Working in the police force was Australian Suzanne Spence’s dream job. At first it was everything she had hoped it would be, but when she came home every night in tears, her family and friends knew she wasn’t coping.
Diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Suzanne reluctantly resigned after a 24-year career and, aged 46, thought her working life was over.
Detective skills battle slavery
But the skills she learned as a detective are now used in the global battle against slavery.
After a remarkable series of coincidences, Suzanne now helps train International Justice Mission (IJM) staff in investigative skills as they seek to fight slavery and oppression in developing countries.
‘I joined the New South Wales police force when I was 19 after they lowered the height restrictions and loved it,’ said Suzanne. ‘Although I wasn’t big and tough, I was determined to prove myself. I was probably a bit naive, but I had a real passion to do the best job I could.’
Because she didn’t look like a typical policewoman, Suzanne moved to undercover work after she finished her three years on the beat. ‘I liked the work initially, but then found it hard to distinguish between my undercover work and who I was as an individual’ she said.
‘I then got into another specialist unit doing surveillance for the National Crime Authority. It was around this time that the things I had seen in the previous three years as a constable made me ask some of the life’s basic questions. You see so much depravity and I thought there has to be more to life than this.’
Although brought up in the Catholic Church, Suzanne had no real understanding of Christianity. Her first contact with a Christian came when she was on a prisoner run where she transferred a prisoner to court accompanied by a fellow police officer as the driver.
‘We became friends and he told me he was a Christian. Soon after that I hit a bad patch in my life – a long-term relationship had broken down and I just needed someone to talk to,’ she said.
‘He was happy to meet me for coffee but said he had something to do first and did I want to come with him. We got to the door of a house and it was then that I asked him if this was one of those “religious things.” He said not to worry, it would be fine and afterwards we’d have time to talk. It turned out to be a Bible study group and the one thing I remember was that everyone was so nice. I’d never really experienced that before.’
Suzanne went back to the group a few more times and then started a Christianity Explained course. ‘At the end I made a decision to accept Jesus. I started going to church and couldn’t really understand how excited people were to hear that I had become a Christian – it was a whole new world for me,’ Suzanne said.
After trying undercover and surveillance work, Suzanne was promoted to the rank of detective.
‘As a female detective, I investigated a lot of historical sexual assaults that had happened when the victim was a child. They were all long and protracted investigations and you get to know the victim and what happened to them in intimate detail.’
‘It began to affect me personally, although at the time I wasn’t aware of it. It changes you and I wished my faith were stronger. Here I was a Christian and yet I started to hate the world and people because of what I had seen and heard as a police officer. Listening to victims’ stories and investigating these cases made me ask God, “Lord when are you coming? I just wanted this to be over,”’ she said.
Unknown to Suzanne, this was the first sign that she was suffering PTSD.
‘I got to a point where I felt I was just treading water – I was putting on a front to protect myself but eventually I felt that the “bullets” just stopped bouncing off and they were embedding inside me,’ she said. ‘There was never any de-brief for officers, but there’s also a culture that says “you’re weak” if you ask for help. But I didn’t think I needed any help. Deep down I knew there was a God but I was relying on my own strength, telling myself I just needed to get it together and “fix things”.’
She added, ‘I’d go to work, just hold it all together, come home and put my Mum hat on and push it all down, but it was like a volcano bubbling away underneath. It got to the point where I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t talk to anyone and cried a lot. One day I remember I was taking a statement and thought, this can’t be real. It was as if I was writing a horror story.’
The situation deteriorated to the point where Suzanne agreed to take two weeks off work, which ultimately led to a year’s stress leave. At the end of that year she realised she couldn’t go back and after 24 years in the police force, she resigned.
‘I was devastated – it felt as if I had reached my expiry date. I felt ashamed – I would have rather retired,’ recalled Suzanne. ‘My prayer after I left was that I wouldn’t “wander the desert” for the rest of my life – that I would find something meaningful to do that was far removed from police work.’
God’s plan revealed
The first hint that God had plans for Suzanne came after she attended a women’s event run by Australian author and speaker Melinda Tankard Reist, known for her work on the objectification of women and sexualisation of girls.
‘After the event Melinda asked me to help support a woman who had disclosed a previous sexual assault incident. I was able to help this victim by giving some procedural advice and explaining the process of what to do. Then I was invited to another event where I met some amazing professional women who were working in different fields to help combat violence against girls. I remember asking God what was I doing there among such women – I had nothing to offer,’ said Suzanne.
As she answered questions about what she did, Suzanne was surprised at the reaction she got. ‘I was ashamed of telling people that I had worked for the police force but had resigned, yet people were really interested and wanted to know more. Now I look back, I can see that God was equipping and healing me and getting me ready for his plans for my future.’
Invited to attend a screening of the documentary Miss Representation, a film that examines how mainstream media contributes to the under-representation of women; she came into contact with the work of International Justice Mission (IJM – a non-profit human rights organisation that operates worldwide to rescue victims of individual human rights abuse. www.ijm.org)
‘The lady I met told me I’d be great out in the field,’ said Suzanne. ‘She said, “I’ll put you in touch with our headquarters in Washington DC.”’
Fighting people trafficking
From that initial contact, Suzanne is now a volunteer investigative associate for IJM and recently returned from a trip to the Philippines to train IJM staff as they undertake surveillance and undercover work to identify women and children who have been trafficked and those who run the trafficking.
‘Two years ago when I left the police force, I thought my working life was over, that I’d never be able to do any form of police work again. Now I can see that God was able to take me in my weakness and use the skills and experience I learned in the police force to help fight the scourge of people trafficking,’ Suzanne said.
Suzanne’s experiences with IJM have brought back that same sense of passion she had when she first joined the police force.
‘Not only am I back doing investigative work, there’s a sense of passion that I thrive on and it gives me so much joy. That’s where I want to be. I’ve always wanted to help people and volunteering for IJM is like being with a mini-Christian police force,’ she said.
While her final few years in the police force were the toughest time of her life, Suzanne now looks back and can see that it was all worth it: ‘I reached rock bottom, but I would go through it all again. God was able to use what I went through to equip me for the work I am now doing with IJM and brought my faith to a whole new level.’
While her future with International Justice Mission is still to be worked out, there are prospects for Suzanne to consider working full-time as a Director of Investigations and Law Enforcement Development in a developing country.
‘This would be a three year assignment, but I know God has his hands on my life and I’m prepared to let him lead me into the future,’ Suzanne said.
Martin Johnson has spent 30 years working in Christian media. During his time at Bible Society he helped develop the ‘Jesus. All About Life’ campaign running Australian-wide. He now runs his own Communications Consultancy in Sydney. Links: firstname.lastname@example.org / http://www.martinjohnsoncommunications.com.au ASSIST News www.assistnews.net