Last year the Government established the Royal Commission into Abuse and Neglect of People with a Disability. Abuse and neglect of people with a disability is, sadly, very common. It hits home when it has impacted on a friend. One such friend, Melanie, has asked to share her story on The Rebuttal. The Royal Commission is looking for stories and submissions. I hope that they read this story. As a word of warning, if you are a person that has a disability and have suffered abuse, or even if you have just suffered abuse and do not have a disability, Melanie’s story may trigger a negative response in you and you may not wish to read further.
I’m Melanie Merhi, I want to talk about how I finally got justice and how the system FAILED me.
I’ll share my story
I’m deaf, I use Auslan to communicate.
I’ve been fighting for justice for years since I first reported that I was sexually abused by my regular taxi driver over a period of two years.
I was transported by taxis to school and home everyday. There were and are many children like me. They are funded by the government to be transported to and from schools that provide specialist support for them.
I was ten years old when the abuse started it went on for two years.
I firstly reported to a teacher at the high school. On hearing my complaint she basically placed the responsibility back on me and asked me what I wanted to do about it. She asked me if I wanted her to contact my parents or the police about what had happened to me. ( It should be noted here that under the law, professionals are mandated to report such incidents once they are disclosed, Editor comment.)
I said, ” No, not yet. I’m not ready yet.” I was unaware that she had breached duty of care responsibilities. I told her in late March/early April 2003. By June I was ready to report it and she took me to the Vic Police at the old World Trade Centre in Melbourne. I was 17 years old.
My statement was not taken seriously. My case was investigated and at the end they said to me “It’s your word against his”. The teacher interpreted the statement for me.
So the case was closed.
I was only a child and I had no knowledge. I had no idea of what was right. I had no information as to whether I should see a qualified person to provide support.
I always had this instinct that something was not right. This feeling continued for many years. In 2014 I started working on it and I started see a psychologist. He encouraged me to go back and see what my rights were and what further action could be taken.
I made an appointment with Vic Police to see what could be done. I went to Flemington Vic Police. It was a dead end for me again because they said to me that there was nothing that they could do and that my statement and file had been destroyed.
It was like a huge truck hitting me. I felt angry, upset and confused, just like when I was 17 years old. The interpreter informed me that by law any sex abuse statement that has been made should not have been destroyed for at least 50 years.
The police handed me out a booklet and said look for the victims of crime assist tribunal. They told me that they will acknowledge the pain and suffering I had been through. I took that path and had a meeting with the organisation. They took me onboard around in May 2014. Fast forward to the VOCAT court in November, they offered to pay money to take my family on a holiday. I was shocked, this was not what I wanted.
I told them that I wanted the taxi driver to be found guilty. I told them that this was the path I wanted to persue.
The next day, after court, a friends mother asked me if she could talk and ask me questions. I was happy to do this.
That’s the day when my life CHANGED.
The questions she asked me were:
- The school I went to and I reported the abuse to the teacher who was the “social worker”?
- Did the school contact your parents?
- Did they contact the police?
- Did the principal contact dept of human service?
- Did they contact Child protection services?
- Did they provide counselling?
I just shook my head to every question. We then looked up the law and realised mandatory reporting was established in 2000 and that the school had not followed protocol.
My friends mother then asked me about Vic Police…
Was an auslan interpreter provided? Apparently, although the teacher “social worker” is a qualified Auslan interpreter her role was conflicted.
At the time I genuinely believed she was a qualified social worker she was really only a welfare co-orindator.
Did the Vic police contact your parents?
Did Vic police make sure you had an adult/guardian presented while you were giving statement?
I was underage and not an adult. All of these things should not have occurred.
Did they provide counselling?
My friends mother asked me lot’s of other questions along these lines.
I was dumbfounded. I realised that I was not treated with respect. I realised that correct processes had not been followed. The system had let me down.
I sought advice. It was recommended that I get a case manager from People with Disabilities based in Sydney. The case manager, Linda, flew down to Melbourne and had a meeting with me. She said I had a very valid case and that she would get me a good lawyer to handle this matter. This was in January in 2015.
During that time she also organised me to meet an organisation called Know More that was helping people to submit their stories to the Royal Commission focusing on Sex Abuse in institutions.
With Know More I completed a mountain of paper work and answered hundreds of questions that centred on the handling of my case by the school and Vic Police in 2003.
The paperwork was submitted. A few weeks later an intake worker from the Royal Commission asked if I would like them to contact Vic police and see if I could get a different outcome. I consented to this. All I wanted was justice.
So I met this detective in August 2015. After several communications she notified me that she had actually found my statement and the file. I went and met her in person I couldn’t believe that she had my file.
I have documents from the freedom of information and Vic Police stating the statement had been destroyed but it was found… So what really happened?
I saw the statement for the first time since I reported it back in 2003. That’s when I realised that a lot of information was missing from the statement. It was lacking details. I remember I told them everything but a lot of what I disclosed was not in the statement.
So I provided additional information that was missing. I also had a private session with a Royal Commissioner. I remember him telling me at he end of the session do not give up this fight.
They (Royal Commission) wanted me to testify. I couldn’t because the investigation was ongoing. I was approached by a private investigator from the Royal Commission and I was asked more questions. The truth began to unfold. I found out that I was supposed to be interviewed by a detective when I first reported the abuse. I was only interviewed by a senior constable. It was just an ongoing battle. Many mistakes in process had been made in the handling of my case.
How did everything go so wrong?
It also was mentioned that the person who was handling the case back in 2003 was a criminal. Why was this not investigated?
The investigation went on for a very long time. The taxi driver was finally charged in December 2016.
Then I had to go committal hearing in the following year September. It was decided by the magistrate that there was enough evidence to head to trial. I was cross examined for the whole day. I was just exhausted.
But during those years from 2015 to present – my lawyer was always trying to negotiate with the Vic police and Dept of Education to agree to a settlement. Vic Police were offering compensation but part of the settlement was that they wanted me to stay quiet about the mistakes that were made and how I was treated!
Even after the taxi driver was found guilty and they still want me to stay quiet.
I declined their offer because I wanted to raise awareness in the community about what had happened to me. I am the living proof – People who are vulnerable deserve to have someone to speak out and help them.
I want the community to be more aware that something needs to be done and it needs to be changed. Paying people to be quiet when massive mistakes are made is not ethical. It may still be happening and we won’t know because no one is speaking up about it.
The Department of Education kept postponing and coming up with excuses. I had to see 4 different psychiatrist. It was a struggle because I had to keep repeating everything. This was cruel and traumatic.
They have admitted that they failed me. Both of them, Vic Police and the Dept of Education.
Meditation has been set by the Dept of Education and it will be happening soon.
I was battling with them while preparing myself for the trial and raising our family. Everything at the same time. I was also going through a major depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder.
Trial was set for September 2018 but it was adjourned to this year July, and it was the most brutal experience I’ve ever experienced in my life.
I was cross examined for 3 days.
The taxi driver was found GUILTY on two out of three charges after 5 days of deliberation from the jury. I finally got justice after all those years. We worked together for more than 4 years on this case.
The case is still pending because we are waiting for the judge to decide on the sentencing.
It’s time for me to get out there and raise awareness and speak out to the public. I want to make a difference to someone’s life and change the system. We need a system that we can have faith in. What happened to me should never have happened and should never happen to anyone else ever again!