there were there to hear that. You know, I no longer had an identity, and that had been removed from the process. He was given the opportunity to have an identity and to have a statement read out as to why he'd offended and who he was and character witnesses. But I was just a string of what a man had chosen to do to me.
And this is the one really clear point I wanted to make in all of this, is that, you know, a man was the one who chose to abuse me over and over. That was his choice and his choice alone. But the system also made a choice to turn their back, to turn the other way and to dismiss what I was saying, and that was the system's choice. But at the crux of this, this is the choice of a man, and it usually is the choice of men to abuse us. And the salt in the wound is the system that turns their back on us.
MS EASTMAN: It's easier to look away, isn't it?
MS LEE: It is easier to look away. It's easier to look away and disbelieve that the you
know, we have this issue of carer pedestal. You know, carers are placed on this pedestal as being self sacrificing, loving, caring people that, you know, take on us as these horrible burdens in the world to be looked after. And we're not. We're people. We're individuals.
We have dreams. We have hopes. We have, you know, feelings. We're not burdens. We're not vulnerable. This person was vulnerable to abusing his position of power in that situation.
MS EASTMAN: You've said when carers are put on pedestals in this way, it allows the abuse to be explained away or excused as carer burn out because they are taking on this burden of caring for a partner or a family member because they have a disability. All right. Do you want to talk about, "leaving would be like jumping out of a burning building"? That's your experience expression.
MS LEE: Yeah. Yes.
MS EASTMAN: What do you want to so this comes back we have touched on this a little bit, which is what to do in this situation of ongoing pattern of violence and where to go.
And I want to ask you about this, and then if you also then want to talk about what the experience now with the NDIS looks like in terms of supports. Do you want to talk about that?
MS LEE: Yes. So when I when I mentioned like, the sort of jumping from the burning building and not knowing whether anybody was going to be there to catch you, we're not given much in the way of education around what it is that we can ask for, that we're allowed to speak up. For a lot of us, we have had disempowering experiences across the course of our lifetime, and this is the issue with that intersection of ableism and sexism. So this is very prevalent for women with disabilities where other people are making decisions and we don't think that we are allowed to make decisions for ourselves.
So we stop speaking up, we stop asking questions, and we stop, you know, reaching for help. But if we're not armed with the information to make informed choices, supported informed decision making capacity, you know, we're expecting somebody with without any knowledge to all of a sudden make an empowered, informed decision from a completely and utterly disempowered and, you know, completely uninformed position and wondering that why we're failing.
And it keeps getting put back on us. And that's one of the things I put into my statement was that I still do feel like a failure as a survivor. I'm not the woman who got up to say, "Enough is enough. I can't do this anymore. I'm leaving. The relationship is over." It took other people to step in. And while that is a really complex conversation to have around people stepping in and taking away someone's choices, is that, you know, it had gotten to the point where I was no longer capable of making that choice.
I was no longer capable of doing what was going to keep me safe. I did everything I thought my partner wanted me to do. I did everything I thought that was going to keep me safe in that relationship. I didn't think I had rights. I didn't know what to ask for. I didn't think anything was out there. I didn't know any other way to live. And this is a failing of our system. This is a failing of our education system, respectful relationships, where we're talking to women and girls around what is and is not the right thing for a carer to do?
You know, what abuse looks like. Even down to informed formal supports. You know, what should a carer be doing for you in a shower? Where do you have body autonomy?
We're not given this education. We're we have people making decisions for us, so we just go quiet. We just think everybody is in that driving seat. They know what to do. They have got the right answers and we trust those people. And we haven't been empowered to be empowered women like able bodied women. So we tolerate. We put up with and we don't think that we're allowed to have a voice.
MS EASTMAN: No. I want to turn to the end of your statement and, with your permission, can I read paragraph 68 to 70? Have a look at that. If you prefer to read it, please do.
MS LEE: Yeah.
MS EASTMAN: Do you want to read it? I would like to you read it, but if you
MS LEE: I can
MS EASTMAN: If you feel like you have had enough, I'm very happy to jump in and read that for you. So you say
MS LEE: So was it 68?
MS EASTMAN: Yes, 68. Being seen for my strengths.
MS LEE: I'm viewed for the things that I can't do rather than my strengths. I was viewed for my deficits when I was living with a violent partner, not how I managed to actively live in a volatile environment. People should take a strengths based approach. I was not believed, not just because I had a physical disability, but more because of my mental health condition. I was completely and utterly dismissed and my ex would say, "You're crazy. Who is going to believe you? " It was quite shocking.
People refused to see the role and the impact of trauma and why someone completely shuts down or is frightened and trying to escape and not understanding this is because she has trauma, which is physiological responses. Community attitudes about people with disabilities are ahead of attitudes we encounter in the courtroom, hospitals, police, and Child Protection departments.
MS EASTMAN: And when you've told your story often people go, "So, Ms Lee, how are you now?" And hoping that there will be a really good news story. And you've talked about resilience and the impact of trauma, which is life long and long lasting. You over the past few years have really become the voice of people and women with disability who have experienced family violence. And you've shared your personal story, may I say, at some personal cost to you.
It's exhausting. It takes its toll. And you've told us that. It's hard to switch off at the end of the day when you carry this trauma, but you are also speaking for others. So we are really very indebted to you in sharing your story today. But this is an opportunity for you to tell the Royal Commission what needs to change. And I know you've got many views about
what needs to change and you've touched on it in a very short way in your statement. But what does need to change? What would make a difference to you, reflecting back on your experiences?
MS LEE: Well, some of the things
MS EASTMAN: (Indistinct).
MS LEE: Yeah, I reflect back on in my experience is the fact that which I understand now is the fact that the disability sector, the mental health sector and the family violence sector are all completely and utterly siloed. There is no cross sector collaboration happening
within this country. You go to one area, "That's not our responsibility. That's the responsibility of this one" and vice versa. There is no cross sector collaboration.
We're seeing in this our action plans. The Women's Safety Plan has you know, it does not speak to the Disability Plan, and the Disability Plan does not have recommendations that force it to speak to the you know, the Women's Safety Plan. Sorry. It's sorry, can you repeat that again, sorry.
MS EASTMAN: Today's really been about bearing witness to your experiences. It's not asking you to have to be the activist today.
MS LEE: Yep.
MS EASTMAN: And it's not asking you today to come up with a catalogue of recommendations and changes. It is hard to be the activist, as you have said, which is exhausting, and it is hard to switch off. If you wanted the opportunity today to talk about where you think change is needed, then I know the Commissioners want to listen to what you have to say. Having said that, that may not be the last time. As many people know with this Royal Commission, we come back, we revisit and we re engage.
So if you feel that today that's not a topic you want to talk about, that's fine. But if there
are particular things you thought, "Right, I've got the Commissioners here today", you can square them up, look them in the eye and be very direct in telling them what you think needs to change and what they need to hear as they consider their recommendations. Then I would like to you have that opportunity to do so.
MS LEE: Okay. Well, the NDIS has no lens around gender based violence and that issues that women face. You know, it's constantly I've been in the NDIS for six years now. It is constantly feeling more and more like a money saving versus what is in the best interests of the person, from the person's perspective. You know, to be asked, am I happy in my home? Well, no, I wasn't happy into my home, and what would they do if I did say I wasn't happy? What would they do if I said I wasn't safe?
I think NDIS is the structure that we need that can give us that opportunity to be safe, that gives us autonomy and supported autonomy, supported independent decision making. And that is not being utilised. When we're going into the planning sessions how many partners, how many violent carers, partners, workers are coming in with clients and not being asked to step out of the room? The NDIS is an opportunity, every year every 12 months, every two years to do a basic risk assessment with individuals.
I have been saying this for years since I first started my advocacy within the Victorian Government. We do risk assessments with the NDIA around, you know, a financial risk that the participant holds to the system, to the scheme and not actually a risk assessment as to whether or not the supports we are putting in place, whether or not this person is living in a safe environment. Whether or not they are safe from violence. And we're not doing those risk assessments.
And that is a failing because that is an opportunity that we could be having an individual on their own, doing proper deep, embedded, you know, training and education with planners so that they know what to do, how to respond, the questions to ask and how to ask them so that it is safe. Asking the carer to leave the room and have that, "I just need a five minute conversation with so and so so that we can just you know, just a quick conversation. I will get you to step out." It's not a big ask.
MS EASTMAN: Is it looking for those flags?
MS LEE: It's looking for those flags.
MS EASTMAN: If you know what you are looking for
MS LEE: Yeah, and it's more
MS EASTMAN: And you're aware of them you can ask the right questions and
MS LEE: Yes. Yes, it's more than just some, you know, one on one DV training for NDIA
staff, you know, NDIA planners, LACs. This is actually training that is talking to them to be able to identify what are the high risk indicators. So it's not going through a checklist, like you have, "Oh, so do you experience this? Do you experience this?" It's having the conversation with the person with key kind of questions where you are attuned to what are the high risk indicators so proper family violence training with the staff versus just some education on what violence is with actually no support around how to ask these questions, what to look out for or what actions to take.
So, you know, it needs to be this multi pronged approach so they are asking the right questions, they do know what to be listening out for in that conversation, and then they're able to make the right referrals for this person and to do it in a safe environment, a safe way. It is not safe to ask a person risk assessments with a with a carer in the room. It is
not safe to do it over the phone, because we're doing phone consults at the moment because of COVID.
It is not safe to have those conversations with someone when you do not know who is listening. That puts people in danger. That will lead to violence. That will lead to family violence deaths. You know, those things we know within the family violence sector as risks, but the disability sector, the NDIS, do not identify those things as risks because they don't have that knowledge.
MS EASTMAN: So you think so having something in place at the NDIA level would be an important initiative.
MS LEE: A really important initiative in having some policies and procedures and actual guidelines of what to do when someone discloses and for all of those things to be developed with the people with the context knowledge, so the right organisations, the right people in that room to help develop this and then oversee what that looks like.
And then to do a smaller program so that that can actually be trusted before it is rolled out across the country and be failing and be creating more dangerous situations, be creating more vulnerable environments for people to live in. You know, bringing in the right people to consult with and continuing to consult with and continuing to develop and iterate these any of these things that they're developing moving forward. You know, violence isn't static. And we know that these things change.
And the other thing that we understand is we know risk changes to for an individual over time. So it can't be a one off thing either. It is something that needs to be done again and again and again, because somebody's risk can change within a week let alone 12 months.
MS EASTMAN: Do any initiatives of this kind need to be and I will use that expression co designed
MS LEE: Yes.
MS EASTMAN: But led by people with disability to really understand those intersections are between gender, disability and also to really be able to identify ableism and understand it?
MS LEE: Mmm.
MS EASTMAN: So it should be led by people with disability.
MS LEE: It should be led by people with disability. It should be led by people with disability from the very beginning when we are actually formulating trying to work out what is the problem that we need to solve, how are we going to go about it, that problem solving phase, to developing a framework around how we are going to do consultations. How are we going to collaborate. So this this idea of, you know, co design, co led, co produced and then co delivered as well is really vital.
You know, consultation is not enough. You know, experts with disability, women with disabilities who are experts in this field need to be brought in at the ground level from the very beginning and be involved in that process the whole way along and be continually brought in to go over how it is working. How it is being implemented. How successful it is and what do we need to change. You know, ongoing in that process too.
MS EASTMAN: Ms Lee, thank you for the conversation. I will ask the Commissioners they may have some questions of you.
MS LEE: Yeah.
MS EASTMAN: But thank you very much for sharing your personal experiences today and also just talking about what needs to change. And I know there's a lot more in addition to the matters that we've touched on, but you've certainly given us a lot of food for thought today. Commissioners.
CHAIR: Thank you very much, Ms Lee. I will ask first Commissioner Bennett whether she has any questions to put to you.
COMMISSIONER BENNETT: No, I don't. I just want to say thank you so much for sharing your experience and observations that you made about the areas where changes need to be made. Thank you.
CHAIR: Commissioner Mason?
COMMISSIONER MASON: Yes, thank you, Chair. Look, I just want to say thank you for your evidence today and also for being part of the movement of people today who are really activating change, as you talked about being someone with content and context to what needs to change. I was interested in your statement around the value the active value of disability advocates, and when you were going through those 10 years of abuse, they seemed to be not present in your life.
Your partner had a disability, you had a disability, you were with the NDIS, you were interacting with different systems, and that is changing. I'm just interested from you to hear have we crossed a threshold? Is there enough people who now know about these intersectionalities? Are there enough people who have created safe places, whether they are service providers or other safe places for those conversations to be had with women with disabilities?
Are those disability advocates in the room where those conversations need to happen, as you were saying, so that women can understand and have knowledge about what they have a right to have and to exercise that through their voice and through activating supports around them? So I was interested in that.
MS LEE: We have so many experts. We have so many, you know, women researchers, advocates, activists out there, and I think we have we have shifted in some ways, but I think we're really stagnant in other ways. I think the political will to do this deeply and thoroughly is missing, and, you know, we can see that with the current NDIS Bill, you know, before Parliament at the moment. You know, we are watching our NDIS slowly being dismantled.
Now, a government that is purely if they are dedicated to ending this violence, if they are dedicated to implementing this report, if they are dedicated to changing our lives then, you know, making it harder for people to access, to have choice and control, you know, to have the NDIS that was first envisioned, you know, they wouldn't be doing these things. They wouldn't be dismantling it. They'd be bringing in the right experts and they'd be talking to the right people when needed as needed and more regularly.
And I'm not seeing that part of it happen. I am seeing organisations, I am seeing individuals, who have you know, it is getting louder. Things have shifted within our community. But I don't see the response from those who have the power to change the system, those who have to, you know that need to acknowledge that, "Yes, as a government we have failed and we understand that and we are sorry. And we are committed, no matter how harsh a report might be or how harsh the reality of the failings might be, we are and we do and we have a plan of how to change that." That I'm not seeing.
It's it's very hard and it's shocking to see that all the right words in all the right places, "we must" and "we should", but no tangible change in rates, no tangible actual effort has been made, nothing being tendered around how to, no targets. You know, it's I think the fear of being criticised outweighs our right to live free, safe and independently in this community like everybody else carries more weight than our rights right now. But it's not from lack of us speaking up. It's not from lack of us saying something.
And, you know, that's the piece that needs to shift. We can only do so much but we need them to start actually bringing us into the room, having us at the table, and, you know, committing deeply, no matter how poor the light is, no matter how unglossy the work might be. That's the commitment that is failing. That's missing.
COMMISSIONER MASON: Thank you. Commissioner Commissioner Galbally.
COMMISSIONER GALBALLY: I have no questions but I want to thank you so much, Ms Lee. That was really very profound and courageous. Thank you so much.
MS LEE: Thank you.
CHAIR: If you don't mind, I just did have a question about what you've described as basically financial exploitation when you were forced to sell your house. I take it the house was yours in the sense that you were the owner of it?
MS LEE: Yes.
CHAIR: You've described how you were forced to sign an agreement with, I think, an estate agent to put the house on the market. I'm interested in what opportunities there were, just as you've described with other people who were involved with you in one way or another providing you with assistance or advice, as to what happened thereafter. When the property in order to sell a property obviously someone has to make an offer, whether at auction or otherwise. Can you just describe what happened? Because I'm interested also whether you had a solicitor and whether the solicitor ever met you, and how it came for that property to go from the stage of "oh, we will put it on the market" to actually being sold.
MS LEE: No, I didn't have any communication with a solicitor. It was hold the property
was belonged to myself and my uncle. We had he was my mother's brother.
CHAIR: I see.
MS LEE: I didn't get to meet with the you know, with the lawyer around what my options were. I know there was one that what's executing my grandmother's estate. And, you
know, I didn't have involvement with that but my uncle did and my husband did through all of that. I was also I remember my psychiatrist saying, "Look, I can get you out of this." But at that point my ex husband had gone and put a deposit on another house.
CHAIR: Yes, I saw that.
MS LEE: the current house I live in. I'm still in debt with that. I pay that off to this day.
He left me with that debt. He paid too much for it, $50,000 far too much on the house. He didn't bargain on it. I don't know whether that was deliberate, to put us in debt to keep me more stuck. It was in a location in Melbourne with no public transport so I was isolated.
And when my psychiatrist made that offer to me, and it was like, well, I can't. I'm on a pension. If we do not follow through with this sale I am in out of pocket $35,000. I do not have that money. You know, we were living from week to week on a disability pension raising two children.
CHAIR: So you felt you had to go on with it.
MS LEE: I had to. I had no choice. I had to go on with it otherwise I would not only have just I lost my house that my mother had worked so hard to secure a stable home for myself and my children, but then I would also be in a debt that I just couldn't in my life imagine that I would ever have the capacity to pay that off. And and and he did that to me. Like that was I can't see other than any other way as that as being a deliberate way to force me to do what he wanted into to do. To force me into a position where I was disconnected from the world. And and I didn't have any communications with what were my rights in all of that. Other than as a psychiatrist saying "I can say that you weren't mentally capable of signing the paperwork."
CHAIR: That's why I asked, I what I wanted to see
MS LEE: That's was all I got, was the "You were not mentally capable of signing the paperwork" and the response was, "Well the financial position leaves me with no choice because it is worse than the option, the other option."
CHAIR: Thank you. I repeat what my colleagues have said. We are very grateful to you for coming in. Thank you, again, for coming to the Royal Commission, because of course you have given evidence before, and as we know that you have made submissions and assisted with other submissions. So you have made enormous contributions to the Royal Commission and we are really very grateful to you. So thank you very much.
MS LEE: Thanks for having me.
MS EASTMAN: Commissioners, now adjourn for lunch. So it's a little bit later than we perhaps expected but if we could take one hour.
CHAIR: All right. Well it's nearly 1.40 Hobart time. So if we resume at 2:40 Hobart time that will be okay?
MS EASTMAN: Yes, that's right. Then we will have Claire's evidence.
CHAIR: Thank you. Thank you very much, Ms Lee.
MS LEE: Thank you.
WITNESS WITHDREW 1:37 PM
ADJOURNED 1:37 PM
RESUMED 3:03 PM
CHAIR: Yes, Ms Eastman.
MS EASTMAN: Thank you, Commissioners. So there is a little few matters I need to attend to. The first, if we could tender Nicole Lee's statement.
MS EASTMAN: And if you could mark the statement 17.11.1.
CHAIR: Yes, Ms Lee's statement will be admitted into evidence and given the marking of Exhibit 17.11.1.
EXHIBIT 17.11.1 STATEMENT OF NICOLE LEE
MS EASTMAN: The next witness is Claire. And Claire uses a pseudonym. And, Commissioners, you have a copy of Claire's statement, and I will tender that statement now. If you could mark Claire's statement Exhibit 17.12.1.
CHAIR: Yes, the statement of Claire will be admitted into evidence with that marking, that is, Exhibit 17.12.1.
EXHIBIT 17.12.1 STATEMENT OF CLAIRE
MS EASTMAN: And I understand Claire has confirmed that the contents of her statement are true and correct. And at this point, we will now move to the Brisbane hearing room and Ms Fraser will read Ms or Claire's statement. Thank you.
CHAIR: Yes, thank you. Thank you. Yes, Ms Fraser.
MS FRASER: I am a woman living with a degenerative physical condition. I was diagnosed with this condition when I was 7 years old. I first began to experience difficulty walking
from around 12 years of age. Over a six year period from the age of 12 to 18, I began to have difficulty walking up hills and sloping ground; then uneven surfaces, such as footpaths and sand; then stairs; then sitting to standing. This meant that the community and social activities became progressively inaccessible to me. I started using a powered wheelchair for my daily mobility in my late 20s.
There was no legal instrument to enforce disability access until I was in my 20s, when the Disability Discrimination Act was introduced. The social transformation that this piece of legislation began has been slow, and I spent much of my youth and early adult life experiencing a lack of access and equal opportunity.
I have a diverse range of interests and skills, and I have maintained my current employment for 15 years. I have also been an active volunteer across various community activities.
I enjoy playing sports rather than watching them. In my childhood, I played badminton and loved the trampoline and swimming. When I started using a powered wheelchair, I got back into competitive sports and competed in state and national competitions and was selected to play for Australia. I used a powered wheelchair to get around. I have limited use of my arms. I have a support worker with me most of the time. There are probably four or five hours a day where I don't have support and an opportunity for privacy.
While my interests are diverse, I don't always get to pursue everything I'm interested in because my own care needs take up a lot of time. Having people around me in my personal private space who are working in a formal capacity, impacts on my ability to be in my own ‘mind space’ and to make my own plans and choices and be able to action those plans and choices.
Planning social and recreational activities can be a real struggle because there is so much involved in matching support needs with available resources and skills of support workers. Over the years, I have given up on planning too much in advance.
I really enjoy my work. I had studied a Bachelor of Social Work prior to my current employment. What I really love about my role is that I get to check on people's welfare, identify their vulnerabilities, talk through their options and refer them to places where they can get where they can connect and get support.
I grew up in a remote area between two small townships, each having a population of no more than 500 people. Opportunities for socialising with friends after school and on weekends were very limited due to restricted transport and my parents' working hours.
I experienced birth trauma and was very unwell with recurring bronchitis for the first five years of my life. It was suspected that I may have cystic fibrosis, but it wasn't so. I stuttered for a period during these younger years, and I recall memories of inappropriate behaviours being directed towards me that will not be disclosed as part of this statement.
I was diagnosed as having a degenerative physical condition when I was about 7 years old. Little was known about the condition back then. I was made aware at diagnosis that the condition primarily affected males, not females. My diagnosis at that time was rare. I was also made aware that my prognosis was uncertain and that males with a childhood onset of the condition often experienced a shortened lifespan and could not physically mobilise themselves independently, requiring a powered wheelchair and care.
I went to school in a country town until I was 12 years old. My condition first became noticeable during high school, which coincided with me moving to a boarding school. I was an A grade student; however, I started to be slower at running, and getting up and out of chairs became more difficult.
At the boarding school, ramps and railings were installed around the external buildings to assist me to access the school buildings. I am not sure who funded these. I felt shy about how much effort had been put into making it easier for me to access the school. Because of where the boarding school was located, I was able to attend physiotherapy and hydrotherapy sessions during the school term. I attended the boarding school for one and a half years before returning to the local country school I had been to before. This meant that the friendships I had formed through my schooling got broken. It was hard to keep in touch. There was no internet. We were always mindful of phone bills, and I lived a long way away.
When I returned to the country school after boarding school, I got teased and bullied a lot about walking funny. I had had a higher level of education at the boarding school, and I was dissatisfied when I returned to the country school. The other students would tease me about the way I spoke. I was embarrassed about my disability and the different ways I had adopted to do things. It made me feel abnormal and like I wasn't valued.
I was scared that I would be institutionalised because, in those days, that's what happened to people with disability. This stopped me reaching out for formal support and intervention.
I experienced a lot of bullying at school about having a disability, about the way that I walked and what was happening to me. I developed a lot of social anxiety during my teenage years, when my physical mobility began to rapidly decline. As well as being mocked and called names at school, when I was in the community people would stare at the way I walked and negotiated stairs.
Many times, I would fall over and need assistance from a stranger to stand up. If I went to a café or restaurant, I needed a solid table and to wear certain shoes and certain floor surfaces to be able to stand again, so sometimes I would need a stranger to assist me to stand from sitting.
The lack of physical access in the community generated a lot of anxiety. A lot of thought and energy went into planning how to physically access the community for basic things such as shopping, visiting friends, etcetera.
Often I would prefer to stand rather than sit and developed an ability to stand for hours on end without sitting just to avoid people seeing me trying to mobilise. As my arms grew weaker, I would avoid people seeing me lift a drink to my mouth. As my arms and legs weakened, I developed unusual techniques to perform daily living tasks and I didn't want people to see me or to stare at me.
As a teenager and young adult, losing physical mobility to attend to my own personal care needs really impacted on my ability to develop a positive outlook. My teenage and young adult life experience was one where my healthcare card was stamped "invalid" and where goods and services, public transport and accommodation were becoming increasingly inaccessible to me because there was no requirement to provide disability access and climbing stairs was becoming increasingly difficult to negotiate. There was no taxi subsidy scheme back then, so the costs of travel to access education, work, social activities and medical appointments had to be managed carefully, often resulting in my inability to attend.
When I was diagnosed with my condition, it was in the mid 70s. It was a very traumatic thing for my parents and our extended family. They didn't know what was going to happen to me. In some ways, I felt that perhaps our extended family shied away from us after my diagnosis. But perhaps my parents may not have been comfortable receiving help and support. I think sometimes the impact of having this type of disability can bring families together or they can make people run a mile, so to speak. Or perhaps families with disabilities close themselves off.
Perhaps the medical profession frightened my partners when I was diagnosed. Perhaps they might have felt guilt and shame about my diagnosis and tried to cope as a small unit, bearing all responsibility and masking over things when they weren't okay, not knowing how to address the emotional trauma I was experiencing.
The service systems at the time were quite negative about my condition and didn't know much about what would happen. It was very foreign for them. I don't recall having
frequent medical check ups or service interventions until I began receiving home care assistance when I was around 28 years old, although medical observation continues to be an issue. Individually funded support packages were rare in those days. The main source of receiving care was institutional and/or through large providers who received block funding directly from the Commonwealth, state and local governments and raised additional financial resources through grants and fund raising. Disability support services were largely associated with being a charitable cause, and that seemed to be the ingrained viewpoint of Australian society.
I remember the phone call from my sibling when the Disability Discrimination Act was introduced. Excited, as they were, that legally I could no longer be denied access to employment, transport, buildings and venues, and things were going to change. Although things didn't change overnight, the gradual transformation that has occurred throughout the past 30 years is very encouraging. Young Australians living with disability today do have greater access to buildings and public transport, and for the most part are no longer viewed as a cause for charity.
We are empowered with information, choice and control through individual support plans and have capacity to directly employ and engage our preferred support teams. However, challenges remain, particularly in the delivery of support services. In the process of preparing my evidence for the Royal Commission memories have returned to me that I have pushed down for many years. One of them is something that happened to me when I was 14 years old.
I attended a wedding reception with my parents. The bride's brother started talking to me. He was older than me, maybe in his early 20s old enough to drive. He asked me for a dance, then if I wanted a drink. We were talking about music, and I mentioned a particular album he liked. He said, "That's a good album. If you like, we could go to my car and listen
to it." I agreed, and we went to his car and got in and started listening to some music.
Then my vision started going. And I was feeling like I was having trouble moving. I said to him, "I can't see." I remember he said, "Oh, someone's coming" but then he drove the car off with me in and it into the bush. I just remember him parking the car erratically and then saying, "Now I'm going to do something I could get in trouble for." And he raped me.
Afterwards, he immediately drove back, parked the car and quickly joined the reception. He left me in the car. I was having great difficulty mobilising. I couldn't feel my body. I felt paralysed. My mother and her friend found me lying on the ground in the garden on the lawn with my pants down to my knees. The two of them carried me up to my bedroom, and I remember saying, "I need to see him. I need to see him." I kept trying to get up, but my legs were going out from under me. I was paralysed. I couldn't walk. All I had was half a drink. He must have spiked it.
There was a bit of a scene because I did manage, after several attempts, to get down the hallway a bit, but then my mum saw me and her friend and took me back to my room.
I don't remember ever being asked about what had happened or if I was okay. I know I felt like they just thought I was a naughty schoolgirl that had gotten so drunk and infatuated with this guy. I think that's how it was masked over. In future relationships, I excused partner violence and abuse by taking the responsibility upon myself.
I remember about three years later, when I was about 17, I was catching up with some friends from boarding school and we went out for a drink. One of the girls came back from the bar and said, "Ugh!" We asked her what had happened and she pointed to a guy and said, "That guy gives me the creeps. He came right up behind me and wrapped his arms around me from behind so I couldn't move. He's creepy." I asked her who it was. And she said his name. It was the same man who had raped me. I don't think I would have been the only person who he has done this to.
Eventually, I did talk about what had happened with friends and with a partner. But I have never spoken to my family members about it.
I don't really think I knew how to cope with the situation of being sexually assaulted at age 14. I didn't want to cause a scene, as the man was related to my father's employer. I was so naive. I think because there was no explanation sorry, no expectation - that I would ever have relationships - or maybe because my parents were protecting me, not wanting me to get disappointed because no man would want me - I don't remember conversations about protecting myself, about how boys and men behave, about being careful. So when this happened, I felt like I had done something wrong. Like I had somehow brought this upon myself.
I think that this experience contributed to the difficulty I had recognising sexual assault and rape later on, and to seeing it as a violation and as unacceptable. Instead, I went through more than one sexual assault without really recognising how traumatic it was and what a violation it was and not knowing what to do or what options were available to me. I was blaming myself, thinking I had put myself in that situation. The lack of response from my family didn't give me confidence that I could go to them or to other people in my life for support or comfort.
I have experienced domestic violence on more than one occasion in different intimate partner relationships.
In my late teenage years, as my condition worsened, it was getting harder for me to manage things like stairs, transport, and personal care. Things like transfers from sitting to standing and getting to the bathroom were becoming more difficult. The physical effort that it took to get to the bathroom would mean that I would experience incontinence. It was very embarrassing, and I tried to hide it. This was very stressful.
I didn't have any access to or want any formal support services because I thought this meant that I would become institutionalised. So I became reliant on the person that I was in a relationship with to provide these types of things to me. My activities during the day then became contingent on that person and what they wanted to do themselves, and then I was either tagging along with them or staying at home and waiting until they came back. I didn't want to access any formal support services because I didn't know what was available and how the service worked.
In those days, my impression of disability services was of those that were institutional and charitable. That didn't align with my hopes and dreams of experiencing life to the full: travelling, studying and working. I was scared that if I started to make inquiries about receiving support and assistance for my daily living needs that I would become institutionalised, controlled and trapped, unable to make my own decisions and unable to go out with friends or travel.
I think I have a tendency to over-empathise with people because I have a degenerative condition and I know what it's like to be an outsider, not of the social norm, to be discriminated against, to experience real emotional hurt. When you lose your
independence like I have, there is a lot of grief and loss. I didn't recognise what I was experiencing as grief and loss until I was in my mid 30s. From being a teenager through to my mid 30s I would often become frustrated, angry and depressed and have outbursts.
On reflection, I think that during my various intimate relationships, I was externalising what was happening to me to these people I had entered relationships with. I could see their
grief and loss, and I empathised with them. I thought that their hurt explained why sometimes they lost control with me. I made excuses for their outbursts and took responsibility for their behaviour upon myself.
In some ways, it was like I wanted to protect them, and I suppose I felt grateful for the assistance they provided me. They would say things to me like, "You couldn't do this
without me." And, unfortunately, this was true. Because I wasn't receiving any formal support services, I was dependent upon informal supports for my daily needs. I was too embarrassed to let the friends I cherished know what was happening to me, ultimately withdrawing from friends and family.
The first relationship I had with a guy, I will call Person 1. I was about 17 years old. This relationship lasted about six months.
I was reliant on taxis to get around at the time, to get to the shops, to work, to social activities. But in those days, there was no taxi subsidy scheme for people with disability, so I couldn't afford to use them all the time. When I used taxis, I would need the driver to assist me to get out of the vehicle. I had quite a few experiences where their hands went into the wrong places whilst they were helping me out of the taxi. I would have anxiety about
getting taxis and who I was going to get as a driver. When I reported it, it didn't go down well, and I felt like no one was validating my experience. I often felt I was experiencing repercussions for reporting incidents. This also contributed to feeling like I was not of value or worthy. Having these kinds of things happen was very upsetting and contributed to my overall sense of wellness (or lack of) and safety. It created anxieties and contributed to feeling angry. This was a terribly young age to be dealing with these kinds of experiences and feelings.
Person 1 would provide me with physical support, transport, and things like that. But he
was very controlling about what we did. I would make myself available when he was available to me. There was an element of reliance there. When I tried to end the relationship, Person 1 asked me how I could do this to him after everything he had done for me. I felt guilty and I didn't want to let him down.
When people help you, you want to show your appreciation. When you are in an intimate relationship, it's hard to separate that gratitude from the relationship as a whole. He threatened to kill himself. He went and visited some people in my apartment block, telling them that he was going to kill himself because I was breaking up with him and then the neighbours were unhappy with me. I think they thought I was disrespecting him and was not grateful for how he helped me. They would say things like, "How can you hurt him like this when he does so much for you? When he's helping you?"
After I ended things with Person 1, he started coming to my house frequently to check up on me. He would drive around and around the block of units that I lived in, sometimes with his friends in the car, and his friends would call out. He would also do things like look through my windows. Once he broke into my apartment. I think that he only stopped this behaviour once he noticed that I had a male friend. That was when I started seeing Person 2.
I started seeing Person 2 soon after things ended with Person 1. I met him through some friends of mine. He was much older than me. He was a really nice guy, and I don't think I had any problems with him. He had had cancer and introduced me to the idea of being able to heal as well as to philosophy and things like that. He had PTSD, though, and there was an incident that triggered it and he just left without telling anyone. He just disappeared. That was very upsetting. The relationship with Person 2 lasted about six months.
About three months after Person 2 disappeared, I met Person 3. We had a bit of an on off relationship for about a year. This was a difficult relationship. He had some mental health issues, and I didn't understand anything about these kinds of things. I don't remember exactly what the nature of his mental illness was or if he identified it to me, but he used to say he was “crazy” and told me he was taking medication. He was abusive and controlling. He moved into the house next door to me.
When I was with Person 1, I was working in government services. I left the job when I was with Person 3 because I was taking lots of leave and feeling guilty about not being at work.
If Person 3 had had a bad night and was keeping me awake telling how depressed he was, I would be too tired to go to work the next day. The job was also quite up quite a large
flight of stairs, and it was getting harder to get up them. That contributed to not feeling very confident or comfortable in my workplace.
I tried breaking up with Person 3 over and over again. When I did this, he would tell me that he was going to kill himself. Person 3 had told me that he had attempted suicide in the past, prior to the relationship with me. I was not equipped to deal with someone like this in my life. I didn't know how to cope with the situation. They were some pretty rough times.
Person 3 became very physically violent with me one night. I had been out with a friend and returned home, and he just appeared. He was living next door at this stage and just came across to my place. He pushed me up against the fridge. He was really angry and upset.
Then he carried me over to his house, and he threw me against the floor and just went crazy, yelling. I remember looking over to him and thinking, "I just have to let him do whatever he wants to do" because I couldn't do or say anything because it was setting him off.
There was no reasoning with him. I couldn't get away, and it was very scary. The violent incident escalated to sexual assault. I tried to call out, but the people he was living with didn't want to get involved. I had some friends who I lived with next door. I must have told them what had happened with Person 3 because they arranged for me to go away and live somewhere else to get away from him. I had a car at the time and my friends helped me to move out bush.
I stayed in a one roomed hut with no running water and a long drop outdoor toilet. There were no showering facilities, but it did have electricity. It didn't even have glass in the windows, just clear plastic. There was no telephone either. Some of my friends would come by every now and then and would stay with me, maybe four nights out of seven. I remember I was having nightmares about Person 3 while I was there. In one way, it was relaxing because I felt I was so isolated. I felt Person 3 couldn't get to me.
I was just relieved to be away from that situation. I grew up on a farm so I liked being away from the city. It was nice to have some space, in a way, because I was having difficulties
with toileting and could attend to my personal needs without too much stress. If I experienced some incontinence, it didn't really matter because no one was around. But going to the toilet was difficult, and I would have to go and have a shower up at the local hotel, which I was allowed to use by the owners. At least I had a car and I could drive to town to see friends and bring them back to stay with me and go and explore the area.
While I was living on the property, I started going back to college but after a period of time, Person 3 found out where I was somehow. He just arrived at the property where I was staying and wanted to talk. I just didn't feel like I could say no to him. I had so much fear about what he would do to me. I found it hard to say no, to tell him to go away. I was
scared he would hurt me, but at the same time I was scared if I let him in he would hurt me.
I was struggling because I needed help with my daily needs. He provided me assistance in some aspects, but it wasn't a healthy relationship with those types of abusive behaviours.
So Person 3 came back on the scene for a while, and somehow I had agreed to move in with him in the city. Things weren't working out well, so I told him that my family needed me and I was going to move in with them. I left the city and started driving to another town to
stay with one of my siblings. Halfway there, I remember looking in the rear view mirror and seeing Personal 3 in the car behind me following me. I remember that I pulled over and asked him what he was doing and told him that he couldn't come and that I was leaving. He went back to the city.
I stayed with my sibling for a while until I could get my own place. After I left their place and got my own, there was an instance where one of the guys in my sibling's circle of friends moved in with me. It was supposed to just be as housemates but he was very encouraging about wanting more. He wasn't taking no for an answer very easily. He was very pushy about it, just always saying how much he liked me and that he had never had a partner in his life. That made me feel very uncomfortable and was a bit of a difficult situation.
Then Person 3 arrived at the house one day. I'm not sure how he found out where I was.
He wanted me to let him into the house. He was saying that he was so sad and depressed, that he was going to kill himself. I said I didn't want him there. But it was it felt awful saying that to him, telling him that I wasn't interested in him. He wouldn't listen to me. He wasn't interested in what I wanted, only in what he wanted. I think that is why that is
what you would call emotional abuse.
Person 3 continued to hassle me. He would overpower me emotionally. He would say
things like, "I will kill myself" so I would let him in the house. He would make me feel sorry for him but then he would get angry and put me down and things like that. I remember
once going to the phone box down the street and Person 3 was outside. I remember ringing my mum and saying, "He won't get away from me." I didn't feel comfortable ringing the police because I didn't really see that it was a crime.
I think mum suggested that I contact the police once, but at the time, I just didn't see the connection between police business and the business I was going through, which I viewed as a personal issue. I felt sorry for Person 3. I didn't really know what I was experiencing were abusive behaviours at the time. Then all of a sudden he just disappeared and I never heard from him again. I'm not quite sure how I managed to get that person out of my life and finally end that relationship.
After Person 3 disappeared, I was not doing very much with myself, aside from some volunteer work at a health food place. My cousin lived in the same town, and we used to see each other every day. She drank a lot, and I did as well at the time. Then one night I
was having drinks with a group of friends and met Person 4. We were drinking and all of a sudden he just grabbed me and dragged me off to the bedroom and raped me. I didn't
really identify this as rape at the time.
Person 4 and I began to hang out with each other quite a lot. That went on for about two years. I'm not sure it was a relationship. We spent time together, and he sexually assaulted me on a number of occasions. I think I saw the sexual assault as something that happened because he would make me feel like I owed him. He would get angry when drinking and would become very coercive and forceful when drunk. Once it happened in front of my cousin and she stopped it.
At the time I was seeing Person 4, I was finding it increasingly difficult to go up the stairs and to stand up after sitting down. Person 4 was able to easily help me with my transfers. Some people are good at helping with that, but others aren't. He was helping me with those
things and getting out and about a bit. He was available when I needed help. This was all happening before the Disability Discrimination Act was passed, so access to premises, shops and things like that were not readily available.
As my mobility declined, my ability to access the community and even health services was becoming harder. During this time, I wasn't connected with any medical centre or any specialists, so no one was monitoring my condition or referring me to support services that could help. Around this time, I started using a walking stick. Then Person 4 sourced a manual wheelchair. He saw it as an opportunity for me to use to use me and my disability.
He would make me do things that I didn't want to do and enjoyed thinking up ways to deceive me or to use my situation for his own benefit and pleasure.
My other friends knew Person 4 and were friendly towards him. We knew his mother. Person 4's mother moved interstate, and his sister was living there as well. Person 4 wanted to be close to them and get away from my home state because he had gotten himself into a bit of strife. One of my siblings was interstate too, so I said I would move there with Person 4.
We moved interstate and lived together for a period of time. The utilities accounts were all in my name. Person 4 coerced me into borrowing money from my parents to buy a car, which we put in his name. He paid the money back to my parents gradually. With the home and the car in his name and the utilities in my name, I felt the options for me to leave were further limited. Then we got a house with his mum and we all lived together. Again, the utilities were all in my name. At that stage, I had started expressing some of my concerns about the relationship to Person 4's mother, and I think that's why she came to live with us, because she had some concerns about his behaviour.
After we moved interstate and we were away from family and friends, Person 4 started controlling the car that we shared and the fuel. He started keeping track of the kilometres and would accuse me of being with other people. The control increased the longer I was with him. He would get very jealous and angry and accuse me of having feelings for other men. I had been wanting to end the relationship with Person 4 for some time because I was scared.
I didn't like his behaviours and I wasn't able to meet other people or go socialising without him getting angry and it resulting in sexual coercion. I knew the things he was making me
do were wrong, and I didn't want to do those things. He was very dominant on the sexual relationship side of things. If he wanted to be satisfied, he would be very insistent and physically force me into perform sexual acts. He would also push me and things like that.
He would also leave me so I didn't have any of my own money.
It was all right for him to go out to work but not me. He wanted me up at 5 am if he had an early shift to make him breakfast, drive him to work, pick him up. More often, he would take the car to work and leave me without transport, but he still expected me to make breakfast and keep the house. Sometimes, he would have lists of things for me to do during the day, and I was able to have the car on those days while he was at work.
I remember I became friends with a couple while I was living interstate. One of them was the sister of Person 4's friend. She was an advocate and worked for domestic violence shelters. I told them about what was happening with Person 4 and they told me, "Claire, this is an abusive relationship. You've got to get out." They sort of coached me through it, recognising that I was experiencing abuse. I talked to them about safe housing and shelters. She was trying to think if there was anywhere else that I could go, and there wasn't anywhere that was accessible. In those days, women with disabilities didn't front up at shelters because it was assumed we were cared for and looked after.
When Person 4 found out I had been spending time with them, he got really, really angry. Freaked out, yelled at me, called me names. He yelled at me and hit me while I was driving the car.
I remember one night, some of Person 4's mum's friends were having a get together, so we all went. They were playing instruments, and I started singing, making up some lyrics. Person 4 got very angry and wanted to go home. The other guests told me to stay so I did. Person 4 left. After he left, I started to sing about what was happening in the relationship, and all of a sudden it was like I had downloaded everything. I got scared that I would get in trouble, and I decided I should go home.
The people talked with me and told me that I shouldn't go back. Even his mother told me to stay. When I got home, Person 4 had locked me out of the house. Eventually, he let me in and said "I'm packing your bags before I kill you." He was really angry. Then he drove me to the train station. I got on to the train that was going interstate. I remember being on the train for a couple of days and thinking, "That was actually quite easy. I don't miss him at
But when I was trapped in the relationship, I couldn't work out how to get out of it. I felt
like I needed him for physical assistance. I didn't have any money. The world was far less accessible than it is now, and I had no idea how to reach out to get formal supports for my mobility and personal care needs. I was also ashamed about what was happening in my personal life. I was hiding it from my family. I felt responsible for being in that position.
Not long after I returned to my home state, I had my 21st birthday. I'd started studying accounting. One night, I went to see a band play with some friends. I'd had a few drinks and started talking to this guy named Person 5. He'd been in the music industry and had a broken marriage and a young daughter. So, of course, I felt sad for him, and I listened to his story. Person 5 and I started to hang out for a little bit. And I think I just fell into the same pattern that I'd had in previous relationships.
I had some friends around, and they were doing their own thing, and I was on my own a bit. Neither Person 5 or I had a car or a job, and we were sort of keeping each other company. Person 5 was quite good at helping me with my mobility issues. I fell back into that old habit of being with a guy and following whatever it was that they were doing. After a couple of months I dropped out of college.
Person 5 became violent. It's hard to describe. One night I tried to break up with him. I had realised I had fallen into the same pattern of previous relationships and I had given up my studies and that I needed to end it. Person 5 got really angry. I don't remember a lot. I do remember that he dragged me to the shower to rinse off the blood and then put me back on the bed. I must have passed out for a bit, because then I remember waking up on the bed and wondering what had happened.
For some reason I rang his ex-partner and told her I was very frightened and asked her if she had had any issues with Person 5 being violent. Person 5 caught me on the phone and went even more ballistic. It was a bit of a nightmare. There was blood everywhere. On the wall, and on the ceilings which were 15 feet high. Somehow, I managed to ring my friends, and my friend came around with a group of guys to remove me from the property. I remember the look of horror on my friends' faces.
I probably should have gone to hospital, but I didn't. I went to the doctor the next day because I was covered in bruises and bumps all over my head. I had two black eyes, and I couldn't open one of them. The doctor didn't want to know anything about it. He said I should go to hospital. Strangely, somehow Person 5 had found out I was at the doctor and was sitting in the doctor's waiting room. I told the doctor I couldn't go back out there.
The doctor said, "We will ring a taxi for to you go to hospital", but they just let me walk out the door into the waiting room where Person 5 was. Person 5 just followed me out and got into the taxi with me and told the driver we were going to my place, not to the hospital. When we got home, the landlord came and told us we had to move out. She lived on the property and when she came to the door, Person 5 wouldn't open it fully. I could see that she was trying to peer through the door to see me.
I was horrified when I saw the state of the bedroom after the violent attack that Person 5 had made on me the night before.
After that incident, Person 5 was always so angry with me. For example, I would be making
a sandwich and he would get angry about how I was making the sandwich. I would flinch and he would say, "What's wrong with you? Are you scared of me or something? " I didn't want to go back to my family with all the bruising. I didn't want them to know how badly he had hurt me.
I was also scared about bringing that into my family, and I wanted to protect them. I knew that I would be leaving Person 5, but I just needed to wait until my face was back to normal before I could go. I remember sitting on the bed one night and thinking, "How am I going to get out?" I actually prayed for the first time in so long. I remember praying, "If you are real, give me a solution to this." That's when I saw a photo of Person 5's daughter on the wall and I thought, "He has a lot of strong emotions about his daughter" and thought if I bought the ticket for him to go interstate to see his daughter, that would be a win-win situation.
Because, that way, he wouldn't be coming after me or my family or be concerned about me reporting him to the authorities. I purchased Person 5 a ticket to go to his daughter and parents, and that ended the relationship. The relationship with Person 5 lasted about six months. I was approximately 21 when the relationship ended. I haven't had a relationship with anyone since.
I should have gone to hospital and to the authorities, but I didn't. I was scared to because I thought I had a responsibility to look after myself better. I couldn't tell my family because I was ashamed about it. I could recognise that I was entering into relationships with guys
that weren't very nice people and had problems themselves.
About 17 years had passed since I ended the relationship with Person 5 and since I’d had any intimate partner abuse in my life. I had moved into a new home, and me and my support worker needed a hand with something. My support worker said, "Why don't we ask the man next door? He seems like a nice guy." She had bumped into him earlier so that's how we got to know Person 6. As we started to get to know him, though, we realised things weren't quite right.
Person 6 really did not like that I had a disability and was coping well and living my life, going to work and so on. Person 6 knew when I was at home and when I was not. I would
go to the shops and look around and find him staring at me from behind the shelves. He
was trying to control me by using intimidation, and just made me scared. He made this he had this very angry energy, like he could snap at any moment. He would come and knock on my door, and I was too scared to say no, and even my support worker didn't really know what to do.
He got angry and very intimidating and threatening towards me and my support worker. This was frightening. I was having recurring dreams in which Person 6 was always violent. I was trying to understand the dream, so I looked up some dream analysis stuff and this recurring image in my mind was indicated as a sign of PTSD. So then I looked about that and I thought that's probably what I've got.
I did some research and found a GP that specialises in this area. He referred me to a psychologist that specialises in PTSD. She taught me some defences against people who might abuse and intimidate, like inviting your friends around regularly, never keeping a regular routine or driving the same route. People who abuse often target people who are perceived as isolated.
Growing up, I don't think I got much guidance on dating and relationships from my parents. As role models, my parents loved each other, but my mother's days were spent attending to the family business. Living in a remote rural community, she was isolated, and this
restricted her capacity to develop and socialise with her own network of friends and undertake activities or hobbies that were her own. My mum sacrificed her own aspirations to support her husband's hopes and dreams and to attend to the needs of the immediate family.
In reflecting on my intimate relationships, I see that I have also revolved my daily activities around what my partner needed in order to achieve his goals. I was also socially isolated, adopting my partner's social circle, and withdrew from pursuing my aspirations. Because
my condition was a degenerative physical condition, potentially shortening my lifespan significantly, requiring care for showering, dressing, toileting, I think my parents developed certain views of what was possible for me, in terms of relationship and family.
I remember my father saying that I would not get married because no one would want to be in a relationship with a woman who was unable to have children. I was also told I wouldn't be able to have children because it would be physically too hard and I wouldn't be able to look after a baby.
I also think it's about worthiness. Perhaps the societal community and family environments at the time of my youth didn't support the idea that I was worthy of healthy relationships and a family of my own, and maybe that influenced the kind of relationships I experienced.
When you grow up being told that you're not going to find a guy who will love you because you have a disability, it really impacts the way you feel about yourself, the disability and your own self worth. I think that when I fell into relationships with guys who could meet my physical support needs regardless of whether the relationships were healthy - because I didn't know where or how else I could have those needs met, that fostered a sense of normalcy in what I experienced. There was no representation in films or television that demonstrated a healthy intimate relationship or ordinary life experience when physically immobile.
My family tolerated my relationships. I knew they didn't like the people I was with. In hindsight, I think they tolerated them because they didn't want to take away my ability to choose, and perhaps they were concerned that I might have an outburst of anger. They knew they weren't healthy relationships, but they didn't know how to support or encourage me to explore why I was in those relationships.
Sometime after I turned 17, I went to see a gynaecologist about sterilisation. I had been
told I wouldn't be able to have children, and I was in a relationship with a person who had had a vasectomy. I thought that being sterilised would be better than having to keep taking the contraceptive pill, especially as I was told I could not have children because it would be too hard and I wouldn't be able to care for a baby. The gynaecologist that I saw didn't believe me when I told him my diagnosis and said he wouldn't perform a sterilisation.
He didn't physically examine me at all. He just sat behind his desk. Maybe he just saw a young woman asking about a procedure, but he didn't make any effort to seek out medical records or otherwise confirm my diagnosis. I was shocked, angry, and upset. About four years later, I became pregnant to one of my abusers. I had gone back to live with my parents after the relationship with Person 5 ended. I hadn't told them about the violent incident with Person 5, and I had waited until the bruising had gone down before I went to live with them.
A few weeks after moving in with my parents, I went to a GP and had a test which
confirmed I was pregnant. When I told my parents I was pregnant, they told me I couldn't have the child. They organised for me to travel to the city to have the pregnancy terminated. I was not involved in the arrangements. I really wanted to have the child because I could feel the changes in my body and felt a wonderful feeling of love and completeness. I was told I wouldn't be able to care for a baby. I started to think about all the possibilities that my future could hold and how much love I could share with my child.
I travelled to the hospital for the termination appointment. When I arrived, the nursing
staff told me that the gynaecologist I had seen previously when seeking a sterilisation had reviewed my case and that he would be happy to perform a sterilisation and termination. I told them that I didn't want that anymore, and that I wanted to keep the baby.
Then the hospital sent me to see the psychologist or social worker before the procedure, and I told them that I wanted to keep the baby. They asked me how was I going to care for
it with my disability and I told them, "There will be a way." Then the nurse said they would have to do a scan first to double-check the status of the pregnancy. They performed an ultrasound and they told me it was a phantom pregnancy. I said, "What does that mean?" And they said, "It just means there is nothing inside the embryo" or something like that. I don't recall having any in-depth conversations about it.
I've always had an overwhelming feeling that when I was told I had a phantom pregnancy that I was being lied to. I felt as though the medical staff had formed a view that I ought not be pregnant. They told me that I would just have to have a curette procedure, which I did. I didn't receive any support or counselling afterwards. I have often wondered whether they were telling the truth about the phantom pregnancy. There was also the added spiritual impact of having a termination.
I have had experiences with a support worker that come to my home to provide assistance that have been abusive. I employ my own staff and use a support agency. It takes quite a bit of management. At times, it can be very time-consuming. I think it's very important to have a good relationship with the provider and have a backup system in place if you need it. But that can be hard to establish.
Support workers are in a very powerful position. They can say and do things to trigger behaviours in clients and get away with it. When I was in my late 40s, I moved back to my home state after a long period living interstate, and an agency was providing all of my support. I couldn't work out why I kept getting so frustrated with a particular worker. I felt so bad because I would get frustrated and then blurt something out. And it only had to be a moment and you'd think, "I've let myself down. That's terrible."
When the worker was leaving the agency she said to me, "You know, Claire, it's like this: I know your triggers. I know you like people to go fast when they are doing the things you need for support so I go slowly because I know you don't like it." This was a trigger for me because this worker would only come for one-hour shifts, and in those short shifts, you want to maximise what gets done in that timeframe. So she would go really slowly and act as if she didn't know what to do because she knew how frustrating this was to me.
She said she thought it was funny. I said I didn't think it was very funny at all. When I reported it, the manager laughed and said to me, "Oh, you two have a love-hate relationship." There was no follow up. I try to be very patient with the people that worked for me and adopt an approach of “care for the people that care for you”, but I do feel like I have to be on guard all the time when my support workers and that I have to be happy, caring and kind all the time.
I have to be on guard as there are so many ways that formal support workers can trigger frustration or abuse the privilege of being invited into my home. For example, I provide
staff with my beliefs and value statement, but it is difficult to implement this amongst those who do not align or respect the same values. I also have a code of conduct which outlines basic conduct such as wearing appropriate clothing and footwear, not swearing and so on. Yet staff will continue to arrive for work in thongs and laugh saying, "I'm just doing your fucking head in."
Sometimes it feels that I am being disrespected on purpose so that my frustration is too much to contain and I respond with an outburst. It isn't easy to discipline staff when working with small teams. When there is a breach of my privacy or dignity or disrespectful behaviour and I try to approach the support work about it, I'm not sure in it really sinks in, particularly if the worker isn't really engaged in the role.
So then feelings of being devalued and disrespected can build up until I can't communicate the message in a clearer way but get angry. I'm sure that must give them an excuse in their mind for their behaviour. I have spent years masking over the trauma I have experienced and pushing aside the real issues. I have a hard time sticking up for myself and telling people, particularly support workers, what's unacceptable behaviour without feeling stressed that they will respond in a way that causes me harm, like cancelling their shift at the last minute or doing something that they know stresses me out.
When I try to stick up for myself, I then feel like I am being awful by saying something isn't okay. Then sometimes I feel like support workers get upset with me, and maybe because I found it so hard to address things in the past, I am expecting them to be upset. Then I worry about the repercussions for my care, and it affects my trust levels. I become hypervigilant and hypersensitive, and all this doubt comes in. I start thinking, "Do you really care about me? Are they going to try to get me back somehow?"
I've realised that maybe what's happening is I'm becoming stressed and anxious because of my triggers and what's happened in the past. For example, if three support staff are unavailable or off work all at the same time, it will trigger my anxieties about how people value me, and I start wondering if they are ganging up on me. It heightens my existing sense of vulnerability. I'm realising that I have all these triggers and nobody understands me.
When I'm triggered, I get upset or angry and I think that people think there is something wrong with me. And there is something wrong with me, but how do you go about telling people what's happened to you? I think that they wouldn't want to know or that hearing that would make them upset, and I don't really want to share these things. They are personal and private.
I want to go on living with healthy relationships. Having a strong sense of being a team is important when people have full-time care. I have never had an agency that had conducted a team meeting with my workers and includes me. A team meeting that doesn't include the person being supported couldn't possibly be as effective as a team meeting that involves the person. It feels that I am I feel that I am separate from the team of support workers, and it leaves me guessing and wondering what the team of workers actually think about their work environment or their experience supporting me.
Also, if I'm not included in team meetings, I have no right of reply to address any support worker concerns or issues. It makes me feel that understanding my goals and aspirations is not central to the service they provide and that my feedback is not worthy or valuable. Once I requested the provider have a team meeting that included me. They organised it but I was charged an hour for each of the eight workers to attend, totalling around $400, whereas if I'm not included in the team meeting, I'm not charged by the provider.
The information in my funded supports plan is private and confidential, and I don't necessarily want to disclose my entire plan to a provider where there isn't already an established relationship based on respect and trust. Some providers request a copy of the plan before arranging an introduction. When I have declined to provide my plan, the provider has advised me that they don't have capacity for new clients.
It's very important to check the invoice from a provider. When I have reviewed an account from an agency provider, sometimes I have found that they have been charging me the incorrect rate at a much higher rate. Other providers have charged me for services I have not received and have had to amend invoices. Another provider was sending me invoices three months after the service was provided. If this is a problem for one person, imagine how much this would be costing if it was happening to every participant and it wasn't picked up.
I'm very uncomfortable about making complaints. When I have made a complaint or given feedback, I have experienced repercussions like being billed incorrectly or saying they don't have staff available.
When my friend says "Oh, have you got a different worker now? What did do you to the other one?" I feel like they are kind of blaming me, like they think I’m difficult to work with. I'm not really connected with people with disabilities anymore, and I miss that peer support you have with other people with disability where they can help give you confidence and guidance that something is not okay.
Critical feedback about services is not something that is actively sought by most of the providers I have engaged. One agency provided me an online survey once, which was encouraging in the sense that they were actively seeking feedback from the end user.
I'm not sure how community care providers undertake performance management of support workers. Support workers are usually working unsupervised in the private home of their clients. Providing critical feedback to the providers can go terribly wrong. It is important to know how to provide balanced feedback. Effective communication skills are very important in the relationship between providers, support workers and the end user. It would be good to have some examples and training for end users about how to effectively balance provide balanced feedback to their workers and providers.
De-escalation communication is very important in the sector. When an issue has triggered a trauma memory, feedback can be delivered in an aggressive tone and this can escalate if the receiver of the feedback does not identify the need to respond in a manner that de-escalates the situation. I have experienced a support worker or provider not recognising a trauma response and then have taken offence, becoming defensive and threatened to remove all services from the end user.
Support workers often indicate have often indicated that the training delivered to them through registered training organisations equips them with about 5 per cent of the skills and knowledge for the job. Perhaps support workers need further training, development and to utilise traineeships more that offer on the job training, rather than short courses comprising four week placements.
Despite older Australians and other older people with disabilities having a preference for being cared for in their own home, student placements are more often undertaken in day programs in institutional settings rather than in the community, going into people's homes with experienced workers. Working in the private and personal space of a person's home is a very different environment and requires greater sensitivity to observing the mood of the private household and successfully engaging positively in that space.
Improvements are needed in how providers support their experienced staff to work in the areas they excel at in order to increase staff retention. I was talking to a worker the other day who works with an agency and has more than 10 years of experience providing personal care and support to older persons and persons with disability. She is leaving the company and going to an administrative role because she keeps getting rosters where a high proportion of her hours are just going to people's homes and doing cleaning for people who don't need personal care and community access supports. The workers who are really good at empowering people should be in a position where they can mentor new staff and students.
When working in the personal and private space of a person's home, it is important not to abuse the privilege of being invited to support an individual in those spaces. Regular workers become familiar with the support needs and routines of an end user, and they fall into a pattern of undertaking tasks without consideration for my personal privacy and space, for example, arriving for work and beginning tasks without acknowledging the person they are supporting, or becoming overly familiar with the external relationships I have outside of the supporter carer relationship.
Experiences of sexual assault and violence do impact the way in which my personal care and domestic assistance is undertaken in my personal and private space. For me, I have found it helpful for my workers to gain consent to enter personal and private spaces by letting me know what they are going to do before they do it. For example, "I have finished the ironing and I'm going to your bedroom to put your clothes away." This really helps me to feel safe, and I can understand why I hear footsteps, doors and drawers opening and closing and banging and so on in other parts of my home.
There is a lot of grief and trauma across the disability community. I think the sector has been very slow to acknowledge and respond to the prevalence of abuse, violence, and trauma experienced by end users.
I think that it would be helpful for people with disability to receive education about how to access support for grief, loss, and trauma at an early age. When I was growing up, getting counselling was seen as a negative thing, that you weren't strong enough. We need to be taught that getting support is a positive experience and a good thing to do.
Schools need mandated education about what healthy relationships look like, where to go and who you can speak with if you have concerns, and what domestic and family violence is. In mainstream schools, such education should always include students with disabilities. I have made further some further suggestions in my statement about the government's Disability Gateway website and how it could be improved.
But, in summary, I would like to make the following comments: The National Disability Abuse and Neglect Hotline should be immediately visible when you visit the government's Disability Gateway website. The Disability and Carer Gateways should have a heading saying something like, "Are you experiencing violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation?" front and centre of their respective home pages. They should also have a heading saying something like, "What to do if you're experiencing family or domestic violence."
Both websites should describe the unique forms that violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability may experience, as well as the unique forms that family and domestic violence against people with disability can take. Many people may not recognise behaviours as domestic or family violence: things like your partner always putting the keys can out of reach; asking multiple questions without waiting for a response to your first question, leaving you without any access to food or water; or leaving you unable to go to the toilet for hours on end.
This information needs to be readily accessible so people with disability can identify that these things are forms of violence or abuse and find out what their options are and where they can go. If you are isolated in a relationship and you are not connected to other services or to the community and your person and your partner is the person providing the physical assistance - you don't know how your personal and private support needs will be met. This is the reality, and this is why there needs to be these kinds of resources.
It would also be helpful if the Disability Gateway, Carer Gateway and Services Australia websites were all clearly linked to one another.
I would like to end with this: Recently, I was researching services for people experiencing domestic or family violence to see if services include information on disability access. By
and large, the services I looked at did not have any information on their websites about what they can provide for people with disability or support needs, what they can do to get you to a safe place.
I actually called one of these shelters I had Googled and asked them what they have in terms of safe housing for a person using a wheelchair. The woman on the phone responded by saying, "Yes, we can accommodate people with disability. One of the safe homes has stairs." That staff member wasn't trained to respond appropriately to my questions. She didn't have the information needed to speak to my inquiry in a positive way and tell me about how her service can facilitate safe housing for women with disability.
If someone is relying on their partner for personal support and thinking that they need to get out of an abusive relationship, they need to be able to see information on a website or receive information when making an inquiry that will tell them that there's a way to access the assistance that they need.
CHAIR: Yes. Thank you, Ms Fraser. Yes, Ms Eastman.
MS EASTMAN: Commissioners, I thank Ms Fraser for reading the statement, and that concludes the evidence for today. And we will resume at 10 o'clock tomorrow morning.
CHAIR: All right. Thank you very much. We will adjourn now and resume at 10 am Hobart time tomorrow, Tuesday.
ADJOURNED 4:11 PM UNTIL TUESDAY, 29 MARCH 2022 AT 10 AM