When a volunteer firefighter sexually abused his young son, many in their small town refused to believe it. Fire and Emergency kept him on, and locals turned on the boy's mum, saying she'd made up the allegations.
Warning: This story discusses sexual abuse, as well as psychological and financial abuse
It should have been such a sweet scene. Sam* climbed into his mum's bed about 6am. He was in a onesie to guard against the winter chill and Rachel* snuggled up to his little form and reached for her phone to turn on a podcast.
"He was full of beans," Rachel* remembers. "He was excited about just being awake."
They lay in the dark and listened to a story about a frog called Simon. But then Sam told her about how his father touched him.
Rachel felt as though the blood in her veins had turned cold. Dread swamped her brain, gripped her body, then swallowed the room. Was this her worst moment? Later, it would become hard to judge; so many more awful events would follow.
In the months to come, instead of rallying around Rachel and her son, their community would back Rachel's former partner Richard*, who would claim she'd fabricated the abuse in order to gain custody. Police would ignore Rachel's suspicion that a local detective may not be impartial. And the community's fire chief would tell Richard he could remain a volunteer firefighter - even after he was convicted of indecent assault.
Rachel held herself together that morning. She smiled, she made Sam breakfast; she played the role of herself. She'd had some practice at it. She and Richard had separated only days earlier and Rachel had taken Sam to another part of the country to see family and stay with friends. She'd kept up the usual parental patter, while she tried to figure out a plan for the future.
When her friend Ngairie* awoke, however, Rachel went into her room and her legs gave way. She was pale, shaking and struggling to breathe. "I thought someone had died," Ngairie remembers. Ngairie was a teacher and she knew there was a process for reporting abuse. She told Rachel she needed to go to Oranga Tamariki. If Rachel didn't report it, Ngairie would.
Part of Rachel clung to hope that it wasn't true, that her six-year-old was somehow confused. But then professionals from Oranga Tamariki and, later, the police, interviewed Sam, and their alarm bells went off.
In the days that followed, Rachel tried to support Sam as she scrambled to find a legal aid lawyer and take in a barrage of advice. You need a temporary protection order. You need an interim parenting order. You need an occupation order for the family home. You need a furniture order.
She got them all. But by spring, she and Sam would be living in a caravan parked in a friend's driveway, while Richard lived in their mortgage-free family home.
At first, it looked like the system would wrap around Rachel and Sam. A police detective from a station not far from their home was assigned to the case. A court order blocked Richard from seeing Sam until the police and Oranga Tamariki finished their investigations. The occupation order forced Richard out of the family home and the furniture order meant he had to leave their possessions behind.
Rachel thought she would leave Ngairie's house and take Sam home to their picturesque town and that somehow her business could continue running. They'd have a roof over their heads and work as she helped her boy heal and dealt with her own grief.
Richard moved out of the house, but shifted in with the neighbours. From there, if you pulled out a pair of binoculars, you could see right into the family home. From there, you had to drive by the family home every time you went into town.
How could Rachel move back into their house with Richard living so close?
She had never known what to do when he was angry; she felt he became a dark cloud, almost vibrating with anger. How furious would he be now? His behaviour was already scaring her. Soon after he was served court orders, he went to a police station and asked for help, saying he had concerns about his son. He told an officer Sam wasn't attending school or football and he wanted to know why. He said Rachel was a drug user, that members of her family had suffered from mental illness, and he was worried something had gone wrong with her.
The protection order had instructed him to attend a non-violence programme but he hadn't. Instead, he had filed a legal objection, saying he shouldn't have to attend as he had never been violent.
Nonetheless, Rachel's lawyer advised her to move back into the family home.
"I said, I can't! He's living across the road... I will not live on the property when I know he's next door, drinking how much whisky, and enraged," she says.
If you don't move back in, the lawyer told her, you will have to end the occupation and furniture order. So, Rachel did, and Richard moved back into the house.
Rachel and Sam now had nowhere to live, and no way of accessing money either.
When her tumultuous relationship with Richard had ended, Rachel had left home with $50 in cash. They'd been together for eight years, but, Rachel says, Richard still maintained his own bank accounts and investments and she had access to only one joint account into which Richard drip fed money for day-to-day expenses.
These days she calls their relationship financially and psychologically abusive, but when she was in it, things felt less clear cut: she swung between feeling the relationship had to end and hoping they could keep it together for Sam.
Now she had to negotiate a relationship property agreement in order to access their money and assets, but her legal aid lawyer couldn't help unless Rachel could pay her - she was only funded to work on care-of-child matters. Rachel had little money and even less headspace to negotiate with Richard.
Soon, the split would drive her business into liquidation and Rachel would end up on a benefit.
Sam was a sweet little fellow - keen on Paw Patrol and Beyblades - but the abuse had left him traumatised. He struggled to sleep and eat - he had an appetite for hash browns with tomato sauce and the particular combination of crackers, cream cheese and turmeric paste, but little else. Sometimes he melted down in distressing ways, writhing on the floor, screaming, kicking and punching. He wanted to be with his mother all the time.
Rachel shuttled Sam to therapy appointments, stayed with him when he acted out and sat with him as he tried to go to sleep. And while she supported him, family and friends supported her. She decided to stay near them. Her life had dissolved, and she needed them desperately.
But Richard had other ideas. Rachel had day-to-day care of Sam, but Richard remained a legal guardian. That meant he had rights, and he asserted them. He took legal action to have Sam returned to the region where the family had lived together, as well as to his usual school.
A court hearing was scheduled and as it approached, Rachel's lawyer advised her she should agree to return to the region with Sam. She could lose custody if she didn't, Rachel says she was told. Rachel did as she was advised - though later she'd bitterly regret it - and the court ordered Sam should go back. He couldn't be removed from the area without Richard's agreement.
Apply for another occupation order and move back into the family home, Rachel's lawyer advised. But she felt that would make her and Sam sitting ducks.
Rachel felt the police investigation was dragging. A detective, who worked at a station near the small town, had been assigned to the case but hadn't contacted Rachel. She phoned him to ask for an update. She says he snarled at her, "You just want me to lock him up and throw away the key, don't you?"
She had a friend with her that day and the call was on speakerphone. Her friend told RNZ the detective was "intimidatory". "It was almost like he was treating her like a suspect rather than a victim," he says.
The call tipped Rachel over the edge. "I hung up from that phone conversation and almost had a breakdown," she says.
Rachel drove herself, crying, to see a Women's Refuge social worker. It took the social worker a long time to calm her down. Rachel was lost and exhausted. She'd expected the justice system - both criminal and family - to help, but she felt it just kept serving up new injustices.
She was also consumed with guilt over having been unable to protect her son from his father. At night, she struggled to sleep, memories piecing together like a jigsaw, adding up to a picture of abuse. Why hadn't she seen the signs? Why hadn't she realised what was happening to her boy?
Rachel knew that police and Fire and Emergency, for which Richard volunteered, worked closely together. Her lawyer wrote a letter to the police, saying Rachel was worried the detective was operating in a small community and was not impartial. She asked for an independent senior detective to review the case. She never received a reply.
Police refused to give RNZ an interview and would not answer questions sent to them about whether the detective personally knew Richard, or firefighters on the brigade, or whether he had any conflict of interest in the case.
Police said the detective sergeant to whom Rachel's lawyer wrote had no recollection of receiving a letter (RNZ has viewed the letter).
In a statement, a senior officer said the case file had been reviewed and police had no concerns. "We maintain this investigation was handled appropriately and was carried out in a thorough manner by all staff who were involved," it said.
While the detective's behaviour left Rachel shaken, people from her town did more damage. To begin with, they sent her messages which seemed supportive, asking for her side of the story. But then as time passed, their tone changed.
"Rachel I want you to know that [REDACTED] and I are standing on neutral ground with your situation but we can't get to grips with your reaction and the action you have taken. A lot of people are talking and we feel that the way you have approached this may well backfire on you in more ways than one. We pray that the truth will prevail for Sam's sake," read one, which RNZ viewed.
"...I believe that Richard should see his son and if necessary "supervised". It must be ever so difficult for Sam to comprehend not seeing his Papa who has been a huge part of his daily life..." another said.
"...I could have easily gone down that path with [REDACTED] but choose [sic] instead to seriously question my children first before involving an unstoppable chain of events that could very well have been detrimental to my children in the long run... I am concerned for you and your family Rachel and i hope like hell Sam, if needs be will forgive you both for what you both think may or may not have happened..." messaged another.
Rachel had been advised not to discuss details of the case - and she didn't think it fair to Sam to talk widely about the abuse anyway - but the messages seemed to indicate that while Rachel was out of town, Richard was busy telling locals his version of events.
From what was filtering back to Rachel, it seemed Richard was saying Rachel wanted custody of Sam, so she'd coached him to say he'd been abused.
Indeed, Richard's social media around the time consisted of a series of posts about loyalty and lies. "Don't be so quick to believe what you hear because lies spread quicker than the truth," he warned in one. "Making a hundred friends is not a miracle. The miracle is to make a single friend who will stand by your side even when hundreds are against you," he wrote in another.
Friends responded: "Keep your head high Richard"; "Too true bro, I'm here bro lesssgoo"; "Stay strong mate".
Rachel now faced having to head back to a community where she had nowhere to live and where many backed a man who had sexually abused her little boy.
At the beginning of spring, Rachel's mother dipped into her life savings to buy a caravan for Rachel and Sam to live in. Rachel was too scared to go back to their town, so she towed the caravan to a place near their old community and parked it in a friend's driveway. Sam went back to school.
A new detective - supportive, communicative and knowledgeable, according to Rachel - took over the investigation and the first charges were laid. (Police wouldn't answer RNZ's questions about why the original detective was taken off the case.) By the time he went to trial, Richard would face six charges of indecent assault on a child under 12 and one of assault on a child.
The local fire chief learned Richard had been charged with sexually assaulting a child. He decided Richard should remain with the brigade.
While Fire and Emergency stood by Richard and many others in the community also rallied around him, a few locals heard the allegations and felt ill. Two women who had worked for Rachel's business, and had spent a lot of time at their house, were horrified at the support Richard was receiving.
Both describe hearing of the allegations and being hit by memories of how Sam clung to his mother, even sat at her feet, under her desk. "I just want to be with Mamma," he'd say sometimes when told to go to his father and leave Rachel to work, one told RNZ. She thought of the way Richard would chastise Sam when his son rejected him and clung to Rachel, calling him "A mumma's boy". She thought of how Richard could be charming in public and quite different at home.
Now they were amazed the fire brigade was standing by him. One says she phoned Fire and Emergency and was put through to the area commander. "I said to him, 'We have concerns that Richard is still an active member of the fire brigade'... We were concerned that he was still turning up to accidents - because that's what the fire brigade does - that could have kids involved in them."
She says the commander told her it was the first he'd heard of the matter, that he'd investigate and would come back to her. She didn't hear from him again.
The fire chief restricted Richard to non-public facing jobs, but he remained ensconced in brigade life. The brigade continued to post photos of Richard on its public Facebook page. There he was in uniform, taking part in a training exercise with other volunteer brigades from the region. There he was surrounded by firefighters, grinning as he enjoyed a social event marking the brigade's work at a bush blaze. There he was at dinner with the brigade a few months before he stood trial for abusing Sam.
One afternoon, Rachel picked up Sam from school and he asked her, "Mummy, what's a bitch?" A few days later they were in the car again and he revealed more about what children were saying in the playground.
"We're driving into school and he's gone quiet," Rachel remembers. "And then he started to talk to me, and he said, 'REDACTED says you're a f****** lying bitch. He says my dad really misses me and that he will help me so that I can see my dad."
Rachel went to talk to the school, but there were more incidents in the playground. Now Sam didn't want to go to school in the mornings.
Rachel wanted to leave the school and the region. Not that that was new. Soon after they'd returned, she'd realised living there would be an uphill battle, but she'd met a brick wall. Her lawyer had told her if she wanted to leave, she'd have to get Richard's agreement. Her lawyer had then written to Richard but he hadn't responded.
So, Rachel had made a court application to relocate but received bad news: as she had voluntarily agreed to move back to the region, she didn't have a right to apply to relocate for two years. She would now have to apply for leave to make an application or prove she hadn't been given the right advice from her lawyer. In other words, get in a queue for a court hearing.
Now, with Sam struggling in the playground, Rachel felt desperate to shift him to a new school.
Once again, the lawyer told her Richard would have to agree. Rachel knew that would never happen. She felt she had two options: break the court order or leave Sam in a school where he was suffering. She decided to break part of the court order - she'd remain in the region but enrol him in a different school. She towed the caravan to a different town, parked it in a camping ground and settled Sam into a new school.
Rachel's lawyer sent Richard a letter explaining what she had done and why. It kicked off a new legal battle.
By now Rachel was on a sole parent benefit. She couldn't afford the petrol to take Sam to school, drive back to their caravan at the camping ground, then return again to pick Sam up at the end of the day. Instead, she drove him there in the morning and then hung around town all day until school finished. Sometimes, if it was fine, she sat in a park. When it was wet, she went to the library.
Rachel only ever did three things now: pour effort into Sam's recovery, prepare for the criminal trial and try to keep on top of the legal battles with Richard that kept flaring. She'd think one fire was out and another would spark. There was the battle over which school Sam attended. There was the battle over whether Rachel had the right to apply to relocate. There was the battle over whether Richard's father could see Sam (he was told he couldn't but turned up at Sam's school and walked straight in). There were battles over Richard's continued attempts to get access to Sam. There were battles over the ashes of the business.
Every new legal letter, every phone call from the police, from the lawyer, from the court, gave her a new task - write a response, file an affidavit, provide more evidence - and plunged her into new grief for her little boy. "Each time I get a phone call or an email from a lawyer it's an automatic adrenal response. It takes me right back to the feeling of dread when I worked out what had happened [to Sam]."
Rachel felt Richard was using his money as a weapon, throwing it at his lawyer in a bid to grind her down, bury her in legal bills, to punish her. She was now deep in debt to her lawyer and deeply distressed.
"I feel like I can't be heard. Sam can't be heard... He's not central to any of the processes. The processes are central to the processes."
In March 2020, Covid-19 began to threaten the country. Rachel is immune-compromised and she says her doctor was appalled she was living in a camping ground, sharing kitchen and bathroom facilities with travellers from overseas. She told Rachel she needed to leave immediately. She should be near family and friends who could support her and Sam. Her family told her the same thing. The law demanded she stay.
Then the prime minister announced the country would go into its first level four lockdown. Rachel thought about spending it in the campground. She thought about what would happen to Sam if she caught Covid. Should she follow the law and stay - or do the right thing by her son? With 48 hours until travel was out of the question, Rachel hooked the caravan onto the car, left the region and drove back to family and friends.
At Richard's trial, Sam held onto a support dog as he gave evidence. Rachel wasn't allowed to be with him and he needed comfort. She wasn't even allowed to discuss the trial with him while it was unfolding because they were both witnesses. She was so afraid she'd be accused of collusion that she had someone stay with them to ensure they could verify there had been no discussion.
She felt like she was always under scrutiny. She'd heard rumours that Richard had hired a private investigator, and Richard himself was still lurking in the corners of her life. In the lead-up to the trial he had called her friends and family late at night and either hung up or left strange voicemails. One, left for Ngairie at 12.44am and heard by RNZ, said, "Liar, liar, pants on fire. Bye". Even one of the liquidators working on the defunct business was concerned about Rachel's safety. He sent her an email, seen by RNZ, to check she was safe after reading a news report of a kidnapping and shooting in the area. He told her Richard had called him three times in the middle of the night demanding the liquidator give him $300,000 immediately or else he'd get his lawyers onto him. "It appears he has been drinking," the liquidator wrote.
Now Richard's lawyer, an older man, cross-examined Sam. In a series of leading questions, he repeatedly put it to Sam that he was lying because his mother wanted him to. "But that wasn't true, was it?" "You're really only saying what Mama wanted you to say?" "Mama wanted you to tell a lie?"
Afterwards, a friend was to take Sam on a special outing to congratulate him on getting through the ordeal of giving evidence. They had been discussing the plan for weeks and Sam had chosen to go rock climbing. But now Sam said he just wanted to go home. When he got there, he crawled straight into a hut made from a cardboard box and a blanket and stayed in there for hours. He didn't want to eat, and when he did, he vomited. It would be a week until he could keep food down again. Rachel says she took him to the doctor, who told her there was nothing physically wrong with Sam - he was having a trauma response.
People from the fire brigade were at the trial. A friend of Rachel's was there too. She says the firefighters wore their casual uniforms, navy T-shirts with insignia. Others from the community attended too - including a well-known private investigator - and all but a few backed Richard.
They wouldn't have seen Sam give evidence; the court was closed while he talked about how his father had repeatedly abused him. But they would have seen the defence at work. The defence's case was that Rachel had decided to leave her relationship a year before she and Richard separated. She did not want to share day-to-day care of Sam with Richard, so she coached their son to make false abuse allegations about his father.
People Rachel had once called friends gave evidence in Richard's defence, speaking of the outwardly warm relationship they'd seen between Richard and Sam and supporting the idea that Rachel wanted custody of Sam.
The jury found Richard guilty on the core allegation, a representative charge of an indecent act on a child under 12 (a representative charge means similar offences took place multiple times). He was found not guilty on the six other charges.
Richard was now a convicted child sex abuser, yet RNZ understands the fire brigade still kept him on.
The conviction didn't seem to sway Richard's supporters either. Social media posts, seen by RNZ, attacked Rachel. One of them, left on an unrelated post of Rachel's which she'd left unlocked, read "Shame on you" and Rachel's initials. A firefighter also posted a comment backing Richard, though he later deleted it. A local blasted two of Rachel's friends who had posted about their relief at the verdict. "He was found not guilty on most of those charges you stupid cows."
Rachel says she can never go back to the town. Even the few people from the community who supported Sam and Rachel say their relationships with others in their town have frayed. One no longer feels able to play cricket or attend events, after being abused online, glared at and admonished. "People have said to me down in town, 'You don't know what you're talking about. There's nothing wrong with Richard', and 'Rachel is obviously the one who did something wrong, cos she's the one that took off'."
Ask her why so many would back a child abuser and she says that early on, when locals were first hearing the news, only Richard's story was circulating. "Rachel wasn't here to defend herself," she says.
Others who supported Rachel and Sam had different theories. "The culture, as a whole, is very behind - very quintessential Kiwi small town. Like stuck in the 60s, or 70s or 80s. The man is always right. She's a crazy woman," one said. "When you're a groomer you know how to groom," another said. "Richard knows the right people and I can only assume there's a boys' club in the town," was another's take.
All, however, thought the fire brigade had a role to play. They zeroed in on its culture. What sort of organisation backs a child abuser, they asked.
They are not the first to raise issues with the culture across Fire and Emergency. In 2018, an independent judge was asked to review the organisation and she found a culture of bullying and harassment, and that there were unacceptable levels of sexism, racism and homophobia.
Judge Coral Shaw described an environment in which people who bullied or harassed went unchallenged. "The review heard of examples where bullying behaviour has been overlooked, downplayed or excused by FENZ (Fire and Emergency New Zealand) because the perpetrator is perceived to be a "hero firefighter," an important manager, a long-service volunteer with deep connections into the local community, or a union member."
Since the report was released, a number of firefighters have accused Fire and Emergency of failing to properly deal with their complaints of sexual assault, harassment or bullying. The New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union president has said women describe a boys' club that stages cover-ups and protects perpetrators.
Experts in child abuse told RNZ that it is common for friends and families - and even organisatons - to disbelieve children who say they have been sexually abused (even though it is extremely rare for children to make up abuse allegations) and instead back abusers. Kathryn McPhillips, a clinical psychologist and the executive director of sexual support service HELP Auckland, says people frequently struggle to believe a "good guy" could abuse a child.
"People who abuse children are often very good at grooming. So they're grooming the child to not protest to the abuse initially, but they also groom the family and community around the child to accept the abuse.
"They make communities think that they're a great guy, so any accusation against them must be false… That's a very common part of sexual abuse. Unfortunately, many of our communities are kind of naive with that."
At Richard's sentencing, the judge said his continued insistence that Rachel had coached Sam to make a false allegation didn't stack up. "That stance is puzzling in the extreme to understand because what it involves is somehow a very young boy has been coached into making up a false story then going to be interviewed about it, being able to maintain the story to the interviewer, and then coming along to your trial and being questioned at length about it. It defies common sense that a boy of that age would have the ability or skills to conduct such a charade and maintain it to the consistency that it was," his sentencing notes say.
Richard was sentenced to 10 months' home detention. He was to serve it in the family home.
Last year Rachel wrote a letter to Fire and Emergency. Among other issues, she complained that Richard had been allowed to continue as a volunteer after he was charged with sexually assaulting a child, and that firefighters had so publicly supported Richard at his trial. She felt the support the brigade had given Richard made a mockery of what Sam had suffered and lent an air of respectability to Richard's story that he'd been falsely accused.
Fire and Emergency organised a meeting between Rachel, a district manager and the interim director of its behaviour and conduct office. A recording of the meeting, which RNZ has heard, shows the district manager trying to explain why firefighters may have backed Richard.
"I suppose one of the ethos of any fire brigade is teamwork, and it's critical that you can depend on the people that you work with, and so they generally have a pretty strong bond amongst the group. So - and this isn't an excuse or anything - but when something like this crops up, and you know... that's pretty confrontational for the whole group - really confrontational - and so they don't know what to believe," he said.
"So there are no winners or losers, I suppose, as far as the brigade is concerned, and I suppose on one hand, they understand - the gravity of the situation is definitely not lost on them, because everybody is a parent - and then on the other hand, you know, they've had a very close association with the individual."
The district manager told Rachel a firefighter in Richard's circumstances would usually be stood down. Rachel asked him why Richard wasn't. The district manager responded that the chief at Richard's station is "one of the top performing chiefs that I've got. That's how good he is. But at the end of the day, you know, he was conflicted".
The behaviour and conduct office director said the chief "believed he was making the right decision at the right time" before adding, "I think from our perspective, obviously, there is things that could have and should have been done differently".
The district manager said after Richard was sentenced, he instructed the fire brigade chief to discharge Richard from Fire and Emergency.
Rachel talked about the impact the fire brigade's response to the charges had on her and Sam, and said she would like a written apology for Sam so she could give it to him in the future in case that would help him.
At the end of the meeting, the district manager told her it had been "transformational" to hear her and Sam's story, that he now had "a totally different understanding of what it's like to be on the other side of the field".
The programme leader told her they planned to debrief with the brigade and said, "We will definitely commit to coming back and feeding back to you what we are doing and what we need to do and are going to do."
They did not come back to Rachel or write an apology to Sam.
Fire and Emergency refused to give RNZ an interview, but in a lengthy statement, chief executive Rhys Jones admitted the fire brigade's actions were "unacceptable" and "regrettable", and apologised to Sam's family. He also said it was "extremely disappointing" that the brigade posted pictures of Richard on its Facebook page after he was charged.
"We unreservedly acknowledge that our people were wrong to allow the individual to remain a member of the brigade for so long," he wrote.
Fire and Emergency had taken action with the people involved, he said, though he didn't specify exactly what that was. "We have taken significant steps to make sure all Fire and Emergency personnel involved are now very aware of their serious responsibilities in such situations."
The statement said Fire and Emergency had already apologised to the victim's family. "Our Interim Director, Behaviour and Conduct Office and our District Manager met with the victim's family to acknowledge that the matter was not handled appropriately by the brigade. They apologised unreservedly for the harm our poor processes had caused the family of the victim."
However Rachel's recording of the meeting shows there was no apology.
RNZ pointed this out to Fire and Emergency and asked if it planned to give Sam the written apology Rachel had requested and if it intended to let Rachel know it had taken actions with the brigade, as it had committed to doing. Within hours, Jones emailed an apology to Rachel and Sam. He also offered further meetings.
Richard appealed the guilty verdict. His case was heard in the Court of Appeal on a clear, cool day. He arrived with a friend to whom Rachel had once been close. The pair sat expressionless, eyes to the front, while Rachel felt the familiar feeling of adrenaline rushing through her body, taking her over.
One of Richard's lawyer's arguments was that the verdict was unreasonable because it was inconsistent that the jury had found Richard guilty on one charge but not the six others. The three judges hearing the appeal disagreed, saying it was not inconsistent for the jury to have accepted Sam's core allegation, but to have been left unsure of what else had happened. The appeal was dismissed.
Richard then applied for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court. Last year, the Supreme Court threw out his appeal. The judgment said there was "no risk of a miscarriage of justice".
After almost two-and-a-half years, the criminal case was over.
Rachel would like to feel relieved, but she feels wrecked. She looks pale and her eyelids are heavy; she cries easily. "I get about five hours sleep a night-on a good night," she says.
Sometimes she dreams that old friends arrive at the door, that she's so pleased to see them. She hugs them, puts the kettle on, and then reality crashes in and she remembers how they turned on her, turned on her son.
"These are people that I loved very much. It's like a whole lot of friends have died - or worse. I can't put it into words. It's truly damaging to my sense of self and trust."
Sometimes she listens to a song by James Blake called Friends That Break Your Heart and thinks. "I really struggle with the choices that they made and how far they took it - to take the stand against a little boy. I can't understand it. I need to give up trying to understand something that is not understandable."
She leans heavily on her family and the friends she has left. Her mother is often by her side these days, patting her knee or resting an arm around her shoulder when she cries.
Rachel remains disturbed by the justice system and can list what needs to change: The justice system needs to be more victim-centred; the wait time for hearings should be reduced; the way child abuse victims are cross-examined needs to change; victims should be provided with a lawyer; guardianship rights should be paused when a parent is charged with abusing a child; safeguards need to be put in place to stop abusers using legal action to punish victims.
She'll no doubt keep adding to the list. Although it's been years since Sam first told her about the abuse, she's still waiting for a raft of unresolved issues to crawl through court, including a hearing on a parenting order and one to have her protection order made permanent.
Then there's Richard's ongoing efforts to have contact with Sam. During the Family Court proceedings, his lawyer continues to raise the idea that Rachel coached Sam and he repeats Richard's assertions that he is innocent. The lawyer - the same one who represented Richard as the Court of Appeal and then the Supreme Court threw out his attempts to clear his name - has even started talking about section 47 of the Evidence Act. It says in exceptional circumstances a judge in a civil case can allow a person to submit evidence which suggests that despite a criminal conviction they are innocent. The judge can then decide whether they are guilty or not for the purposes of the civil case.
Before Richard is given or refused access to Sam, a psychologist needs to write a report about the child. Both guardians need to agree on a brief for the psychologist; Richard has pushed for the brief to include an assessment of whether Sam is at psychological risk by being in Rachel's care.
Richard continues to phone people close to Rachel. Last month, he left a voicemail for her close friend Ngairie, which RNZ heard. "I haven't heard from you in a long time and you don't seem to care what's going on in [my] life," it said.
It took Rachel about a year to find a lawyer who would represent her in the division of her and Richard's relationship property - largely because she could only pay on settlement. They still haven't settled and Richard remains in the family home. Rachel and Sam are living in a tiny apartment, furnished with donations from friends and bargains from charity shops and Trade Me. Rachel owes $70,000 in legal bills (her friends have set up a Givealittle page).
Rachel's friends say she's a different person to the one she was a few years ago. She had a lightness to her and it's gone. She says similar things about herself.
"I'm a burden on my family and friends because it goes on so long, and people are tired of it. I'm tired of it! I want to talk about other things but I can't. It's all-encompassing. I struggle to find any joy or happiness. I have to work really hard on that for Sam.
"It's an impossible situation - it's really easy to lose hope. You can see why women give up, you can see why women go home, go back to their abusers."
But then there's Sam. He eats now - sometimes portions as big as Rachel's. He sleeps too. He's big into martial arts, football and watching Survivor with his mum.
"I could have walked away [from all the legal cases] 1000 times and I still could walk away 1000 times, but Sam would grow up thinking he wasn't believed. That's what I come back to-he knows I will always have his back no matter what."
*Names have been changed to protect Sam's identity.
Dates as well as the names of locations, Fire and Emergency staff, police officers and others have been omitted to protect Sam's identity.
Where to get help:
Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.
Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202
Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email email@example.com
What's Up: online chat (3pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 helpline (12pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-11pm weekends)
Asian Family Services: 0800 862 342 Monday to Friday 9am to 8pm or text 832 Monday to Friday 9am - 5pm. Languages spoken: Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and English.
Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254
Victim Support 0800 842 846
Rape Crisis 0800 88 33 00
HELP Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): be 04 801 6655 - 0
Women's Refuge:(0800 733 843
It's Not OK 0800 456 450
Shine: 0508 744 633
Victim Support: 0800 842 846
HELP Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): be 04 801 6655 - 0
The National Network of Family Violence Services NZ has information on specialist family violence agencies.
For male survivors -
Road Forward Trust, Wellington, contact Richard 0211181043
Better Blokes Auckland, 099902553
The Canterbury Men's Centre, 03 3776747
The Male Room, Nelson 035480403
Male Survivors, Waikato 07 8584112
Male Survivors, Otago 0211064598
For female survivors -
Help Wellington, 048016655
Help, Auckland 09 623 1296.
For urgent help: Safe To Talk 0800044334.