At the age of 14 Amanda* endured six months of sexual assaults by a family friend. Five years later she decided to report the crime. After years of court appearances, cross-examinations and extreme pain, does she feel she got justice?
Note: This article contains content that may be confronting for some people. Readers seeking support can contact the Sexual Assault & Domestic Violence National Help Line on 1800 737 732 or Lifeline on 13 11 14
She was alone in the room with a telephone in front of her. It had been more than five years since she had last spoken to the man but the memories of what he did to her had stayed close by. Now in her early twenties, she had been asked to call him and get him to acknowledge everything. The police would record the conversation and use it against him in court.
"It wasn't just a general conversation," Amanda* says, speaking down the line from her home in Victoria. "You can't just say, 'Why did you do it?' That could mean anything. You have to be point-blank specific with everything that you are talking about."
Detailing a series of terrifying sexual assaults one by one, she asked him: Why?
His response was unexpected. "I was absolutely shocked that he would even talk to me after everything that he'd done," she says. "I was shocked that he admitted to it.
"He told me that he still loved me and would leave his wife and kids for me."
The recorded conversation would be used as evidence against the man in a case that took more than five years to get through the courts.
"If I knew then how long it would take and the stress it would have on me, my family and my friends, I wouldn't have done it," Amanda says now of the court process. "Not a chance."
Amanda's family had known and trusted the man who went on to abuse their daughter, and had welcomed him into their lives. For privacy reasons, Amanda doesn't want details published about how they were connected but says he was a respected figure in her community.
The shocking sexual assaults went on for six months. They ended when the man was found to have acted inappropriately in another incident and lost his job. Amanda's parents were put off by his behaviour and cut the family's contact with him.
"I was absolutely shocked that he would even talk to me after everything that he'd done. I was shocked that he admitted to it."
At the time she was abused, Amanda was at an age when other teenagers were starting to meet boys and get into relationships. This made that part of Amanda's life even more confusing and difficult to navigate.
"It's very hard to separate being assaulted and having a boyfriend," she says. "Your boyfriend buys you gifts but so does the perpetrator. The perpetrator will treat you nicely at some stage but so will your boyfriend. It's very hard to distinguish the difference . It took me a very long time to learn and was a huge issue for me. "
Amanda says that throughout the abuse the man manipulated her into thinking he was devoted to her - despite having a long-term girlfriend who is now his wife - and this isolated her further.
"It's very hard when you’ve got somebody showing you so much attention and doing so much for you and telling you that you're the best thing in their life," she says. "They make you question yourself. I knew it was wrong, I knew he was a creep, but he's like, 'I'm the best thing that you're ever going to have' and you go, 'Oh well, are you?' I'm 14. I don’t know anything different."
In a victim-impact statement that she read in court years later, Amanda described the terrible toll the abuse had on her.
"At the age of 14, I couldn't eat, I was having panic attacks, I couldn't study, I couldn't sleep. And when I did sleep I had nightmares. I was putting blankets over my windows to avoid anyone being able to see in. Every day I had to drag myself out of bed, and then there were days I just couldn't."
She told no one about the abuse other than one school friend, who would later testify in court, and continued to stay silent long after it ended.
But at the age of 20, Amanda finally told her sister.
"She was very upset," Amanda says. "Mum said to her, 'What’s wrong?' and she said, 'I can’t tell you, I can't tell you, Amanda made me promise'."
It wasn't long before her parents found out. "They were absolutely devastated and blamed themselves," she says.
Soon afterwards, Amanda reported the assaults to the police and they began to build a case against the perpetrator.
They warned Amanda that she would have very little chance of getting a conviction − rape cases have low rates of conviction in Australia − but she pressed ahead anyway.
Partway into the investigation, the police told Amanda they didn't have enough evidence to prove the crimes. They asked her to call the perpetrator and have him admit the assaults so they could record the call and use it as a confession. By this time she was 21. "I said, 'Holy hell, you've got to be joking',” she recalls. The way she saw it there were two options: "To either give up and never know if I could have made a difference and could have pinned him for all the trauma he put me through, or give it my all and have a crack and see if I can get some evidence.
"Mum said to her, 'What’s wrong?' and she said, 'I can’t tell you, I can't tell you, Amanda made me promise'."
"I decided to do it because I thought I'd always wonder."
It was more than a year before the case was finally heard, first in the Magistrates Court which had to decide whether there was enough evidence for charges to be laid – and then the County Court.
In the Magistrates Court she was subjected to hours of punishing cross-examination. "I was on the stand for six hours on the first day and it was just horrific," she says.
"They wanted to know what I was wearing on the day, what footwear I had on, what he was wearing and what the weather was like."
She says she felt like the system was working against her and couldn't believe the way defence lawyers treated her in the witness box.
"They questioned my sexuality, they told me I was a drug addict, they told me I was an alcoholic at 14," she says.
"It’s almost like torture what they put you through on that stand."
"I felt like saying, 'If your daughter were assaulted, what would you be doing? Would you be talking to them like this?'”
In the Magistrates Court Amanda gave her testimony via video link, but in the County Court she read out her victim impact statement with the perpetrator sitting in the room.
"He had his family there: his wife, his mother, his father, his brother," she says. "I couldn't look up from my statement because I was so rattled.
"I looked at him and he was just looking at the ground. I was infuriated. I thought, 'You've done this, not me. We're in this scenario because of the crimes you’ve committed so you could at least look at me when I’m speaking to you.’
Reading the statement in court, she told the man: "It has taken me years to overcome the affects as a result of the crime you committed. I have not been able to have a relationship, as I don't feel comfortable trusting men. I am even suspicious of receiving gifts, as I fear the ulterior motive," she said.
"It has traumatised my family, because they feel they failed to protect their little girl."
"When everyone else was out partying, I was having panic attacks and too terrified to go outside. I was seeing my sexual assault counsellor several times a week, just to cope. Filling the bin with tissues because I couldn’t control my tears. I had to learn basic techniques: I had to learn how to sleep, how to study, how to have relationships - all the other things people take for granted. I was filled with anger, confusion and fear.
"As a result of the crime you have committed I felt repulsive, disgusting, embarrassed, humiliated, ashamed and I loathed my own body."
When she reached the last line, she stood up and looked directly at him. "This might be a victim impact statement, but I am not a victim, I am a survivor."
As the court process stretched into years, Amanda worked hard to get on with her life, undergoing counselling and studying for a career in healthcare. It wasn't easy. "Every time a significant event came up, the cops would call," she says.
But it wasn't just the time delays that made her angry, it was the court process itself, which she says is fixed on the idea of sexual assault survivors as "victims".
"I was told, 'You have to cry because the jury won’t believe you if you don't,’" she says. "It infuriates me that you have to be a pathetic crying mess 10 or 11 years later.
"I worked so hard to make sure I could get through every day without this having a detrimental impact on my life, only to be told, 'Go straight back there. Go back to that place and play the innocent victim card.’”
Six years after she reported the assaults, the perpetrator asked to make a deal and pleaded guilty to five of the 17 charges against him. He agreed to serve 10 months in jail. He had assaulted her for six.
Amanda's lawyers were overjoyed, telling her they had expected him to get less, but she was stunned. "I said, 'Is that it? Is that it? After all of this, after everything I've done, after the voice recording, this is what we're down to?'"
Amanda later pursued a case against the man in a civil court and again he pleaded guilty at the last minute. Amanda was awarded $40,000 in damages. She says her legal fees came to almost $20,000.
"I was told, 'You have to cry because the jury won’t believe you if you don't'."
She takes solace in knowing her rapist will be on the sex offenders' registry for life. "I felt that I had done my civil duty in that he will never work with children again." But she is adamant that the system needs a complete overhaul.
"The current process favours the accused," she says. "The accused person doesn’t have to get up on the stand and yet the victim has to be cross examined at extreme length while the accused sits back and pays their lawyer to try and destroy the victim's credibility."
She says there needs to be separate courts for sexual assault cases to bring down "horrific" wait times.
"People don't report [rape] because they hear about how awful court is and how long you have to wait to go to court. You can't live your life with it in the back of your mind."
And she says that minimal sentences like the one in her case nowhere near match the trauma experienced by victims. "I don’t think jail has the crippling effect on the perpetrators that sexual assault has on its victims," she says.
"At the moment it’s a legal system, it's not a justice system.
"You don’t get justice in court."
*Names and personal details have been changed