Analysis & Opinion

Canberra Wants to Shine Spotlight on Home Abuse

It has been 25 years since Hayley Blease was last raped by a family member, and all it takes is a certain scent or mannerism for the sickening memories to rush back.

“It can be something as simple as someone walking down the street who smells like him, or talks like him,” she said.

Ms Blease endured the physical abuse and callous betrayal of trust for eight childhood years.

She was told she would be killed if she told a soul.

“I was so young, I didn’t know if it was right or wrong,” Ms Blease said.

“He would come and get me [from the lounge room] at certain times of the night and it got to a point where I would have to come to him.”

The Canberra girl suffered in silence until she confided in an art teacher who became alarmed by her drawing of a man’s eyes and arms towering over a frightened little girl.

“My mother was called, Year 11 and 12 were pretty much down the drain and it was straight to court,” Ms Blease said.

But the family member walked free, because at the time a guilty rape conviction required a witness to the crime.

Hayley Blease as a child, while she was suffering sexual abuse by a relative.

Masking the abuse with a smile, Ms Blease developed severe mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and an eating disorder.

“Sadly I tried to kill myself twice back then,” she said.

But resilience prevailed.

Ms Blease has since moved to Sydney where she advocates for more support for sex abuse survivors all around Australia, including by starting her own support group called Be Brave.

When she is not raising tens of thousands of dollars for charity through extreme sporting challenges — including taking on a 100-kilometre bike ride — she is meeting with politicians around the country in an attempt to drive change for survivors.

Ms Blease has long been calling for the establishment of a special body of professionals and survivors to help protect children at risk of abuse.

But as a royal commission into institutional abuse prepares its final report, those in power are finally listening.

‘It’s not the monster in the dark’

Childhood photo of Hayley Blease, child sex abuse victim

Institutional child abuse has been in the spotlight since the royal commission began in 2013.

But with police figures showing more than half of all abuse occurs at home, Ms Blease wants the council to ensure the royal commission’s findings are applied to protect children abused in all settings.

“[Because] it’s usually people that you trust,” she said.

“It’s lawyers, it’s doctors, it’s fathers, it’s brothers, it’s uncles — it’s people that you know.

“It’s not the monster in the dark.”

Lack of specialised support

Hayley Blease sititng on her child's bed.

ACT Policing statistics show 58 per cent of all reported sexual assault occurs in the home and the latest Victims of Crime report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that family members are the perpetrators in one in five cases.

Carol Ronken from the child sex abuse victim charity Bravehearts said she believes a stronger focus on prevention is crucial.

And Ms Ronken agrees that a dedicated group of professionals, advocates and survivors is needed to drive the change.

A girl's school photo.

“I think what we will see is government investing into these recommendations as they’re handed down,” Ms Ronken said.

“But we also need survivors and advocate groups like Bravehearts, like Broken Rites, like Forgotten Australians, all of us working together as a collective to ensure those findings are implemented in the best interest of survivors.

“We need … to use this as a movement of change.”

Bravehearts does not have the funding to run its education, risk management and child protection programs in the ACT, despite offering them in most other jurisdictions.

“If there was funding for us to open up here in Canberra we’d be here in a heartbeat,” Ms Ronken said.

“Unfortunately there is no specialised expert service that deals specifically and holistically with child sexual assault here in the ACT — and that’s the case in most states and territories.”

Hayley Blease standing by Manly beach in exercise gear.

While ACT Health’s specialist Child at Risk unit delivers provides basic child protection training for ACT public school staff, Ms Ronken said there needs to be more comprehensive education and regular discussions with teachers and families, because stigma still prevents children from speaking out.

ACT Children’s Commissioner Jodie Griffiths-Cook has been in talks with Ms Blease about tackling her proposal locally and said it could be beneficial.

She said there was a need for more awareness around the signs of sexual assault and grooming.

“I think it is about knowing what those signs might look like, so if you see a bit of evidence they can put that together and say ‘this is something I want to chat to someone about, just to make sure’,” Ms Griffiths-Cook said.

‘I’m still afraid’

Hayley Blease with some of her drawings she did as a child while being sexually abused.

ACT Attorney-General Gordon Ramsay said he was confident the royal commission’s recommendations would go beyond legal reform to sufficiently improve education and counselling.

And he said the ACT Government would ensure those recommendations were implemented.

He said any specific oversight body would need the input of all states and territories.

“Because it can often take so much time for people who have been abused as children to disclose that, to be able to seek support, consistency across jurisdictions is important,” he said.

“The ACT Government is determined to do what we can [for] those people who have been through such profoundly painful circumstances.”

With Ms Blease’s trauma yet to fade, she hopes the spotlight on abuse will only get stronger.

“I’m still afraid that he’ll come back and get me,” she said.

“[But] I won’t stop talking and sharing my story until things change.

“Because once we stop talking then people stop listening and the kids can’t be heard.”