Louise Nicholas taught Kiwis how to speak about sexual violence. Now, she believes the Government wants to silence her. Jehan Casinader reports.

Published in Stuff

It takes a lot to make Louise Nicholas cry.

She has been called a “slut”, a “whore” and a “media-loving liar”. Her sex life has been splashed across the papers. She has been shouted at by gang members, sneered at by lawyers and spat at by strangers. Usually, the vitriol brushes past her skin, but it does not stick.

As a rape survivor, Nicholas has led a decade-long crusade to educate Kiwis about sexual violence. It’s tough work, and she is used to taking some hard knocks.

But everyone has a breaking point. Hers came during a Zoom meeting with Ministry of Social Development officials. They revealed that her job – as the national advocate for survivors of sexual violence – would be scrapped.

“I realised that they didn’t want me around anymore,” Nicholas recalls. “I burst into tears and just could not speak. My wellbeing started to go downhill. I thought, ‘How dare they?’”

Nicholas has helped hundreds of survivors to navigate the perilous labyrinth known as the justice system. For 12 years, her work has been supported – and funded – by the government. She was shocked to discover that she is no longer needed.

“Sitting in that Zoom meeting, I felt like I had stepped back in time. Because, many years ago, my voice was taken away from me. And now, they’re going to do it again.”

On a summer morning in 1993, a timid woman stepped into the witness box at the Rotorua District Court. There, Louise Nicholas made a bombshell allegation: that, as a 13-year-old, she was repeatedly raped by a police officer.

This secret had gnawed away at Nicholas for years. At age 26, after getting married and starting a family, she decided to seek justice.

The courtroom procedure was harsh and unforgiving. Nicholas told her story from start to finish, before being “hounded” by the defence counsel. She says the lawyer claimed that she had “enjoyed” being raped.

“I absolutely felt like I was the one on trial. It was brutal. It was embarrassing. It was an emotional rollercoaster – and my family suffered because of it. I didn’t like seeing my mum cry. I didn’t like seeing the anger on my husband’s face. I was trying to support them, at the expense of my own wellbeing.”

The trial was aborted, but it was only the beginning of Nicholas’ quest for justice. Between 1993 and 2006, six separate trials focused on her historical rape allegations against multiple cops. Nicholas said she was pack-raped by three officers who had violated her with a police baton. All were acquitted, but two were jailed for raping another woman.

And in 2007, there was a disturbing postscript to Nicholas’ story. Rotorua’s former CIB boss John Dewar – the man she had entrusted with her original complaints in 1993 – was jailed for trying to obstruct the course of justice in her case.

Nicholas felt vindicated. She had been the victim of an attempted cover-up, and finally, the public knew it. Her case sparked a Commission of Inquiry into police culture, and led to changes across the public sector.

This shy mum-of-four had opened up a national conversation about a taboo issue: sexual violence.

“I was inundated with calls from complete strangers asking for my help. ‘Is it OK to go to the police? How do I do that? What’s the process like?’ Some people told me they wouldn’t go to court, because they saw all the horrible stuff that I went through. I thought, ‘Well, that’s wrong. If people don’t come forward, this cycle of sexual violence will continue.’ I wanted to make the process better.”

In 2008, Nicholas began working as an advocate for survivors – someone who could decipher legal jargon, walk them through the court process and ensure their safety.

Nicholas is based in Rotorua, but she has helped survivors – and their families – in every part of the country.

At the time of our interview, she is supporting a woman who gave evidence against a Mongrel Mob member. Nicholas spoke to police and asked if the woman could give her evidence by video link. In court, she made a safety plan so that the woman will not have to walk through a group of gang members to reach the bathroom.

“During the trial, my job is to keep the survivor calm. If they’re having a freak-out, I encourage them. I remind them that it’s actually okay to say to the judge, ‘I don’t understand what is being asked of me’.

“I say to my survivors, ‘Yes, you may be attacked in that courtroom, but you know your truth. Regardless of the outcome, you’re going to walk out of there knowing you’ve done everything you needed, to keep moving forward with your life.’”

Nicholas is rarely triggered by her own sexual trauma. But her toughest cases involve children – like a six-year-old girl who was regularly raped by her uncle.

“After she gave evidence, I took her down to Whitcoulls. I said, ‘You did such an amazing thing when you talked to the boss’. That’s what she called the judge. I wanted to buy her a present. She picked a colouring-in book and some crayons and pencils. Then she told me that she needed a stapler, and Sellotape, and a rubber…” Nicholas laughs.

“I often wonder how that girl is doing. After a case like that, I come home and say to my husband, Ross, ‘How can the human race be so f…ing cruel to our kids?’”

When Nicholas began this work, there was no template – no job description – for a “survivor advocate”. She created her own model, and now works alongside another advocate, Sheryl Martin. Sometimes, they must get their hands dirty.

“I was walking down the street with a 15-year-old, and she got bottled by the offender’s daughter,” says Nicholas. “I just clicked into bulldog mode, and I stepped in between them. I thought, ‘Girl, if you’re going to swing at me, I’m going to swing back’. I will do whatever I need to do to keep my survivors safe.”

While survivors trust Nicholas, she is also respected by many judges, lawyers, police and social workers. They ring her for advice, and count on her to look after witnesses in criminal trials. On one occasion, a 17-year-old witness decided to make a run for it. Nicholas was furious.

“I told her to get back in that courtroom. She said, ‘I’m not going back in there. You can tell that judge to go and get f…ed’. I said, ‘No, you go and tell that judge to get f…ed. It’s not up to me, mate!’”

Nicholas’ unconventional approach may raise eyebrows, but she says she gets results by connecting with people on their level. That means she “can’t always be Miss Precious”. In this case, she convinced “the witness from hell” to return to court.

“I said, ‘Look. I appreciate that you don’t want to do this, but we are almost finished. Cut that swearing out, because the judge is doing everything in her power to keep you safe. Stop disrespecting her. She has your back.’ The girl calmed down, and started answering the questions properly.

“Afterwards, she came up to me and said, ‘You know, miss, I don’t know whether to hug you or hit you’. Then she gave me a big hug, and said ‘Thank you’. We get that quite often. You learn how to read people – to understand their anxiety, and to get them through it.”

At times, Nicholas has been criticised by survivors who felt she was too close to police. But she says her role is independent, working “alongside, rather than for” the authorities.

In the early days, Nicholas would answer calls from survivors in the middle of the night, until her family told her that she was putting her work ahead of them. Now, she doesn’t pick up the phone after hours, but will always listen to the voicemail, just in case it’s a crisis situation.

“I will never turn my phone off, because there was never anybody there for me in my darkest times, other than my family. If I can listen to someone and give them a bit of reassurance, I know I can make a difference.”

For 12 years, Nicholas has been the National Sexual Violence Survivor Advocate, a role funded by various state agencies, including the Ministry of Justice, ACC and the Ministry of Social Development (MSD).

But she has always dreamt of having regional advocates across the country. When the coalition Government was elected in 2017, promising extra funding for sexual violence services, she believed her idea may finally come to life.

“I remember sitting in a hui, and I was like the Duracell bunny. I was bouncing around. I said to all these officials, ‘You guys have finally got it! Thank you. This is going to be amazing. Oh my God, I’m so excited.’”

Over many months, Nicholas shared information about her model. She told officials exactly what works, and what doesn’t.

Then in April, she was in a Zoom meeting with MSD staff who delivered a devastating piece of news. At the end of the 2020 financial year, Nicholas’ role will end.

“It was a kick in the guts. MSD had used me to put together the service that I had dreamt of – that I had spent years advocating for. And once they got what they wanted out of me, they said, ‘Thanks very much’.

“I’ve been used and abused. I never thought I would be in that position again in my life, but that’s what MSD has done. Usually, when I get kicked, I come up fighting. But this time, I feel absolutely broken.”

Skylight Trust manages her current contract. Chief executive Heather Henare was in the meeting with MSD, and watched Nicholas’ face go pale.

“I thought: ‘How dare they do this to a woman who has championed so much change in this country?’ This Government is telling us to be kind and compassionate. Louise did everything that was asked of her. Has it cost her job? Yes. Has she been treated with respect? No.”

In 2015, Nicholas was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit. In 2018, the Ministry of Justice commissioned an independent evaluation of her work. The 108-page report found that all survivors who were interviewed and most stakeholders were “overwhelmingly positive”.

But Henare suspects that some officials see Nicholas as more of a liability than an asset, because she is so outspoken.

When a story about sexual violence breaks, Nicholas is often the first person that journalists call. Recently, she has commented on the culture within Fire and Emergency, the Korean diplomat accused of sexual assault, and the sentencing of the man who killed British tourist Grace Millane.

Nicholas is known for challenging policies and procedures. If she disagrees with a verdict or a sentence, she often suggests that the judge is “living on planet dumb-arse”.

“There are people who would very much like her to stop speaking to the media and stop challenging the system,” says Henare. “At times, she has embarrassed various ministries and officials. But Louise is an independent advocate. It’s her right to say whatever she needs to say.”

And when the proverbial hits the fan, Nicholas is called in to clean up the mess. After Chiefs players were accused of harassing a stripper, New Zealand Rugby asked her to review its education programme. When law firm Russell McVeagh faced sexual misconduct complaints, Nicholas told staff how to make their workplace safer.

When a group of survivors wanted to challenge the Air Force’s handling of sexual assault complaints, they contacted Nicholas, who brokered a meeting and helped both parties to understand each other.

“We would not have got very far without Louise,” says survivor Tracey Thompson. “Regardless of whether people think she’s a bull at a gate, Louise is always thinking carefully about how she will approach an issue. I think that really scares people, because she has a mind of her own, and they can’t suppress it.

“I can’t believe MSD would cut her off like this. They’re pretty much saying to her, ‘You can’t be Louise Nicholas’.”

In response to questions for this story, MSD confirmed it will not renew Nicholas’ contract.

The Ministry says it is spending $6.3m on the Court Support Service; a nationwide system of “qualified and accredited providers” who will help survivors navigate the justice system. The service, which has been trialled in Auckland, will be rolled out over four years.

MSD has told Nicholas that she can apply for a regional role in the Bay of Plenty. But she won’t be funded to do the national, big-picture advocacy work she is known for.

Nicholas will not be funded to help children or young people, because the Court Support Service will only work with over-18s. Oranga Tamariki will be responsible for children who have experienced sexual harm. However, the agency does not have a dedicated court support service for child survivors.

“That’s horrifying,” Nicholas says, “because I have never seen Oranga Tamariki looking after a child survivor in court. Given that our children are the most vulnerable to sexual crime, why are they not getting the same dedicated support that adult survivors get?”

Nicholas plans to set up her own trust and seek philanthropic funding, to ensure she can continue her current work without relying on government money.

“I’d still love for MSD to turn around and say, ‘You know what? You’re doing an amazing job – carry on’. But I don’t know if that will happen.”

In any case, she can count on the support of her family. Their bond has grown even stronger this year, after her eldest daughter, Jess, was convicted of supplying methamphetamine. For the first time, Nicholas found herself supporting an offender – rather than a victim – in court.

“I told Jess, ‘You shouldn’t have done that s…, and there are consequences for your actions. So you’ve gotta put your big girl undies on. Be upfront and honest, and learn from it.’ That’s what she has done.”

As a recovering addict, Jess Nicholas is now clean, and is serving seven months’ home detention at the family home in Rotorua. She popped into the room during our interview to tell her mum that she had passed her drug test.

It’s a reminder that any Kiwi family can find itself having contact with the justice system. And although Louise Nicholas feels betrayed by the Government, she wants survivors of sexual violence to have faith in the criminal process.

“In my life, I have lost some battles, but I have won the war. Changes have been made in the justice system so that another young girl doesn’t have to go through what I went through. If anything happened to me today, would I be willing to go to court? Absolutely.”

WHERE VICTIMS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE CAN GET HELP

  • Rape Crisis – 0800 88 33 00 (Will direct you to a nearby centre), follow link for information on local helplines
  • Victim Support – 0800 842 846 (24hr service)
  • The Harbour, online support and information for those affected by harmful sexual behaviour
  • Women’s Refuge (For women and children) – crisis line available on 0800 733 843
  • Safe to talk – 0800 044 334, text 4334 or web chat
  • Male Survivors Aotearoa (For men) – follow link for regional helplines

If you or someone else is in immediate danger call 111.

By Jehan Casinader
Published in Stuff
23 August 2020