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Sally was sexually abused from the age of 3. The NSW authorities failed to protect her

Warning: This article contains serious details regarding child abuse.

Sally* was three years old when the Department of Social Services (DoCS) received notice that she had been a victim of sexual abuse that resulted in her suffering a vaginal injury.

The report was reviewed by a social worker.

Report result: “Confirmed, Referred, Closed.”

It was one of 56 “risk of serious harm” notifications DoCS received from the time she was a baby until she was removed from her home at the age of 13.

During this time, there were numerous reports of alleged sexual abuse and domestic violence, inadequate accommodation and malnutrition.

“My life was horrible growing up, I was a victim of repeated sexual assault, physical, mental and emotional neglect,” Sally told the 7.30 programme.

Sally has spent most of her adult life fighting for justice.(ABC News: Emily Jane Smith)

“I was often left alone by abusive men who were supposed to be trusted adults, who took advantage of my vulnerability and repeatedly sexually assaulted me.”

7.30 has chosen not to reveal Sally’s real name to protect the privacy of others.

She claims these incidents occurred while she was in the care of her mother and was cared for by a number of men who were not her biological relatives.

“It’s heartbreaking, I’ve lost so much,” she said.

“People were warned and did nothing, I hope this never happens to another little girl.”

In 2022, she sued the state of New South Wales for negligence. The case was settled in late 2023.

Since 2017, when the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse published its report, there has been an increase in the number of victims coming forward and seeking compensation.

7.30 can reveal a 940 per cent increase in the number of child abuse cases brought against state governments in the NSW Supreme Court in the past five years.

In 2019, there were 73 cases recorded, but last year the number rose to 687.

Sally’s case was one of them.

Her legal team argued that the state had failed to take any action despite repeated warnings and had failed to provide her with adequate protection.

“It was important for me to fight because what happened to me as a child could have been prevented,” she said.

Her lawyer, Julie Baqleh, says reports about her health date back to when Sally was an infant.

Julie Baqleh specialises in compensation for victims of child sexual abuse.(ABC News: Craig Hansen)

“Honestly, it’s sad for my client,” Ms. Baqleh told the 7.30 program.

“The agencies were doing their job, they were telling the department that this particular child had been at risk for many years, and the department was doing nothing.

“The department and the government were made aware of this… and yet they did nothing about it.”

Tens of thousands of neglected children

The problem of inaction by the current Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) was highlighted in a damning report by the Auditor General last month.

In 2022-23, 112,592 children were believed to be at significant risk of harm, yet the majority (three quarters) of these children had not had a home safety assessment.

“Their cases were closed without any follow-up action by the DCJ, and the DCJ does not know the consequences for these children,” the report stated.

“The cases of some 71,000 children were closed because there were no social workers available at home to assess them.”

“The child protection system in New South Wales is inefficient, ineffective and unsustainable.”

NSW Minister for Families and Communities Kate Washington said the audit findings were “downright unacceptable”.

‘Unacceptable’

Kate Washington, NSW Minister for Families and Communities, said the current state of affairs was unacceptable.(ABC News: Emily Jane Smith )

Current department figures put the vacancy rate for social workers at 10 per cent, but the Public Service Association believes the figure is higher if staff on furlough or receiving workers’ compensation are taken into account.

“We recruit about 500 new social workers every year but we can’t retain them, and that’s a sign that the system is not able to support them in the work they do – that needs to be part of our reform,” Ms Washington said.

Ms Washington has served as a minister since Labor won the presidency in March 2023 and has led negotiations with unions over the pay and conditions of social workers.

She says this isn’t the only problem social workers face. Barriers in the system make it difficult for them to keep their jobs.

Ms Washington also admitted that the current status quo was “unacceptable”.

“I don’t think anyone expects us to fix this in 12 months, but we are doing everything we can to put systems in place that will start to keep kids in our state safe,” she said.

“If a social worker can’t see a child, they are often referred to another agency to support that family or child. What we see in the system at the moment is that this is not being recorded and the Audit Office has pointed this out.

“We are starting to collect this data to understand whether the child received support and what happened then, but to date there has been no follow-up.”

A review of out-of-home care systems is currently underway and is due to be completed by the end of October.

Department staff are reviewing all reports from the last decade, including the Auditor General’s report, with a view to improving the system.

Long road to justice

New South Wales authorities passed a law in 2016 removing all limitation periods for child sexual abuse cases, which Ms Baqleh said led to an increase in the number of cases.

Sally hopes that by telling her story, fewer children will suffer.(ABC News: Craig Hansen)

“Since most states, including New South Wales, have changed their legislation on the Statute of Limitations, it has resulted in an influx of such cases, which is a good thing for victims of abuse,” Ms Baqleh told the 7.30 programme.

However, lawyers say there has also been an increase in delays in clients receiving documents requested by government departments.

“It’s definitely a resource issue… we used to be able to get the documents within three months, now we’re waiting 12 months, and in some situations 18 months,” Ms Baqleh said.

“That’s really funny.”

In 2022, Slater and Gordon accused New South Wales authorities of using delay tactics to deliberately hold up civil malpractice claims.

Since then, the firm has teamed up with eight other competing law firms to form a working group that meets monthly to lobby the government for faster response and more effective mediation.

  • Carroll & O’Dea Attorneys
  • Ellis Legal
  • Kelso Attorneys
  • Koffels Solicitors and Barristers
  • Maurice Blackburn’s Lawyers
  • Shine Attorneys
  • Slater & Gordon Attorneys
  • Trilby Misso Attorneys
  • Turner Freeman Law Offices

In a statement, the group said the government must “make much-needed changes to the way claims from victims of abuse are dealt with by state departments.”

Ms Washington admitted the DCJ needed to respond more quickly to alleged victims of abuse.

“The previous government made cuts to the team’s resources and we have allocated $3 million to help the team meet the exponential increase in demand for its services,” she said.

“There is still a delay and we understand that delay can have a real impact on people.”

Sally spent seven years gathering documents for her case.(ABC News: Craig Hansen)

It took Sally seven years to gather documents and go through court proceedings before a settlement was reached.

“The system failed me and I was allowed to nurse this pain and suffering, but that doesn’t mean it has to take away the rest of my life,” she said.

“Compensation doesn’t change anything, it’s just money.”

Sally hopes her story will help other survivors come forward and bring about systemic reforms within DCJ.

Sally, who is seen riding a horse, knows that no amount of compensation will change her past, even as she thinks about the future.(ABC News: Emily Jane Smith)

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