CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses sexual assault, self harm and suicide.
A 13-year-old girl is just one of more than 1,500 people who have been allegedly sexually assaulted and/or harassed in mental health wards across Australia.
Florence (not her real name) was being treated in a mental health ward in Perth Children’s Hospital last year when she was allegedly sexually assaulted by another male patient.
The ward she stayed in was mixed gender, as is the norm in Australia, though this shocked her.
During the day, a patient — who was also 13 years old — told her he would “do stuff” to her after the nurse staff left, per ABC Investigations. He woke her up later that night.
“I was just frozen, knowing he was so much larger than me,” she said.
She has alleged that he raped her, and that it was hours before nursing staff came to check on her.
“I fell asleep hugging my knees up to my chest, hoping he wouldn’t come back in.”
Even more tragically, Florence had been admitted to the mental health ward after her parents feared they would lose her to suicide. She was struggling to cope after being sexually assaulted by a stranger three months earlier.
“Absolutely gut wrenching that the same thing happened to her in less than three months. That actually broke me,” Florence’s father Luke said.
Florence’s parents fought for answers as to how this could happen to their daughter. Perth Children’s Hospital provided them with a “heavily redacted” copy of a clinical incident review which, according to ABC Investigations, found nursing staff on duty that night didn’t complete their hourly checks of patients between 12.30am and 3.30am.
The review said staff had hidden in the nurse’s station because they were apparently afraid of the male patient, but said it was unclear why they didn’t call security.
“There’s security at that hospital 24 hours a day. I do not understand why this happened, why no one was called,” Luke said.
The family were denied access to CCTV footage from that night, but were told that nurses were seen in the footage walking around and checking on patients — not hiding — when the male patient “crawled” across the floor into Florence’s room.
Florence has been left deeply traumatised by the incident, to the point where driving past the hospital can trigger self harm.
Kate (not their real name), who is non-binary, was 17 when they were admitted to a mental health ward at the Austin Hospital in Melbourne for anorexia In 2016.
They were also allegedly sexually assaulted by a male patient in a mixed-gender ward. They didn’t tell the nurses until they were assaulted by the same patient a second time after he pulled them into a shared bathroom.
“I thought it was my fault to a degree because I had walked into his room,” they told ABC Investigations.
Kate now works as a lived experience worker in a psychiatric ward and told ABC Investigations that patients who have a history of perpetrating sexual assault are often placed into the same wards as patients who have been victims of sexual assault.
Ryan (not his real name) worked as a nurse in a mental health ward, but walked away from the job because of what he witnessed.
One night shift, he was performing routine checks when he walked in on a male patient sexually assaulting a sedated and unconscious female patient.
“I activated my duress alarm and had to go and pull him off her,” he said.
He also said nurses were often pressured not to report instances of sexual assault because of staffing shortages and the extra work this would require in terms of paperwork and follow ups. He said patients were at risk of being accused of lying or attention-seeking when reporting being assaulted in mental health wards.
ABC Investigations has reported that it found more than 1,500 people have reported alleged sexual sssaults and harassment in mental health wards in Australia over the last six years.
However, those numbers likely don’t reflect the true extent of reports because patient privacy, the nature of these assaults and a lack of records means there’s very limited data available. ABC Investigations is now looking into a crowdsourced investigation into sexual violence in mental health wards and has publicly called for people to share their experiences.
Help is available.
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