Mia* was 11 when a family member sexually assaulted her. Now, at the age of 14, she does her best to put on a brave face as her day in court finally arrives. It isn’t hard to see through the façade to the scared, anxious teenager she is now that the time has come to tell the court what happened to her.
Ellen*, her PACT volunteer, has known Mia and her mum for a couple of years now, keeping in touch as the case slowly progressed from her initial complaint to the police, to the investigation, gathering of evidence and now, finally, a day in court to give evidence. She’s met Mia a couple of times in person, building rapport at her home visit and explaining what to expect on the day of giving evidence and what would happen before that; how they would sit together and watch the original video recording of Mia giving a statement to police, what each stage of the court day would be like, reassuring her PACT would be there every step of the way.
As an experienced PACT volunteer, Ellen is worried about Mia, having seen a clear pattern in the young teenage victims she has supported over the years; those who appear the most confident in the lead up to giving evidence suddenly transform to being the most vulnerable on the day of court.
After a brief chat with the Crown Prosecutor, Ellen walks Mia and her mum to the District Court, taking them in by the side entrance and up in the PACT lift to a secure area away from the main courtrooms to avoid bumping into the accused and his supporters. They settle in, and Ellen shows Mia the ‘remote witness room’ where they will sit as Mia gives her evidence via a video link, avoiding the need for her to sit in court with her accused.
It is a long day; there are delays in proceedings, unexpected events in the courtroom and procedural issues to deal with. The “unexpected” happens so often that experienced volunteers have learned to expect it. Mia waits anxiously for her turn to give evidence, the minutes seeming like hours. Ellen does her best to alleviate her anxiety, chatting and playing games to keep her mind occupied.
Later, as Mia sits in the remote witness room waiting for the TV screen to light up which means she is being broadcast into the courtroom, Ellen’s heart pounds as she senses the tension grow in the dear young person she is supporting. With a flash of light, the screen blinks to life and reveals the judge, defence lawyer, prosecutor, and other legal representatives. After a brief introduction, Mia begins to give her evidence. She cannot see the accused.
Mia’s anxiety is evident by the slow disintegration of the PACT stress star she is holding and picking at under the table. Ellen feels deeply saddened to see how distressed Mia is, to the point that she’s able to pick, peal, pull and tear apart the tough rubber stress star. Of course, that’s the purpose of the stress star and why PACT gives them to children, but it still saddens Ellen to see Mia’s fear and reminds her of each and every time a child has become so traumatised they need something they can subconsciously touch, pull and tear apart just to remain seated while giving evidence.
Finally it’s all over, and as they walk back into the PACT waiting area, the crumbling of this brave young person’s facade is complete. All those years of bottling up the incidents and pretending to be ‘ok’, starts to fall away. The young teenager collapses into her mother’s arms and the tears flow like a waterfall as everything she’s been holding in is released. Many tissues later, the storm of tears finally begin to stop. Mia regains her composure and at last lets go of her mum. Holding her head up high, with Ellen praising her bravery and courage, they are able to leave the courthouse.
As they say their goodbyes, the young girl throws her arms around Ellen and gives her a great big hug. After all these years of helping so many children, Ellen thinks she should have developed some resistance to tears. She hasn’t. She sheds a few tears, feeling so privileged to be a PACT volunteer and have helped Mia, and many others, through their ordeals.
*Names and case details changed to protect privacy