Woman 'terrified' of police, inquiry told

·3-min read

A woman's acquired brain injury wasn't discovered until she was in prison after years of domestic violence and terrifying encounters with police, an inquiry has been told.

Dorothy Armstrong told a hearing of the disability royal commission she often did not have enough food to eat as a child and grew up around family violence.

"Even though my family scared me, the police terrified me because I didn't even know them, and they were hurting my family," she said.

As a teenager, Ms Armstong told the hearing of the difficulty in getting the police to investigate when her handbag was stolen.

"The officer that became involved and ultimately investigated that and, you know, solved it ... I was raped by that officer," she said.

Subsequent attempts to contact the officer were fruitless as Ms Armstrong was told he was not in and eventually, that he no longer worked there, commissioners were told.

She recounted a series of violent relationships and despite being scared of the police, tried to get them to help as she had no one else to go to.

There was a broad failure to identify Ms Armstrong as someone who needed help during contact with police and other agencies through her 20s and 30s, the hearing was told.

On one occasion, she said she was attacked by three men and went to the police station with ripped clothes and blood on her before an officer yelled at her to "F-off".

Ms Armstrong ended up in prison after a violent incident at the hotel she was living in after her then-partner trashed her home in 2008.

While incarcerated, she told commissioners she would not always be given the antidepressant medication she was taking for her mental health.

"Having medication or not was the difference between suicide ideation or not," she said.

Acquired brain injuries were often recognised "by chance" and not picked up by the justice system or lawyers, the hearing was told.

Ms Armstrong went to prison at age 37 at the same time she found out she had a brain injury through a service provided by a hospital.

She said she first noticed her thought patterns changed when she was about 16 and described her mind as sometimes running non-stop and sometimes feeling like there was nothing there.

"It's a terrifying feeling to not be able to communicate to another human being," she said.

Difficultly in communicating could be interpreted by police and prison officers as being non-compliant, the hearing was told.

Released from prison, Ms Armstrong said she ended up living on the street and spoke of the desperation and loneliness that came with a lack of support and having nowhere secure to live.

She eventually got help, first through staying the odd night at motels before finding a spot in a boarding house and finally her current home in semi-supported accommodation in Melbourne.

Ms Armstrong now works as an adviser and peer support worker for the Supporting Justice Project and received a Victorian Disability Award in 2018.

The royal commission is hearing from 33 witnesses over eight days as it explores indefinite detention and the "cycling in and out" of jail by people with disability.