Thomas* (all names and case details changed to protect privacy) is small for his age. He’s 10, though he looks to be around 7 or 8 years old. He has autism and an intellectual impairment, but still manages to communicate well with adults. Thomas has to give evidence against a family member who was arrested and charged with multiple counts of rape and indecent treatment of a child. Thomas is his alleged victim.
Thomas’s younger brother, Max*, is a witness in the trial. Their mother suffers from severe epilepsy and has slurred speech. She can’t drive, and relies on public transport, or her elderly father to drive them around.
When PACT volunteer Rachel* was assigned to support the two brothers through their legal journey, she knew it would be a challenging case. She understands that part of PACT’s role is to support children during some of the most stressful, anxious and terrible times of their lives. What she didn’t count on, was the additional challenges presented by COVID-19.
Thomas and Max were due to give evidence in court just as Queensland enforced a lockdown. This meant Rachel was not allowed to provide the in-person service of sitting next to the brothers when they each gave their evidence from the pre-recording room as they had originally hoped.
Normally, Rachel would have spent the morning with Thomas and Max in the PACT waiting rooms in the courthouse, answering their questions, reassuring them, explaining each step of what would happen throughout the day and keeping them occupied and distracted with games until the time came for them to give evidence.
This time however, because of COVID-19 restrictions, it seemed that the boys’ family would have to find a family member to support the boys. They don’t have many options and ultimately, an aunt – the sister of the accused – agrees to go.
Aunt Audrey* is obviously confused, reluctant and worried about hearing sensitive and distressing information, and she’s afraid the boys will be too embarrassed to describe the details of what happened in front of her. Often, family members should not be the designated support person for this very reason.
PACT knows that having a family member support the victim can further damage the family dynamics. In this case, Aunt Audrey will have to hear all of the horrendous details and Thomas and Max are likely to feel embarrassed and awkward the next time there is a family gathering, birthday or other event.
Thankfully, at the last minute, the pre-record hearing is rescheduled, meaning Rachel will be able to attend and support Thomas and Max instead of Aunt Audrey. The relief for all is substantial. The boys are less anxious because, due to the rapport they’ve built with Rachel over the last year and a half, they trust her. Having PACT there when the boys give their evidence instead of a family member will also make their interactions easier after the trial is over, helping the family begin rebuilding their shattered lives.
“It just shows a world without PACT is a harder, more stressful and a less caring place,” Rachel says.
“It shows that expecting families to arrange their own support is unrealistic. Without PACT and its volunteers, it seems that families would miss the vital support they need. They become more vulnerable and the whole experience may be more damaging to the family than they anticipated and result in greater, longer-term trauma.”