It began innocently enough. He asked her for help with his maths homework.
Some stolen glances followed. The casual brush of skin on skin.
Before long, Australian high school teacher Natalie* was sleeping with her teenage student.
The sex took place several times over two months – in his home, hers, at the school.
Natalie’s victim was aged just 15.
This was no innocent dalliance: It was a serious crime.
The disgraced teacher now claims she was depressed, and craving love, after her marriage broke down.
“What I did was wrong,” she told The New Daily.
“I didn’t tell a soul. I felt so much shame and guilt.”
The boy bragged about the relationship to his mates, but no one alerted authorities at the time.
Almost five years later, the victim went to the police.
Natalie was arrested, charged, and convicted – after pleading guilty – of indecent assault and three counts of aggravated sexual intercourse.
The aggravating factor was that the victim was under Natalie’s authority, and that she was his school teacher.
In his sentencing remarks, the judge noted that the boy “may well have been viewed as a willing participant, if indeed not an enthusiastic participant”.
However, due to his age, the 15-year-old “had no consent to give”.
The victim, by then a young man, read an impact statement in court, saying how Natalie “made me feel excited and powerful”.
But, he explained, “as I matured I felt ashamed, angry, guilty and confused”.
Knowing she was facing a prison sentence, Natalie took a self-defence course while on bail.
She feared she would be a target for violent offenders.
“I didn’t know what to expect from other women, let alone how I would handle it. My lawyer told me, ‘Keep your head down and do your time’. But what does that mean?” she said.
Natalie has done her “time”.
But, she said, she feels like she continues to be punished.
The convicted criminal said she is speaking out about her experience after leaving prison to highlight that female sex offenders need help to reintegrate into the community.
She said she has been trying to rebuild her life after being released on parole but has no idea how to return to normal.
“Every day I wake up, it’s in the back of my mind: ‘You are a sex offender’. I don’t define myself by that, but it’s always there because of the barriers,” she said.
Natalie had been in education for 27 years.
Her conviction means she has been barred from teaching, but she said she feels locked out of the employment market altogether.
“Even applying for jobs was frightening, because I’d have to tick the criminal history box,” she said.
Natalie has retrained and has started running mental health programs to adults.
That hasn’t been easy.
One accrediting organisation for one program abruptly introduced a requirement that Natalie provide a Working with Children check.
So, even though she wasn’t working with children, that role fell apart, too.
She subsequently learned that the organisation introduced the check after an anonymous caller, claiming to be a journalist, threatened to publish a scoop about the sex offender on its payroll.
“I can’t tell you how many times this has happened,” Natalie said.
“I’m doing everything a rehabilitated person is expected to, but I’m constantly forced to look back instead of forward.”
Natalie continues to deliver mental health courses.
Having had anorexia nervosa in her teens, she also mentors adults with eating disorders.
Her family members and friends have stuck by her, but other barriers remain.
Church became a no-go zone after she was warned she will be charged with trespass if she ever attends a service again.
Her placement on the sex offenders’ register means she must tell police every time she changes her job, car or email address.
She must seek permission to travel overseas.
Although not required to do so, Natalie tends to disclose her criminal history to new contacts “as I fear if I don’t, these anonymous phone calls will continue to sabotage (my efforts).”
Natalie said her story demonstrates the hurdles to reintegration that offenders face – especially those convicted of sexual offences.
For while rehabilitation is supposed to be a core function of imprisonment, it’s increasingly taking a back seat to ‘tough on crime’ initiatives such as sex offender registration programs and preventive detention regimes where people are locked away not as punishment but so that can’t offend.
Clinical and forensic psychologist Dr Katie Seidler said it is almost impossible for sex offenders to start afresh.
“We demand that offenders take responsibility for their actions, seek to make amends, and engage in offence-focused treatment,” Dr Seidler said.
“(Natalie’s) is a case where she has done all these things and the barriers that she has come up against are constant and almost insurmountable.”
Dr Seidler said current policies failed to distinguish between offenders’ different levels of risk.
“The reality is that female sex offenders have between a 1 and 3 per cent chance of reoffending – this is almost non-existent,” she said.
“There is no grounds in reality or risk to limit (Natalie’s) involvement with the community in this way.”
Natalie is now planning her next career move – but is preparing for rejection.
“Being shut down all the time has affected my motivation to the point that I sometimes think, ‘Why bother trying?’” she said.
“It’s like people don’t believe that you can rehabilitate, or are dissatisfied with the price I’ve paid.
“It’s pretty disheartening and makes me feel shameful, but not for as long as I used to.
“Because if I stay in that spot, it’s a pretty dark place to be.”
* Natalie cannot be identified for legal reasons. The New Daily has chosen not to identify her home state or specific details of the case, to further protect the victim’s identity
- Denise Cullen is a Brisbane-based journalist and former prison psychologist