Tag: Background Briefing
Former detective senior sergeant Chris O'Connor joined the police force because he "didn't like bullies, particularly sexual bullies".
For 36 years — fuelled by the love and protectiveness he felt for his own kids — he dedicated his career to protecting children from sexual abuse.
But as an officer of Victoria Police Child Exploitation Unit he soon learned that the biggest threat was not the stereotypical predator lurking near playgrounds most children are warned about.
CONTENT WARNING: This story contains material some readers might find distressing.
Instead, what he calls "the number one challenge for society" lies closer to home and is so shrouded in secrecy that it usually goes undetected.
"Incest — intrafamilial sexual assault — is the last standing social taboo, and it's very much in the dark," said Mr O'Connor, who also headed the state's Child Exploitation squad for a decade.
Policing a crime that takes place within the confines of family, in the most private of settings, is thwarted by silence and denial.
Children are often warned of 'stranger danger' but the reality is very few sexual assault victims are first abused by a stranger.(ABC News)
"We don't allow our own emotions to see the reality of what's happening in front of us. Too often we look for things, reasons to either devalue or minimise the reality of what's occurred."
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, of the 1.4 million Australian adults who were sexually abused as children, only a fraction were first abused by a stranger.
Almost 85 per cent were abused by someone they knew, most often a close family member or even a parent.
Mr O'Connor retired from the force in 2013, but the emotion in his voice when speaking about the apathy surrounding incest reveals the horrors of the job didn't stop when his pay check did.
Intrafamilial sexual abuse typically starts at a much earlier age than other forms of sexual abuse, Mr O'Connor explained, and can continue for much longer.
Sexual assault support services:
In recent years, taboos over other forms of sexual assault and domestic violence have been brought into the spotlight by socially driven campaigns that opened conversations and drove political will and change.
"We had a most thorough royal commission into institutionalised sexual assault; we've had parliamentary enquiries into combating rape in Victoria," Mr O'Connor said.
"Where has our inquiry into intrafamilial sexual assault occurred? The answer is it hasn't, and yet it's one of the most pervasive, soul destroying and developmentally disaffecting types of crime that could ever be brought on a child."
An unspoken suspicion
Mr O'Connor said older siblings were frequently involved in the incest cases he dealt with, but that's something most parents don't want to think about.
An abused child might be surrounded by adults who fear something is wrong but hope they're mistaken.
"It's not uncommon for a mother to know or sense that something is happening," he said.
"Or indeed, be told by a child that something is happening and not do anything to assist the child, beyond perhaps yelling at the husband or the brother or the uncle or the grandfather."
Annie, whose name has been changed for legal reasons, tried many times to tell her mother about the abuse she said she suffered at the hands of her older brothers.
A Royal Commission exposed child abuse in Australia's institutions but Chris O'Connor says sexual abuse in the home still needs to be more openly discussed if children are to be protected.(AAP: Jeremy Piper)
She said she doesn't know exactly when it began, only that it was already happening from as far back as she can remember.
"My mum, I don't know, maybe she had trauma that I don't understand, but she kind of took it as my fault," she said.
Annie said she also experienced abuse at the hands of her father and grandfather, who "encouraged the boys to be rough with me".
She said there was also extreme physical violence from both her parents.
"My earliest memories were kind of structured, except the routine was ordered around violence. Discipline was extremely violent so there were injuries quite often to all of us."
Seeing her now with a loving family of her own, playing on the floor with her young daughter, it's hard to imagine the horrors she lived through.
The scars that riddle her body — some from abuse and some from self harming, which became her coping mechanism as a teenager — serve as a constant reminder.
She wears long sleeves and pants to cover them.
As an adult, Annie obtained her child services file, which documents numerous reports of abuse despite being heavily redacted.
Annie tells the ABC of other incidences, which like many cases of this nature were impossible to independently verify.
But the file makes it clear her claims of abuse were reported over many years until finally, just before turning 12, Annie was taken from her family and placed into foster care.
"In just about every placement, I can honestly say there was always someone that was unsavoury not too far away," she said.
Annie frequently fled placements and acted out as she struggled with mental and psychical health issues as a result of the trauma.
Vulnerable to further abuse
According to Mr O'Connor, past efforts to warn children of the dangers of abuse — such as the Stranger Danger campaign of the 1990's — have often left children with a false sense of who they should be wary of.
Many of the men and women who spoke to the ABC about abuse by a parent or close relative said they were taught in school it was something committed by strangers in dark alleyways.
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It took them years to realise what was happening to them at home was also abuse or something they had a right to say no to.
"The first line of defence is for the child to protect themselves — to be aware that they are in control of their body," Mr O'Connor said.
"We know that well over 50 per cent of all child sexual assault, including intrafamilial, the offenders would have backed off if the child would have shown some sort of distaste and dislike, fear, scare, anger."
This comment can be difficult to hear, but if a child has never been taught they have a right to say no to an adult, no matter who that adult is, maybe they won't.
According to Dr Michael Salter, an associate professor of criminology at the University of New South Wales, children who are already being abused at home become extremely vulnerable to opportunistic abuse elsewhere.
"They have no red flags," Dr Salter said. "They can often be hyper paranoid, but on the other hand completely blind to obvious dodgy behaviour because that's really normal for them."
Annie was no exception. She said she experienced abuse by family friends and even a stranger who lured her into a house during one of her attempts to run from institutional care.
She said the continuous abuse convinced her it was all her fault.
"If I wasn't a bad person, then my brother wouldn't have. If I wasn't a bad person, then maybe my parents would have kept me and looked after me and protected me," she said.
With no loving and responsible adult to guide her, Annie remained vulnerable to abuse well into her adult years.
She said her brothers and father continued to seek her out and abuse her even after child services intervened.
But eventually Annie did find help. It took many years of therapy and hard work to heal, along with the support of a handful of people who believed in her.
According to Dr Salter, for thousands of others the sexual abuse they experienced within the home as children never ended.
"I would say that probably for the victims that I speak to, I'd say between a third to half of the female victims have continued to experience abuse within the family over the age of 18," Dr Salter said.
"We are talking about thousands of people across the country who have been impacted by prolonged incest. Without question, we are talking about thousands."
The difficulty of breaking free
Ongoing incestuous abuse affects roughly 1 in 700 Australians, according to research by psychiatrist Warwick Middleton, one of the world's leading experts in trauma and dissociation.
He has personally identified almost 50 cases among his patients, yet there was no literature or studies on this kind of abuse when he began publishing his findings.
Warwick Middleton is one of the world's leading experts in trauma and dissociation. (ABC News: Tracey Shelton)
"I've probably seen God knows how many, the question is, how many did I identify? It's not something a patient will volunteer."
In most cases, the abuse involves a father or stepfather. Abuse from other male relatives is also common, and in a few cases the mother was a key perpetrator of sexual abuse, Professor Middleton said.
"Some of these abusers make out that the child is very special and at the other end of the spectrum there are out-and-out, absolute sadists that terrify the child," he said.
One woman, who asked to be identified only as Georgina, said the abuse began in infancy and continued for 40 years.
"I come from intergenerational abuse," Georgina said.
"I believe it's my grandfather who started and then made sure that my father continued and my younger brother learnt that this is what you can do, and this is how you do it until you are man enough to do it yourself."
As with Annie, the harrowing details of Georgina's abuse are difficult to independently verify.
She described how, from the outside, her family appeared hard-working, close-knit and highly trusted within the community.
"Unfortunately, that's not what I really grew up with," she said.
Georgina said she was not only abused by her father, brother and grandfather, but she said each would "share" her with various friends.
She said she would sometimes go to her mother for comfort after it happened, but would be told to go and play.
"After many years of trauma-informed therapy, I now know that my mother was well aware of the abuse happening to me, and was herself an abuser," Georgina said.
But there were loving moments, support and fun family outings that she desperately held onto, creating a false belief in a loving family unit.
Professor Middleton explained that the attachment dynamic — the need we have as children to be nurtured — is so strong that we make accommodation for mistreatment by dissociating it from our daily life.
"We pack away the stuff that would otherwise overwhelm us, make us go mad or drive us to suicide," he said.
"The fact is that most humans — despite the fact that their parents may be abusers on some level — want to finally be accepted, to be loved by them."
For Georgina, that attachment and the innate need to believe her family were loving and supportive kept her in harm's way, even after multiple failed marriages and the birth of her children.
Georgina said she married young as it was the only "allowable reason to leave home". But as a young single mum she moved back in with her family.
"It's bizarre that you move into abuse to be safe."
Support for young people and families
- Headspace: Centres in each state and territory or check out eheadspace for online support
- The Kids Helpline: 24-hour support on 1800 55 1800
- Lifeline: 24-hour support for all Australians on 13 11 14
She said it was fear for the safety of her children that finally gave her the strength to completely break ties with her family.
"It was one of the saddest things I've ever had to do in my life, but somebody has to break the cycle of abuse," she said.
"But I can absolutely say with a great big smile on my face that I have more of a life now than I've ever had. And it's authentic and mine."
She said the sad reality of incest, whether it continued beyond childhood or not, is that it would impact the victim forever.
"It's not just children who get abused, it's adults who have to live with the fallout of having been abused," she said.
"I'm hopefully breaking the stigma surrounding the nature of abuse — that children do get abused in their own family. It's not the stranger, not the guy down the street — I mean, it can be — but more often it's much closer to home."
What do we do about it?
Professor Middleton pointed to The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse as a model of large-scale, trauma-informed investigation that brought an end to decades of silence and forced society to reckon with the consequences.
"If we can look at these other areas with the same level of respect and understanding and genuinely listen, I mean, who knows where it could all go?" he said.
Chris O'Connor says silence on the topic of intrafamilial sexual abuse needs to end if children are to be protected in the future.(Background Briefing: Tracey Shelton)
For individuals, he said, the shame around abuse, particularly as an adult, can stop victims from seeking help.
While abuse of a child must be reported, the best we can do for an adult is listen without judgement, be supportive and accept that change may take time.
"It's actually incredibly unhelpful for somebody to say, 'Oh my God, this is still happening, get out of it immediately … report it to the police', which fails to totally take into account the conditioned responses, the shame, the fear and the reality that for many, reporting will mean an end to any semblance of family relationship," he said.
Chris O'Connor said the instinct to stay silent about child abuse within the family is part of the foundation of our society.
We don't want to see what's happening, and when we do get a glimpse, or have a hunch, we don't want to know. It rocks those foundations.
But he said every day we stay silent, "we don't know how many children are going to suffer from this".
"Everything keeps coming back to the social acceptance, the social awareness, the social norm not to speak about these topics," Mr O'Connor said.
"That's bullshit. And the sooner we learn it, the better."
Tarbuck Bay 2428
A Sydney mother has described how she and her children were forced to flee on foot through the bush as a fast-moving bushfire closed in on the wooden holiday house they were renting.
Tracey Corbin-Matchett and her family were staying in the rental at Tarbuck Bay, north of Newcastle, on Saturday.
She said they had just sat down to eat dinner when her husband Greg noticed something was wrong.
“Hubby went to get a glass of water to have with dinner, and there was no water, so he said, ‘Oh, the power must be out’,” she told the ABC.
“He went [outside] to check the fuse box and saw further down that there was smoke coming up, there must be a fire down at the road, not realising it was actually on our property.”
Ms Corbin-Matchett said the family decided to leave immediately, only taking some clothes with them in the car.
They figured they wouldn’t be gone too long.
“[We] left behind everyone’s Christmas presents and surfboards and stuff and drove down the driveway of the property, which is quite a long, winding driveway.”
But as they neared the end of the path, Ms Corbin-Matchett said they realised the fire was right in front of them. Strong winds had brought down a tree at the edge of the property, which then knocked over a power line, sparking the blaze.
Making matters worse, the fallen tree and powerline were blocking the end of the driveway.
“We had to reverse back up the driveway, with the car in reverse as the fire was chasing us, thinking that if we could sort of scramble into the house it would be safe,” she said.
Ms Corbin-Matchett (second from right), her daughters Sage and Aurora and son Zahn (centre), all had to flee the property on foot — her husband Greg (second from left) stayed behind. (Supplied)
‘My son only had socks on — he ran like a champion’
Back inside, the family realised staying put was not a safe option either.
“By the time we got to the house, fire had come over the balcony,” Ms Corbin-Matchett said.
In video footage shot by one of her teenage daughters, flames are seen shooting up trees just near the edge of the wooden balcony. Ms Corbin-Matchett can be heard in the background, talking to emergency services over the phone.
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“Hubby in his quick thinking said, ‘Get out of the house, this is not going to be safe, you guys run through the bush,'” she said.
“My son only had socks on, he’s only nine — he ran like a champion. My daughters are 17 and 15, they just ran.
“I was running on pure adrenaline, it honestly felt like I was running through quicksand … I was trying not to show panic, but I was absolutely panicked.”
Ms Corbin-Matchett and her children ended up in a neighbouring property owned by an elderly couple, who she said were “a bit surprised” to see them running into their backyard.
The NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) soon arrived and sent a truck to the holiday house, helping Mr Matchett get the family’s car off the property through a back way, avoiding the downed powerline.
“The RFS came, they were amazing. They’re so calm and they just know what to do, what to say,” Ms Corbin-Matchett said.
“They were cuddling the kids, the waterbombers were going over, they were giving us instructions on where to go and how to get out.”
The fire ended up circling back towards the neighbouring property, which also needed to be evacuated.
Ms Corbin-Matchett said the elderly couple, who had a little wildlife sanctuary on their property, were picked up by friends and taken somewhere safe.
“I hope for that beautiful old couple — that was their home that they’ve lived in for a very long time — that it’s okay and that their animals are okay,” she said.
“We don’t know what the [holiday] house is like, it was pretty close, as you can see from the video, the flames were right on the house … Hubby’s gone back today to see what’s left.”
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Now back home in Sydney, Ms Corbin-Matchett said what happened to her family could happen to anyone, and praised the “brilliant” work of the RFS firefighters who helped them.
“We were literally just sitting down for a lovely roast lamb dinner, ready to go for a surf — just the quintessential Aussie holiday — and that happens.”
The Smiths Lake area where the family was holidaying did not have any active fires at the time of the blaze, so there were no warnings in place at the time.
“It was a bit of a series of unfortunate events, but we’re very lucky, we’re back home today in the Shire thanking our lucky stars that we are safe,” Ms Corbin-Matchett said.
“It just happened in a minute, and with no warning, absolutely no warning.”