"When the social workers would come, we had to lie and say we were OK, when we weren’t. We were told when to turn our smiles on and off. We were careful who to speak to."
Jennifer Atherton was sexually abused by the man who was her legal guardian from the age of 7, for 10 years. It was a devastating and terrifying life of pain and trauma. Jennifer remembers living in fear. "I used to think, if only there was an aunty I could go to, to talk to. I used to think, when I get my chance, I will speak up."
Jennifer left home when she was 17. In the years that followed, she suffered silently, often feeling anger, frustration and shame. It affected her relationship with her husband and her children, and it was a very heavy burden to carry.
But connecting with Maurice Blackburn, over 30 years after her abuse, changed everything for Jennifer. They became the voice she had been searching for, for so long.
"Maurice Blackburn made me feel comfortable to speak about it. I didn’t have to feel like I wasn’t important. Worth came back in."
Jennifer brought a damages claim against the State of Queensland, the institution responsible for her as a Ward of the State.
Michelle James, Head of Abuse at Maurice Blackburn explains. "We tend to think of institutions as being a building, but it’s more useful to think of an institution as an organisation or framework – a framework that can permit or enable the abuse to occur."
If you have suffered from physical or sexual abuse within an institution – such as schools, sporting clubs, churches, foster homes or prisons – you may be entitled to compensation.
Ms James explains while clients have an expectation of financial outcomes, being heard, understood and supported is a profound benefit.
"The telling of the story is traumatic, but it can be very important part of the healing. It is free to speak with a lawyer. And then you can decide if you wish to continue. It is a very safe first step."
The process can be a difficult one. It can be traumatising for a survivor to share their story, and so it’s critical she or he is cared for and provided with a safe space to do so.
This is why the lawyers at Maurice Blackburn have received specialised trauma-informed care and practice training, to ensure they manage a survivor’s claim in a way that minimises further trauma. They are empathetic, compassionate and supportive of the survivor.
For Jennifer, this was exactly her experience. "I felt safe, and like I could be myself. Jed McNamara was like an uncle or a brother."
Ms James has been fortunate enough to witness the transformative power of a survivor speaking out. "The people we act for often tell us what a weight has been lifted. That they’ve finally told their story to someone who is absolutely on their side, who will take down those details that sometimes they’ve kept hidden for decades, and know that the details they’ve divulged and shared will go on then assist them to seek some recompense."
For Jennifer, having found that person who would be her voice, she is now no longer afraid, she doesn’t feel shame, and her relationships have flourished. And she is even helping other survivors who are ready to speak about their abuse. "You need to find someone to confide in. You can’t do it alone."