If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, please seek help with a qualified counsellor or by calling 1800 RESPECT.
One month ago my life changed. One month and one day ago I was happily married to my second husband who was a wonderful stepfather to my teenage daughter, and I was (I hope) a great stepmum to his teenage son.
We’d been together for nearly a decade and had just celebrated another wedding anniversary. We had a house in the suburbs and great jobs. I thought my life couldn’t get more perfect. I was wrong. This is the story of that day.
It was about 11.30am on a Friday and I was at work. I’d just had coffee with a friend, and I had started thinking about the tasks I had left to complete that day. I had one meeting straight after lunch, and as I was on top of everything, I was considering knocking off a little early for a change. Then my phone rang, a private number, and thinking it might be my meeting calling to change times, I answered. The words I heard next would shift my world off its axis.
“My name is Susan and I’m calling about a child protection matter regarding your daughter”.
I took my mobile outside and Susan told me that I needed to go immediately to my daughter’s school as she was being interviewed by a police detective and a child protection worker. I tried to find out what had happened, but Susan was unable to give me any details over the phone. She told me that my daughter had made a disclosure about sexual abuse, and I just about fell over.
I flew back into my office and quickly told a colleague that I was leaving, it was an emergency, and I would be in contact later that day. Racing to my car, I felt my chest become tight, as if I couldn’t draw a full breath. It was a feeling I would come to recognise over the coming days and weeks as part of my new normal.
While driving to my daughter’s school I rang my husband and told him that I had been asked to go to her school and that it was a child protection issue. I said that if her boyfriend had done anything I would kill him, and my husband tried to calm me down and said he would leave work now and meet us at home later on.
I told him not to worry, it was probably nothing, and he needed to be at work to wait for his son who was being dropped off later on to spend the weekend with us. He said he’d just get his son’s mum to drop him at home, and that he’d really prefer to be at home to help me deal with whatever was going on with my daughter. At the time, I thought this was another example of the amazingly supportive husband he was, willing to drop everything to help me out.
Mia Freedman, Monique Bowley and Jessie Stephens discuss the practice of 'casual sexual assault' on Mamamia Out Loud. Post continues below.
Arriving at my daughter’s school I could see her sitting in an interview room. She didn’t seem upset, and I really couldn’t begin to understand what had happened to bring the police and child protection workers to her school. The deputy principal knocked on the door, and I was introduced to David and Belinda. David was the senior detective in charge and Belinda was the welfare worker. Both Belinda and David are attached to a specialist investigation team and work together to investigate and support children and their families who are dealing with sexual abuse.
David outlined what my daughter had told them. She had disclosed to her counsellor that my husband had touched her on her breasts and bottom, and that it had been going on for a couple of years. I knew my daughter had seen her counsellor a couple of days earlier, as she had been suffering with anxiety and depression for a couple of years.
As my daughter was nearly 15 years old, and the anxiety started when she was 13, I had assumed that it was just normal teenage hormones, and nothing to get too worked up about as long as she had a trusted counsellor to talk to, and a GP who would monitor her medications. After all, I had also experienced depression, and I knew that good counselling could be beneficial.
I had no idea that her anxiety and depression were not normal, but were symptoms of an abuse that had been going on since she was 12 years old. My first reaction was that she must be angry with me, that I had been spending more time at work and the gym than with her, and that she was saying these things to get my attention. Belinda’s quiet and knowledgeable response was that children and teenagers don’t disclose sexual abuse as way to seek attention, they tell someone because they can’t keep it a secret any more.
That statement stopped me in my tracks. I knew then that what was happening was serious, and that I had to show my daughter that I believed everything she said and ensure her safety. David the detective asked me whether there was somewhere we could stay that night, as it may not be safe for us to stay in our home. My parents were on a holiday, but I had a set of keys and I knew they wouldn’t mind if we stayed there for a few nights. David asked me to sign a document showing where we would stay, and that we would notify them if we had to leave for any reason.
By this stage I knew that I would not be able to take my daughter home, but now I was concerned about how I would get some essential clothes as my husband had already gone home. When I told David this he was also concerned, and he told me that while I could drive home, I should not go into the house until he and Belinda had a chance to talk to my husband first. My daughter had already asked if she could go to the park with her friends, and I agreed, as I thought it was important that she try to keep her normal routine even though nothing would ever be normal again.
I drove home, and waited outside the house until David and Belinda went in and talked to my husband. After a few minutes, David came out and told me that he had cautioned my husband, and that he had called his uniform colleagues to come and arrest him. My mind was spinning, and I told David that I didn’t want to be at the house when my husband was arrested, I didn’t want to see it, and that I would go to the local shops to wait until he rang me and let me know what was happening. He agreed, and I took off.
Belinda rang me soon after, and asked me if I could bring my daughter to their office to talk to them in more detail. I told her that I would, and started driving to the park where I knew she would be with her friends.
I decided to withdraw the money from our joint account and place it in a single account under my name. Ensuring that only I had access to the money would also mean that my husband would not be able to use it to pay for a lawyer, as I had already decided that he was now my ex-husband.
Twenty minutes later I had a new bank account and sufficient cash to cover us for the weekend while I waited for a new card to arrive in the mail (I asked for it to be sent to my brother’s house as I didn’t know where we were going to live). We then drove to the investigation team’s office so my daughter could have her first interview with the team.
Here we met another detective, Jill, as David was now interviewing my ex-husband at the police station. Jill and Belinda took my daughter into the interview room, and Susan sat with me, my brother and sister-in-law and explained a bit more about what was going to happen next. After talking to my daughter for a while Jill came out and said that she had decided not to make a formal statement that day, but there would be time to do that if she decided to later on.
Jill said that was very common, that even though children disclose the abuse, they are often still worried about the implications of making a formal statement. Jill also said that she had heard that my ex-husband had admitted to abusing my daughter. She didn’t know whether he would get bail, but even if he did David had arranged for an apprehended violence order which would prevent him from making contact with my daughter and me.
My daughter is safe, my ex-husband was charged (and has subsequently pleaded guilty to all charges) but I have lost what I thought was the perfect life. I have lost the person I thought I would grow old with. I have lost not only my future, but I am constantly reevaluating my past, wondering whether my ex-husband picked me because of my daughter, whether he was grooming me while he was grooming her. I don’t know, and I will never know, what was going on in his mind when he made the choice to begin abusing her. There are questions to which I will never have answers, and I need to start grieving for a lost life, a lost future, and a lost past.
My left brain is telling me it’s not ready for grief. It wants me to try and pass on some advice for anyone who might, god forbid, find themselves in a similar position. Here are some things which I know helped me:
Believe your child
They aren’t disclosing this to punish you or get your attention. Your child needs you to believe them completely and everything you do and say will remain with them.
Get your money
As soon as you can, get access to all the money you can. One thing I do regret was that I didn’t already have an account in my name. It didn’t take very long, but I would have preferred not to have to do that task when I was preoccupied with getting my daughter to the investigation team.
Ask for help
I was lucky to have my brother and sister-in-law with me, but I also made sure that I rang both my daughter’s counsellor and mine on the Monday morning and asked for urgent appointments. I also spoke to a sexual assault counsellor over the weekend because I needed to get a handle on what was going on in my head.
Seek legal advice
You might need legal advice on everything from mortgage or rent payments, wills, up to the final stages of divorce. It’s best to get someone quickly, and that means you can hand over some of the logistical issues to someone who knows what they are doing.
Keep getting up every morning
It is hugely tempting to try and hide from the world and hope that everything will just get better. There’s no magic wand which will erase what’s happened, and there’s no point wishing for one. You are the adult, and your responses have a massive impact on how your child will handle what is going on.
As well as getting up in the morning, I made an effort to put on makeup, jewellery (not my engagement or wedding rings) and wear clothes which made me feel good. It’s not about looking like you don’t care what happened, it’s about making yourself feel normal.
Keep your dignity
You didn’t ask for this, and you didn’t cause it. Let the police handle the process, they know what they are doing. Revenge is not an option. As Jill explained to my rather hotheaded brother, what good would he be to me and my daughter if he was in jail for bashing my ex-husband half to death?
In the same way, when I decided that I couldn’t have my ex-husbands clothes and possessions (as well as my former stepson’s things) in my house any longer, I didn’t just sell them or throw them out. I arranged (though a third party) for his parents to get someone to come and take them away. At all times I need to show that I am the better person, and I am proud of how I’ve managed this.
I don’t know what will happen to my ex-husband. While I hope he will go to jail for his crimes, I am realistic enough to know that this is unlikely. I do know that I still need to work through my emotions, and that it may be years before I can trust another man, if I ever do again. I do know that I have now done everything I can to ensure that my daughter is now safe.I do know that I am strong and capable, and that my family is with us as we learn how to operate in our new normal.
Mamamia’s Survivors of Sexual Assault Week is about providing support for the one in five women Australian women who will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. To read more from Survivors of Sexual Assault Week, click here. If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, don't suffer in silence, contact 1800 RESPECT or visit www.1800respect.org.au