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Jaclyn McCosker

Blogger, social entrepreneur & freelance copywriter

Australia

How the system failed my friend

How the system failed my friend

Today, my friend sits in hospital, stricken with panic attacks.

Three years ago, she was the victim of a violent home invasion and attempted murder.

This is the story of how the system failed to serve and protect her.

Out of respect for the seriousness of the issue, I try to be explicit without glossing over the violent details that categorise the crime and the trauma she suffers as a result. If you are a victim yourself, please do not read on without careful consideration as I do use direct language.

While my friend is open to discussing what happened, her daughter who was present is underage, so we will exclude names to protect her privacy. For sake of confidentiality, let's call the protagonist Nancy. If you identify Nancy, please don't let anyone in on the secret!

Late in the evening of Nov. 18 2012, the sounds of someone trying to get through a security screen door triggered Nancy to call 000. She was aware that it was an intruder, but remained calm since the house was locked with security screens on every door and window. As they moved around the house, breaking various windows and trying to beat down doors, Nancy gradually became aware that the situation was serious. When she heard the unmistakable sound of the back door breaking, she told the emergency operator they were about to enter the house. She was instructed to wake her pre-teen daughter and hide while police were dispatched.

It was at this point he broke through the second back door, and found a knife in the kitchen before heading to the daughter's bedroom. He was able to enter as they had no internal door locks. Nancy passed the phone to her daughter and barricaded the intruder at the bedroom door, where he grabbed her and held a knife to her throat. Nancy then used the full weight of her body to push him outside of the room and pull the door shut, while the man-made explicitly sexual and violent threats to the mother and daughter, promising to kill them both when he was done.

From inside the bedroom, her daughter yelled warnings to the man that her mother knew karate. Only two nights before, Nancy had taken her first ever class (where she thankfully learned what to do when the attacker has a weapon). Coupled with knowledge of tae kwon do, Nancy did put up a fight. She managed to stun the man with a blow to the face, while suffering multiple stab wounds all over her body including five in the stomach. When he moved to undress her, she was able to disarm him of the knife and throw it beyond reach, while simultaneously inflicting a deep slice across her palm. It was then that a punch to the face knocked Nancy to the floor, and he was able to rape her. Once finished, he attempted to strangle Nancy to death. Fortunately it was at this point the police pulled into the driveway, and the man fled without finishing what he set out to do. What the police found was a scene of such horror that the first into the daughter's room left the police force immediately and never worked another day in the field. Despite the compassion of the first responder's who followed her court case and showed genuine interest in her wellbeing, it was immediately after the incident that our system began to slowly fail my friend.

After gluing together the more serious knife wounds, Nancy was asked to sit and wait for the forensic evidence unit to collect samples at the scene of the crime, which took several hours. During this time Nancy was covered in semen and blood, and had shards of glass embedded all over her body. While waiting, mother and daughter were unable to comfort each other as physical contact could contaminate the crime scene. While this protocol may be justified in its efficiency, Nancy feels years later that being treated this way still has psychological impacts. She felt that in the worst moment of her life she was reduced to a piece of evidence, and there was not adequate support for someone in such a fragile state.

After the forensic unit finished, it was a long night of having her wounds treated and a rape kit performed at the hospital, followed by recounting the crime in minute detail to the police at the station.

When Nancy arrived home at 6.30am (at this point over 24 hours without sleep), she arrived to a site of devastation. Her home was destroyed and covered in her own blood. She then learned that her dog had been taken to the emergency vet for treatment of a broken pelvis. Nancy now had to make phone calls to all the members of her family daycare to tell them she couldn't continue to look after their kids anymore. She found her cat, picked up her dog from the vet and drove out of town to her mother's. At somewhere around 9am, Nancy arrived and finally had her first shower. The shock began to wear off. She finally felt the pain of her injuries and began to process what had just happened.

It's important to reflect at this point how Nancy and her family must be feeling in the immediate hours after the incident. But it only got worse.

At 11am, a policeman called. In her own words, "A police officer rang when I was in Foodworks, told me he was unsure about whether a break in occurred, told me to tell him the name of the person who supposedly broke in, then told me to stop wasting police time and resources, that if I changed my mind about wanting to have sex with someone after the fact that isn't rape."

After multiple doors and windows were smashed, the dog's pelvis fractured, the man's threats audibly recorded on the 000 call, and the evidence of numerable stab wounds and cuts to her person, a police officer still had the gall to suggest that the incident had in fact not happened at all. Nancy even recalls being questioned about what she was wearing (despite being in her own home behind locked doors). Keeping her cool, Nancy informed the officer that victim blaming leads to suicide, and asked him to leave the case and never contact her again.

When she reported the police officer, he was removed from the case and he ceased contact with her (although I believe he remained employed at the police station). However, in a last-ditch attempt to make her suffer further, this man called child services and accused her of not protecting her child which required a formal investigation. Fortunately, child services found no grounds for the complaint. I'm unsure what his motive for covering up the crime was, perhaps he was pals with the perpetrator. But this treatment of a victim by those who are designated to protect her continues to haunt me every time I recount Nancy's story.

A few days later when required to go back to give further evidence to the police, Nancy was unable to recall what the attacker looked like. She knew his height and his body type, but had suppressed all memories of his face. However, the man was not a stranger to her young daughter. She said the man was in fact an uncle of her school friend she recognised and saw in their area from time to time.

No arrest was made.

Fast forward two months, and police call to say they've matched his prints to a man who "stole money" from a prostitute. When this man had raped a prostitute, he was only charged with theft because he didn't pay her, and the victim was almost charged with soliciting a minor despite her lack of consent. In the end all charges were dropped, and his first known rape victim still lives without justice.

No arrest was made.

June 2013, seven months after the attack, and the police call to say they've got him. He was arrested for theft when it was discovered his fingerprints and DNA were a match. From here, they were able to search his house. What they found were Nancy and her daughter's birth certificates and hundreds of photos of the pair taken over several years before the crime. It was then they found out this was not a random break and enter, but a perverted obsession of a mentally ill person who had stalked them for a length of time.

At this time Nancy also found out that the attacker had been a minor. He was 17 years and 9 months old at the time of the crime. And as a juvenile, to protect his privacy, she was not able to know his identity. The man that promised to kill her was allowed confidentiality, and no measures to protect her from either him or his friends were made. You cannot go on the Victims Register if you don't know who you are protecting yourself from! But the police assured her that he would be tried as an adult and go away for a long time.

Fast forward another nine months, and finally the case goes to court. As he was now an adult and his name could be published in the news, the perpetrator pleaded guilty to avoid a trial and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Half the minimum sentence of 24 years. He was not tried as an adult, despite the violence of the crime and being over 19 at the time of trial. All his records are sealed, and it's unknown why they chose to trial him as a juvenile. He was also not charged with stalking, as he lived in a sharehouse and they could not pin the evidence onto him specifically. Nobody was ever charged with taking the photos.

He was given a four year non-parole period, but Nancy was assured once again that he could never qualify for parole. The nature of the assault coupled with the physical injuries and intent to kill guaranteed he could not be let out before the 12 years. But the bungling of the justice system wasn't over yet.

Unable to find out his identity to put herself on the Victims Register, Nancy had to take self-protection into her own hands. By learning his address, she was able to find a name listed as a tenant by government housing that matched half a name a police officer had accidentally let slip in conversation. After this man attempted to kill her two years earlier, she finally found out who he was.

The Victims Register is what allows you to monitor your attacker. Once she got herself in she was able to see details such as parole and release dates - information that she needed to stay alive. Unfortunately, by the time she learned where he was, it was too late to prevent what had happened next.

23 months after his arrest in May 2015, the perpetrator was released. He was granted parole within two years, despite his four year non-parole period. Two weeks out, he raped his third known victim and was put back into prison. If she had been given his name from the outset, she would have been able to petition the court with overwhelming evidence of his intent to kill that suggested he would strike again, and she could have prevented the attack and saved his next victim.

Due to the complete injustice of the justice system, a third innocent woman has had her life ruined by a deranged criminal. A man that should have been in prison for another decade!

This time we hope he serves out the length of his first sentence, plus the length of this new charge on top.

During most of this time, Nancy didn't speak to a therapist or psychologist. For 20 months, she was left with no emotional or mental support. Nobody would take her as a client while the case was open, and her family while struggling to come to terms with the assault couldn't handle her speaking openly about it. Living in a non-metropolitan area, she was neither offered nor could find the support she evidently required. Nobody can come out of that level of trauma unscathed.

She says for the first year she was OK, but over time during the past two years Nancy's mental health has increasingly grown worse. She is unable to work or live alone, and panic attacks and suicidal thoughts have overtaken her life. At the time of writing it is almost 3 years since the attack, and Nancy has been in hospital for several weeks to monitor her sleep and medication. Something as simple as seeing a man outside her window can paralyse her with fear and leave her unable to communicate to the nurses. They watch her for suicidal behaviour.

In July 2014, she tried a therapist that didn't work out. It wasn't until March 2015 that Nancy finally found one to work with her. And so far, the support has dealt with the imminent fall-out and mental breakdown, and she hasn't even begun to deal with the underlying emotions that are triggering the mental health issues.

This new psychologist has been wonderful, and connected her with Victims Assist Queensland who will now reimburse her for the many thousands of dollars she accrued in ongoing medical and legal fees. This is especially important as a single mum, as she has not been able to work since the incident.

But what she needed for those 28 months after the attack was specialised trauma therapy to make sure she was OK. She should never have had to worry about seeking help, it should have been handed right to her. Nancy's mental health should never have been left to reach the point it is now. She deserved somebody to equip her with the skills to cope before the post traumatic stress could even set in.

Over the past few months however, Nancy has worked with lawyers and politicians in trying to fix two of the laws that have failed her so terribly. Despite her crippling anxiety, she has been proactive in assuring this doesn't happen to women in the future. Firstly, she believes that she had the right to know who tried to kill her, and that his juvenile status was irrelevant. To not know the name or appearance of your attacker or even where he is, is to me worse than any jail sentence. To live in that level of unknowing is torture. When any man on the street could be him, there is no peace or justice for the victim. What happened to the third victim was completely avoidable. The law can and should be overturned.

The second law she hopes to change is around protection orders. As it stands, you can only get a protection order for domestic violence (involving family members, romantic partners or carers) and there is no alternate order for people who are unrelated. Nancy was stalked and raped by a man obsessed with her, but she has no legal recourse to demand he stay away from her. These orders place a specified behavioural bond that prohibits actions like stalking, obtaining weapons, and gives police the right to detain the person if they break the order, allowing the victim to get away. It makes attempts to contact the victim a criminal act. And to not allow a victim of such a violent crime the right to these basic protections from our justice system is a level of neglect that I cannot comprehend.

The victim here was disbelieved, denied adequate emotional or financial aid, denied the right to know life-saving information, and justice was denied with inadequate sentencing and an inability to even keep the criminal behind bars.

It's clear that our legal system is built on a sturdy base of historical misogyny. It's not intentional, it's probably not even noticeable when you're standing too close. I'm sure lawmakers and those who uphold them would be as upset as I am by the loopholes that see violence against women taken less seriously than many other crimes.

But for centuries our laws have been written by men and only men. Women have hardly had a look in at the laws that are meant to protect them. This is but just one story that shows our justice system is not in the favour of sexual violence victims, and things need to change quickly.

Women must become active agents in deciding the laws that govern their lives. But the first step to any social change, is awareness. Be aware that these crimes are happening, and be aware of the legal repercussions (or lack thereof) for the criminals. Don't wait for it to happen to you to take notice and care.

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