real life

Age 7, Julia Steele was sexually assaulted. What police did afterwards made her trauma worse.

Content warning: This story includes descriptions of child sexual abuse that may be distressing to some readers.

For Julia, trauma is a life sentence. She isn't defined by what happened to her as a child - but it has made the path to healing ever more fraught.

When Julia was seven, she and her brother were sent to her aunt's place for the school holidays. Once there, the kids were put up in a local pub, Julia's aunt deciding she didn't want the kids to stay at her place. Julia's parents weren't aware that their two kids would be staying at the pub with accommodation, nor did Julia or her brother have prior warning.

Overnight in the pub, the aunt had told the pub's manager to leave the kids' room door ajar and keep an eye on them for her. The manager had not kept his word. Back in the early '50s, these sorts of pubs were incredibly rough - an environment where alcohol and gambling were rife, along with violence and misogyny. Even while standing up at the bar for a drink, punters could urinate in the 'piss trough' located along the edge of the bar. It was no place for children. 

While Julia and her nine-year-old brother were sleeping, an intoxicated male stranger entered their room and began to rape seven-year-old Julia. 

Julia has a very strong memory of what happened once that man entered the room, as does her brother. But when the man had left, both were paralysed with fear. 

It's what happened next that furthered Julia's trauma. 


Julia growing up. Image: Supplied.

"My brother had told the adults that a man had come into the room and gone into bed with his little sister. Whenever I think of that moment, I immediately disassociate and go to the ceiling. I remember afterwards being taken away by the police - male police officers - by myself," Julia said to Mamamia.


"My aunt didn't come with me to the police station, nor did my parents. I felt trapped, being surrounded by strange men. Once out of the police car, I was then examined by the male police for signs of sexual assault. That's how it was in those days - no consideration for how a situation like that could be re-traumatising for a victim of child sexual abuse."

When the examination was over, Julia was given a small bag of jelly beans and sent on her way. 

Sadly, the rapist was never held to account, with police unable to locate the stranger. 

Julia's aunt never spoke to Julia about what happened, nor did Julia's parents. It wasn't until Julia's father died years later, that Julia discovered her parents did in fact know about the rape - and yet they had never consoled or spoken to their young daughter about it.

Although this event occurred in the 1950s in Australia, it isn't just isolated to this time and place.

It's a scenario that can still occur to this day - medical professionals, first responders and some authority figures struggling to know the appropriate ways to communicate with victim-survivors of child sexual abuse, and victim-survivors of sexual assault.

According to the Blue Knot Foundation, one in three girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. And with this, comes a high level of trauma. 

"People working with victims and survivors of complex trauma including child sexual abuse need to be aware of the possible sensitivities and vulnerabilities of those with such trauma experiences," Dr Cathy Kezelman AM, President of Blue Knot Foundation, said to Mamamia.


And as Dr Kezelman explained, victim-survivors often struggle to trust others - especially those in positions of power. 

"They can struggle to feel safe with others and be easily triggered by interactions which are not empathic or informed by an understanding of trauma and its possible effects."

That's why it's crucial for professionals in this space to be trauma-informed.

Watch Grace Tame talk on the power of abuse survivors' stories. Story continues below.

Video via National Press Club.

In a statement to Mamamia, Detective Superintendent Linda Howlett - NSW Police Child Abuse Squad Commander - explained that special training is now a requirement for detectives in the Child Abuse Squad.

"Child Abuse Squad detectives are trained to provide a response and support during investigations that are often protracted, complex, and require a high-level specialist response," Detective Superintendent Howlett explained.


"Working with children who are victims of crime adds another layer of sensitivity for detectives, by assisting children and other vulnerable persons to communicate what has happened to them and capturing that evidence in a way that is admissible in court."

In NSW specifically, before a child can be interviewed in relation to sexual abuse or other major crime offences, detectives must have successfully completed the Forensic Child Interview Course. They also refer to the Police Handbook for Sexual Assault and Child Abuse, which notes the roles and responsibilities for police officers responding to survivors of sexual assault.

"A well-conducted interview will give a child or other vulnerable person every opportunity to disclose, causing minimal adverse impact on the person and reduces the amount and severity of issues that can be raised in cross-examination."

And it's not just institutions that are aiming to make a difference. 

As Dr Kezelman noted to Mamamia, Blue Knot Foundation also offers a variety of training programs for individuals and organisations to help them gain a better understanding of complex trauma.

Today at age 75, Julia is doing well. She is in a better place mentally, and is currently writing a memoir about her life, as well as being a strong advocate for the Blue Knot Foundation.


For the last 10 years, Julia has been with her partner Ross, who she credits for bringing balance and love back into her life. Plus, her two dogs round out their family of four.

But the lasting effects of trauma still rear their ugly head. 

For decades, Julia struggled with her identity, schooling and career, along with her finances, health and relationships. She's also open about the fact that she tried to end her life on four occasions - diagnosed with complex PTSD and dissociation.

"My life was challenging and I know what it's like to feel trauma so deeply. Many people who have complex trauma struggle with their overall health and life choices - relationships, finances, you name it. And that's why it's crucial for people to know about trauma-informed care and deliver it accurately to those who are victim-survivors of child sexual abuse," Julia said.

"In this day and age, how my case was handled would most likely not happen today. For example - you would have a guardian or a trusted adult accompany you to the police station, and you would have a female officer as well. In order to get DNA evidence, there would be a greater level of care as well - not just a bag of jelly beans."

Julia has come a long way from her early years. Image: Supplied.


When Julia turned 60, she decided to become a child protection counsellor - a job where she helped young people find their way through serious trauma. And she saw first hand the desperate need for a trauma-informed care model.

And she also saw when people were treated inappropriately.

"One young woman I worked with was a refugee who when she walked home every afternoon from TAFE would be raped by the same group of young men driving past in a van. They threatened to murder her mother if she didn't go into the van. She was so afraid and had no support systems. I was the first person she told. So when I went with her to the local police station to report it, the female police officer was fantastic," Julia said.


"In order to prosecute we needed to do a forensic examination at the hospital. So she went to the hospital and one of the nurses asked when the last sexual assault had occurred, and the answer was yesterday. Worried there wouldn't be adequate DNA, the nurse actually suggested that this young woman go back out there, get sexually assaulted, and then re-present at hospital. She was literally suggesting the woman be raped again. I was disgusted - that was an explicit example of uninformed trauma care. This happened 15 years ago, and I would hate to think that this still happened."

Now retired, Julia continues to advocate for victim-survivors, hoping to make a tangible difference.

"Sharing our stories, this is how we learn," Julia said during our interview. "I want to wake people up to the injustice - because when we speak up and educate, changes are made."

Recently before going into a medical procedure under anaesthetic for her back pain, Julia sat down with the specialist and briefly explained why trauma-informed care was important for her individually.

Because when she's taken into the operating theatre for the procedure on her back - meaning sometimes her bottom is exposed and her head is down - that is when she is most vulnerable. And she has asked for the anaesthetic to be delivered quickly. She's thankful to have found a specialist she can truly trust. 


"Perhaps a red sticker or note on a person's file, explaining that they have underlying trauma like a sexual assault, would work well in situations like these. It's all about having understanding, empathy, care and consideration," Julia said.

"I'm totally compelled to talk about this and make a change for new generations. Although it's emotionally painful at timed, it's to harder to stay silent. And at 75, I am ready to make noise about child sexual assault."

If you would like to get in touch with Julia, you can send an email to which Mamamia will then pass on to Julia.

For help and support for those with complex trauma, Blue Knot Foundation is there to help. Blue Knot Helpline and Redress Support Service provides specialist trauma counselling to adult survivors of childhood trauma including child sexual abuse. If you experienced childhood trauma or abuse, you can call Blue Knot Helpline and Redress Support Service on 1300 657 380. The service operates between 9 am and 5 pm AEDT, 7 days a week. All Blue Knot counsellors are experienced trauma counsellors.

 If this brings up any issues for you, contact Bravehearts, an organisation dedicated to the prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse, on 1800 272 831.

Feature Image: Supplied.