As outrage mounts over a judge's decision not to jail nine Aboriginal men who gang-raped a 10-year-old, a shocking picture has emerged of how the girl was neglected by officialdom.
The girl, who lived in the troubled Queensland community of Aurukun, on Cape York at the far north-eastern tip of Australia, was raped last year by six youths aged between 13 and 16 and three men in their early 20s. The trial judge, Sarah Bradley, concluded that the girl "probably agreed" to have sex with them.
Her leniency, coupled with that comment, caused a national furore, and sparked an anguished debate about a justice system that apparently views the rape of a black child as a not particularly grave offence.
For the 10-year-old girl, the scandal began long before the men's trial, at which Steve Carter, for the prosecution, described the gang-rape as "childish experimentation".
Like many Aboriginal children, she was born with foetal alcohol syndrome and is, as a consequence, intellectually disabled. A skinny, vulnerable girl, she was abused by a family member before she turned five.
Placed in foster care, she was then returned to Aurukun, where she was raped at age seven by five boys – including, according to her mother, some of the nine who recently escaped jail. She contracted syphilis and received severe genital injuries. The girl was again removed from the community, and placed with a white foster family in Cairns.
But she displayed precocious sexual behaviour and, her foster parents warned the authorities, was offering sex in exchange for cigarettes and alcohol.
Despite that, she was allowed to return to Aurukun for a funeral last year, and to stay on. Within weeks, as well as being gang-raped, she had been raped on at least six other occasions. She went to the community clinic and asked for a pregnancy test and condoms. Tests showed she had gonorrhoea. Child safety officials were alerted, but they did not notify police.
When police eventually did find out, they demanded that she be immediately taken into care. One child safety official insisted that she stay in Aurukun for a weekend outing with her family. There was no outing, and she was raped again. At their trial, the six boys were discharged without conviction, while the three young men received suspended sentences.
One of the most disturbing features of the case is that the girl does appear to have consented to sex – as far as a 10-year-old with the mind of a five or six-year-old can consent.
In the eyes of the law, of course, a girl of 10 cannot consent, so the offence is automatically rape. Yet the court heard that she agreed to meet the nine defendants for sex, and a paediatric surgeon who examined her told The Australian newspaper: "She seeks attention by sexual acts with other people."
That not only indicates how damaged the girl is, but also speaks of a level of sexual dysfunction in Aurukun that is confirmed by welfare workers – and which is replicated in Aboriginal communities around Australia. Abuse is rife, and babies are born to girls of 14 or younger.
The prosecutor in the case has been suspended, and the Queensland attorney general is to appeal against the sentences. But the furore shows no sign of dying down. Yesterday, it was alleged that Queensland government ministers had instructed welfare workers not to tell police about hundreds of suspected child abuse cases in indigenous communities.