Abuse survivor awarded over $744,000 in case against her adoptive father

March 17, 2020

A woman who suffered years of abuse at the hands of her adoptive father from the age of three until she was 27 has been awarded over $744,000 in damages.  The claim was made possible by changes to the law relating to the time limit within which a claim for personal injury resulting from abuse of a person when they were a child can be brought before the Court.

In 2017 the offender was arrested and charged with one count of maintaining an unlawful sexual relationship with his adopted daughter.  The offending for which he was charged comprised a series of atrocious unlawful sexual acts upon her from the age of three until age twelve and in January 2019 he was sentenced to over 9 years imprisonment.  The man’s plea of guilty to the criminal charges was made after admitting to having sexually abused his adoptive daughter during a taped telephone conversation with her.  Two months after he was sentenced, the woman commenced her claim for damages at the age of 44. 

Shortly after she was born, the woman’s mother put her up for adoption.  The offender and his wife commenced to ‘care’ for her in September 1974 and formally adopted her in March 1975 when she was about seven months old.  The woman first recalls being sexually abused by her adoptive father when she was aged about three.  The abuse was said to have been of the most serious kind and having occurred on an almost daily basis until she was aged twelve.  At that time the offender was arrested and imprisoned for sexually abusing one of the woman’s friends, however after he was released from gaol he returned to the family home and she said that the abuse then continued although from then the nature of the abuse changed and no longer involved direct physical contact.  This was said to have continued until she left home in her mid-twenties to live with her boyfriend. 

The law removing the time limit within which damages claims for injury resulting from abuse can be commenced only relates to abuse of a person when they were a child.  Therefore, although the woman complained that she was abused by her adoptive father up until the age of 27, her claim was confined to damages arising from the abuse she suffered until she turned 18.

Although there appeared to be some inconsistencies in history of events that the woman had provided, the Court commented that this can be explained by the fact that the trauma of sexual abuse on children can impact on a victim’s ability to accurately recall the abuse, because of years spent trying to forget the abuse, and the passage of time.

Evidence from a psychiatrist was provided to the Court that supported the woman’s claim that as a result of being sexually abused on a regular basis when she was a child, she has suffered chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a chronic Major Depressive Disorder and Sexual Dysphoria.  As a result, the woman has suffered ongoing anxiety giving rise to a fear to leave the home, fear of certain public environments, general distrust of others (particularly men), difficulties forming and maintaining personal relationships and social anxiety.  She has suffered nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacked because of the abuse and at times has been suicidal.

The Court also found that because of these injuries and the ongoing mental trauma caused by the abuse, the woman has struggled with addictions to drugs, alcohol and cigarettes and has had difficulty maintaining a normal body weight.  At times she would under-eat and at other times she would struggle to lose weight because of binge eating and the side-effects of medication. 

The Court described the abuse of the woman by her adopted father as being of the most serious and abhorrent kind, committed at a crucial stage in her young life, on a frequent basis and over a sustained period.  There were countless acts of rape and sexual assault, all committed on a scared and vulnerable young girl, by her adoptive father. 

In assessing damages the Court noted that because of the nature and frequency of the abuse, it had shaped the adult that the woman has become.  Having occurred when she was of such a young age, and continued throughout her childhood, it has had life-long consequences for her, affecting almost every aspect of her life.  Her ability to properly learn and emotionally mature was significantly impaired, and her schooling was likely to have been compromised both in terms of her level of attendance and her ability to concentrate and focus on her studies.  Added to that, her difficulty in maintaining close friendships which was caused by the depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder meant that she was deprived of both the academic and social aspects of her school years.  The impact of the abuse on the woman’s behaviour and emotional well-being was a significant contributing factor to her leaving school during Year 10 without any formal qualifications which impacted on her ability to earn a living.

As part of the damages awarded by the Court, the sum of $50,000 was provided for aggravated damages.  Aggravated damages are awarded when the defendant’s conduct is so outrageous that an increased amount is necessary to appropriately compensate the injured person for the increased suffering caused by the manner in which the wrongdoing was committed.  The Court took into account that the offender was the woman’s adoptive father with whom she should have felt safe and cared for.  Some of the assaults were committed while she was restrained and completely helpless and vulnerable and he threatened her with violence if she ever disclosed what happened.  In those circumstances an award of aggravated damages was warranted.

In total an award of over $744,000.00 was made in favour of the woman against her adoptive father for the abuse she endured.

This case is an example of the importance of the changes to the law extending the time for which survivors of abuse to make a claim against the abuser and highlights the reasons why those who have been the subject of abuse might take a long time before they are psychologically able to make a claim and the Courts’ understanding of that fact.  Anyone who is the survivor of childhood abuse can arrange a confidential no obligation free consultation with a specialist injury claims lawyer at Websters Lawyers to find out whether they can make a claim by calling 8231 1363 or requesting a call here.

S, M v S, RK ([2019] SADC 184