How I missed the signs that my children were being abused

Paula's story serves as a warning to all parents - her kids were told by their abuser that she knew what was happening - and in the meantime, she missed all of the clues.

Australian mother Paula, 53, was happily single when she met her future husband. She says his behaviour changed as soon as she married him, but she didn’t pick up the signs that he was also abusing her daughters. Here, she shares her story, and reveals the shocking reasons behind why it took so long for the abuse to be discovered:

I answered the phone and my heart raced a little when I realised who it was.

“Paula, I was, ah, just wondering if you’d like to go for coffee with me sometime?” Lee asked nervously.

He was an insurance broker who’d come over a few days earlier to inspect some water damage. I’d made a cuppa afterwards and we got chatting about our lives.

Lee was a father of four, from two previous relationships and he shared my interest in films and books.

As I considered his proposal for a date, I hesitated. I’d divorced four years earlier and raising my kids, Steven, 15, Sam, 11, and Bek, seven, as well as running a substance abuse recovery program meant there was no time left for romance.

But Lee had seemed like a nice bloke, and he was easy on the eyes, too.

What’s the harm?

A few days later, I joined him for a beach picnic, and afterwards, he lit up a cigarette.

I scrunched up my face.

“Don’t worry, I’m giving up,” he smiled.

We started seeing each other often after that. He was a real gentleman, opening doors, pulling out chairs. As a committed Christian, I told him I didn’t believe in sex before marriage.

“I respect that,” he nodded.

My kids, desperate for a father figure, liked him too.

He’s too good to be true. Where’s the catch? I thought.

There didn’t seem to be one. He fixed things around the house and even gave up smoking for me.

Six months later, we were enjoying a romantic boat ride on Sydney Harbour, when he dropped to his knee.

“Paula, will you marry me?” he grinned.

“Yes,” I cried, throwing my arms around him.

Lee happily attended church with me and went through pre-marriage counselling with my Pastor. Everyone loved him, and when he became my husband, I was the happiest woman in the world.

But on our honeymoon at Merimbula, on the south coast, he seemed distracted and a bit moody. He spent most of his time in front of the TV watching the footy.

I tried asking him if anything was wrong, but he just shrugged.

Back home, he was even worse and started criticising me about the silliest things.

“You’re not hanging the washing right,” he said one day, taking it down and redoing it himself.

I didn’t dust for cobwebs enough, put his socks and undies away properly, and my cooking wasn’t up to scratch either.

It chipped away at me.

We spent less time together, even though he was always playing with the kids.

Not long after we married, I came home to find Sam, 12, had locked Lee out of the house. She wouldn’t say why, just that he wasn’t her dad and couldn’t tell her what to do.

Lee was furious.

“I want her out. She has to go and live with her father,” he fumed.

The two of them were daggers drawn. To keep the peace she went to stay with her dad for a few days.

Next morning, Lee found me in the kitchen.

“I shouldn’t have said Sam had to go. Tell her she can come back,” he sighed.

His mood swings were exhausting.

We’d decided not to have more kids, but then I had a pregnancy scare.

“If you’re knocked up, I’m out of here,” Lee sneered when I told him.

Would a man who truly loved me ever say that?

His relationship with Sam deteriorated. They argued constantly. Bek, always the quieter one, became even more withdrawn, too.

By now Lee worked as a school bus driver and drove one for the kids at my church too.

He started drinking a lot, most nights until he was drunk.

My marriage was failing. This wasn’t what I’d signed up for.

Steven barely spoke to Lee.

“He’s a creep,” he said. He moved out as soon as he finished school.

Sam was 16 and Bek 12 when Lee came to me in a rage.

“The girls are making false allegations against me,” he roared, showing me a text from Sam.

In it she said she knew what he’d been doing to her little sister and if he went in Bek’s bedroom again she’d tell me.

I blinked at it in horror Where the hell had that come from?

“I ain’t been doing nothing!” he spat.

That night I called the kids together.

“He comes in my bedroom,” Bek said softly, looking at the ground.

Sam was silent.

Lee glared at them both.

He conceded that, while drunk, he might have accidentally stumbled into Bek’s room once.

“But that’s it,” he snapped.

The girls didn’t say anything more.

He promised to give up the drinking, but didn’t. One time during an argument, he shoved me hard across the shoulders.

Enough was enough.

I dumped his bags outside the house one night and locked all the doors.

“What are you doing!” he roared when he got home.

“I’m done. We’re over,” I yelled.

As he smashed his way through the laundry door, I called police. They arrived just as he stepped into the lounge, face knotted in rage, blood dripping from one arm.

One morning shortly afterwards, I was eating breakfast at the kitchen table when Bek pulled up a chair, looking upset.

“Mum, I need to tell you something about Sam,” she said. “She says when she was 12 Lee started sexually abusing her.”

It felt like a punch.

She locked him out of the house! I remembered. In that instant, I knew she was telling the truth and the allegations in the text had been true too.

“Did he touch you?” I choked.

She nodded.

My entire body tensed as I felt overcome with guilt.

I worked in child protection, how could I have missed it?

“How did he stop you both from telling me?” I asked.

“He said you knew,” Bek sighed.

I felt sick.

Lee had convinced my children that I let him abuse them. How could anyone stoop so low?

When Sam came home, I took her hands, tears still welling in my eyes.

“There’s something you need to tell me, isn’t there?” I said.

Sheer horror passed over her face but she confirmed what Bek had said was true. I buried my face in my hands and sobbed.

“We’re going to the police,” I said softly.

The girls bravely agreed.

Both told officers Lee began abusing them when they were each about 11 or 12. Sam bore the brunt of it.

It lasted about three years and involved repeated sexual assaults.

Lee denied everything when the police arrested him, but he was eventually convicted on 14 counts of aggravated sexual and indecent assaults and jailed for 12 years with a minimum of nine.

I realised all his charm, in the beginning, was just an act to get at my girls.

I now know that’s how paedophiles operate – they look for vulnerable women with kids.

To think he drove the school bus and ferried kids from church around, too…

My girls’ courage has kept me going.

“We’ve got nothing to be ashamed of, Mum,” they’ve both said. “Lee’s the one who should feel shame.”

Between us we started a Facebook page called Break The Silence to raise awareness of child abuse and we’ve raised money for Bravehearts.

In her last year at school Bek bravely gave a talk on abuse.

Speaking out is hard, but it brings freedom and healing. I hope the girls inspire others to speak out.

Via Take 5

If you have any concerns about things that are happening in your own home, or the home of someone you care about, here are some organisations you can reach out to:

Child, Youth and Family – Freephone 0508 326 459 or email [email protected]

[NZ Police] ( Phone 111

Youthline – Phone 0800 376 633 or email [email protected] or text 234

Lifeline – Phone 0800 Lifeline (0800 54 33 54)

Kidsline – Phone 0800 54 37 54

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