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Saturday, January 28, 2023

‘Sought comfort’: Stepdad’s sick excuse for disgusting abuse

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Annie Jones was a Year 7 student when her 45-year-old stepfather began raping her in 2013. She had known him since she was just four years old and she considered him a dad.

“I froze every time it happened,” Annie, now 22, says. “No words were ever exchanged by either of us … I tried to make sounds but nothing would come out of my mouth.

I wanted it to stop so badly but I never knew how. I also didn’t think anyone would believe me. He had so much authority and everyone loved him.”

Justice shouldn’t hurt, but for children in Australia, it does. The NSW Government knows how to fix this problem, but has failed to do so. That’s why news.com.au is calling for law reform to make it easier for child victims of sexual abuse to give evidence. Join the movement and sign the petition here.

The highly decorated RAAF Squadron Leader was well respected by the community. He had even been awarded a Queen’s Birthday Honours – The Conspicuous Service Medal – during the period of time he was raping Annie.

Finally, in 2015, when Annie had reached Year 9 at Tara Anglican School for Girls in Paramatta, NSW, she disclosed the abuse.

“I snuck out to a festival and came home with a hickey on my neck,” Annie says. “He grounded me and called me ‘a slut’. That is when it just came out of my mouth. I didn’t want to say it because I knew it would hurt my mum, but I looked straight at him and said, ‘It’s nothing more than you have done to me, Dad’.”

Initially, he denied it, calling Annie a liar, but her mum Tracey Morris’ “motherly instincts” kicked in.

“I asked a few questions; when did this happen, where did this happen. She just went bang, bang, bang with answers, there was no pausing to think about it,” Tracey says.

Tracey learned that the worst offending had happened in 2015, while Tracey had been looking after her own mother with cancer.

“Annie wouldn’t have wanted to disclose while I was helping Mum. And he knew that. My mum passed away in March 2015 and Annie disclosed later that year in October.”

Tracey immediately confronted her husband: “I asked him calmly, ‘What is she talking about?’ and he said: “When I returned from Afghanistan, we had wandering hands.”

Tracey was disgusted.

“I thought you must be kidding, she can’t consent to anything, you’re her father and my husband. He was using language to minimise it as though it was mutual, one off and no big deal.

“I asked him directly, ‘Have you had sex with our daughter and he nodded.”

Tracey kicked her husband out of the house and Annie reported the rapes to NSW police with her mother’s support. Tracey was then asked to do a recorded phone call to help police obtain a confession.

“The phone call was approximately 40 minutes long. While talking about his time away in Afghanistan I said ‘I don’t know how that made you have sex with our daughter,’ he responded ‘I know, I know, I know’.”

Shortly after that, Annie’s stepdad was arrested and refused bail. But weeks later, in February 2016, he appealed the decision in the NSW Supreme court.

“I expected him to stay in Parklea prison and I would be getting on a plane home,” Tracey says.

Instead, not only was he granted bail, with no financial bond, he was also permitted to leave the state.

“We were in shock, I couldn’t believe it,” says Tracey. “Leaving the jurisdiction was unheard of. Yet the judge gave him bail to move to Queensland, the same state where we were now living in too. There was no consideration for Annie. The one thing that [had] made Annie feel safe was that he was in [a different state].”

Worse still, no restrictions were placed on him being around children, parks, schools, beaches, or any other venues where young people congregate.

“The very first photo he put up the next day was of him at the beach in Queensland,” says Tracey.

He was painted as a good guy, a war hero

Annie and Tracey were both devastated that he had been released on bail. But even more alarming were comments made about the alleged rapes.

“He is ex air force and has done two tours to Afghanistan,” says Tracey. “The judge talked about him as a ‘war hero’.”

According to Tracey, the judge said as “a man who has defended our country” and who “served in Afghanistan and returned with post traumatic stress as many military personnel do … He has sought comfort and affection in the wrong place.”

“Tears started pouring down my face when she said that,” Tracey says. “I remember thinking ‘how can you say this about my baby?’ [Comfort and affection?] As though he’d had an affair [with another adult, which is] totally different to rape of a child.

“I walked past his supporters to leave the courtroom with tears still pouring down my face, while looking at the grins on theirs.

“It was sickening to my stomach. He would be leaving NSW the next day to live in the same state as us and I was the one that had to fly home and tell my daughter. It was devastating.”

Out and free

The impact on Annie was immediate. Her own post traumatic stress went into free fall as she suffered stress, anxiety, flashbacks and night terrors of reliving the abuse.

Then in November 2016, a year after the abuse was first reported to police, Annie received a notification from her Facebook account saying that her account was temporarily locked as someone was attempting to change her password.

Moments later she received another notification that a login attempt had happened four hours ago with a map and drop pin at the exact location where the paedophile was now living.

“She broke into tears, saying ‘he’s trying to get into my sh*t, this is freaking me out,’” remembers Tracey.

Screenshots – which news.com.au has sighted – were taken and sent to police along with the IP address of the suspicious activity.

“Despite having the IP addresses, we were told that nothing could be done because police couldn’t prove who was sitting behind the computer at the time,” says Tracey.

“Annie was petrified … When you are a 16 or 17 year old girl, social media is your life.”

Three years of delays

Initially the trial was expected to start in August 2016, but this was soon delayed by the defence claiming they had not had enough time to prepare.

A new trial date was scheduled for April 2017. Not only would it clash with Annie’s birthday, the detective was also not available so once again the matter had to be moved.

Next it was scheduled for June 2017, this too was cancelled.

Finally a date was set for March 2018 – during Annie’s HSC year. The trial was set down to run for at least a month during school term, despite the family and DPP having requested it be run during school holidays.

Fed up, Tracey wrote to the NSW Attorney-General, Mark Speakman explaining the huge mental and emotional impact on Annie and urging action.

Tracey also pointed out the potential risk to the community created by the three-year delay: “The ‘Justice System’ is allowing an accused child sexual predator to mix amongst the community with no restrictions to be near children.”

When the response finally arrived, Tracey was furious.

“It was a standard response referring me to Victim Services for counselling for Annie,” Tracey says.

“The worst part was having to constantly explain it to Annie. It was this dark cloud constantly hanging over our heads. [Every delay was] an attempt by the defence to wear Annie down. After all, without her giving evidence there [would be] no case for him to answer.” ​

It almost worked too. When the court scheduled the case to clash with Annie’s birthday, she’d had enough. “She said, ‘stuff it. I’m not doing it’”. By now Annie was also suffering frequent dissociative episodes or blackouts, waking up in Emergency.

“All I wanted was to be a normal teenager, like my friends, but they all know what has happened to me now. While they are stressing about what to wear to a party, I am going to psychiatry and making statements about abuse. As a teenager you just want to fit in, I have never felt normal,” Annie says.

Utterly frustrated by the system, Tracey decided to take matters into her own hands.

“I’d done my own research and found out about a program [designed to make court less traumatic for children.]

The program, known as the Child Sexual Offence Evidence Program, had been introduced in 2016, and was available in two locations: Newcastle and the Sydney Downing Centre.

Initially Annie’s case was being handled in Parramatta District Court meaning she was ineligible for the pilot program. But during one of the delays, the matter was moved to the Downing Centre by chance.

Tracey fought to get Annie access and was ultimately successful.

This meant that a specially trained judge would oversee the matter and that the delays would be minimised. It also meant that a witness intermediary would be appointed to Annie, to help her through the process.

“I do believe I was fortunate to be able to be a part of the program,” Annie says.

“[But] child sexual abuse victims shouldn’t have to feel lucky or fortunate to be heard by a judge who can understand and empathise with them. It should be a right.

“I have never felt more exposed than I did repeating and hearing all of the heinous things he did to me – an extremely confronting experience.”

As part of the program, children also meet with an independent expert who then writes a report to the judge about the child’s communication needs and their level of intellectual and emotional understanding.

Based on that report, the judge can then make orders to prevent communication styles which might intimidate, overwhelm or deliberately confuse the child.

“My evidence was so clear and I felt empowered by how strong I was,” says Annie. “I was able to tell them every single detail.”

Then, on the morning the trial was due to start in court – Annie and her mother received a phone call to come to chambers.

The offender had agreed to plead guilty to 20 charges including 10 counts of aggravated sexual intercourse with an underage person.

Finally, in 2018 Annie’s stepfather was sentenced to 17 years imprisonment with a non parole period of 11.5 years.

During sentencing, Annie delivered her victim impact statement from the witness box, looking directly at her offender throughout the 40 minutes she spoke.

“The Judge in the pilot program was empathetic towards Annie and what she had been through,” says Tracey.

“The Defence team wanted to cross-examine Annie [on] her Victim Impact Statement, which the Judge did not appear impressed by.

“The judge protected Annie.

“In my opinion it is imperative that all Judges in child sexual abuse cases receive this training. It is the Judge who controls the conduct and has the greatest impact on the courtroom.”

Justice Shouldn’t Hurt

Having experienced both the standard court system, and the Child Sexual Offence Evidence Program, Annie and Tracey are now throwing their full support behind news.com.au’s Justice Shouldn’t Hurt campaign’s push to expand the program to all NSW courts. The campaign was launched with the Milthorpe family who were traumatised by the NSW child court system.

“I feel lucky because I know not everyone can have their case heard in this program and I did,” says Annie.

“Before the program, I felt so alone and insecure. I worried about court and everyone’s views and judgements.

“I also wasn’t allowed to speak to my mum about anything as she couldn’t know my evidence in case she got called as a witness. So instead you are on your own bottling up thoughts and emotions as a 15 year old girl.

“But once I was in the program I felt less alone, less petrified. It made me feel much safer.”

At present, the program is only available in Newcastle and Sydney’s Downing Centre, meaning up to 96 per cent of NSW children who may have need of the program are not eligible to access it.

“Every child victim of sexual abuse should have the same support regardless of where they live or where the offence happened, otherwise we are not dealing with a ‘fair and just system’,” Tracey says, adding that she only wishes Annie had been in the program right from the beginning.

The NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman has agreed to meet with the Milthorpe family in the New Year to discuss the Child Sexual Offence Evidence Program, so far over 55,000 signatures have been collected on the petition.

Annie and Tracey have now also set up a registered charity called No More Fake Smiles.

The charity aims to give a voice to child victims of sexual abuse (CSA) throughout Australia by: empowering children to speak up; educating adults to listen; raising awareness of the mental health impacts of abuse; funding therapy; and advocating for change in the judicial system.

“Life is never the same after an experience like this and it would have been very easy for me to become a bitter twisted old woman that hates the world” Tracey, who is CEO, says. “However I made a conscious decision to not let these events ruin me and turn an awful situation into a positive one. I have made supporting children and youth recovering from CSA my life purpose.”

Tracey and Annie have now supported numerous other families through NSW courts in child sexual offence matters and say they have seen up close how urgent reform is needed.

“Child sexual abuse doesn’t discriminate, so why should the system?” Annie says.

Join the Justice Shouldn’t Hurt movement and sign the petition here.

Nina Funnell is a Walkley Award winning journalist and sexual assault survivor advocate who has created the Justice Shouldn’t Hurt Campaign in exclusive partnership with news.com.au.

Contact us: [email protected]

Originally published as ‘Sought comfort’: Stepdad’s sick excuse for disgusting abuse



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