Heather was sexually abused by her chiropractor as a teen, but it surely took her a long time to report it
One afternoon in 2016, Heather Wynands got in her car and drove down a dusty country road to the nearest police station.
- In 1988, Heather Wynands went for a chiropractor appointment in Riverland and suffered from hip and back pain
- During that appointment, she was raped
- She speaks out to empower other victims of sexual assault who live in small country towns
She had just finished a dance night in the South Australian regional town of Berri and was ready to report a crime that happened 30 years ago.
“Something just came over me,” said Mrs. Wynands.
“I knew at that moment I just had to go and do it.”
In 1988 she was raped by her chiropractor. It was the day of their dance performance at the end of the year at the Chaffey Theater in Renmark.
“I was so excited, I was on my Ps and Mom had borrowed the car for the first time to go to my chiropractor appointment,” she said.
From dancing she had problems with her hips and also a slight scoliosis of the back.
“During that appointment, I told him I was having trouble doing the splits, so he asked me to lie down on the floor and do the splits for him, which I did,” she said.
Heather Wynands says she lost her love of dancing after the attack. (
ABC News: Kelly Hughes
She could only go until she felt her hips tighten.
“Then he said, ‘Oh, we’re doing a new treatment that can help with this problem, it’s an internal check-up that should only take 10 to 15 minutes’.”
He asked her to undress and put on a robe.
“When I got into the locker room I thought this was really strange,” she said.
“I realized what was going to happen and I thought, ‘He can’t do this, can he?'”
At the time she thought she had an escape. She was on her period.
“But instead he said, ‘That’s fine, take out whatever you use and just get on the chiropractic bed when you’re done,'” said Ms. Wynands.
Not wanting to question his professionalism, she did as he told her.
“At that point, I knew I had lost all chances of getting out,” she said.
“It took me years to understand what he did to me that day in the clinic room.”
Heather didn’t want to be known as “the girl”
Support offers in the event of sexual assault:
Throughout high school and well into adulthood, she struggled with immense shame and guilt about what had happened to her.
After the abuse, she struggled with bulimia and substance abuse for years and had “little concern for herself”.
“You wake up in a small country town and everyone knows who you are,” she said.
“Nobody wants to talk about it, they are uncomfortable because it could be someone you know or are related to.”
Heather was raped on the day of her dance performance at the end of 1988.
ABC News: Kelly Hughes
She went to school with the chiropractor’s daughter, which made her more reluctant to come forward and report her attack.
“I wanted to protect her … and I wanted to protect myself from the shame we would have been exposed to at school if it had all come out,” said Ms. Wynands.
She also knew that when she talked about what had happened, things would never be the same again.
“If I had reported my abuse, I would have been known as ‘that girl’,” she said.
Living in such a community, she said the label was “stuck” and she was an “outcast”.
She and her mother believed that the chiropractor’s status as a respected medical professional in the community would make the police and the people of the city question her story.
“We didn’t go to the police because we feared the police wouldn’t believe me and that it would have caused more pain,” she said.
So she buried her secret and desperately tried to “fly under the radar” of her small town in hopes no one would find out.
Barriers to getting help
Support group Relationships Australia said experiences like Ms. Wynands’ were not uncommon and that small town abusers are often people who are seen as pillars of their local communities.
“People likely to engage in such behavior could be very charismatic figures in the community, they could have stature and status,” said Elisabeth Shaw, executive director of NSW Relationships Australia.
“Because of their privileges in the community, you could get away with it. And in small towns, everyone knows your business and these are very difficult and unique circumstances when you are trying to report sexual assault.”
Elisabeth Shaw says there is a culture of shame and silence when reporting sexual assault in small towns.
ABC News: Bryan Milliss
Regional communities are often seen as “tightly bound”, but in cases of sexual assault this becomes part of the problem.
While rural towns often act as their own support network in times of crisis like bushfires, they can also turn against those who disrupt the status quo and become places of exclusion and exclusion.
“Your popularity and your social connection rise and fall with your reputation and standing in the community,” said Ms. Shaw.
“So when that calls something into question, it can feel disastrous as you hold your own in this community.”
She said for victims who live in regional and rural communities, “there is a real fear and concern” about whether to report abuse.
“If you go to the police, everyone [might] know you … so there is a feeling that you can’t necessarily get a fair hearing … and that makes it especially difficult, “she said.
“There are very real barriers to getting help.”
Abuse of power
In May, Ms. Wynands’ chiropractor, Robert Linke, was sentenced to five years in prison with a two-year suspended sentence by the Adelaide District Court.
Judge Patrick O’Sullivan described the attack as an “abuse of power” in pronouncements.
Heather Wynands says she was “relieved” when she saw justice 33 years later. (
ABC News: Kelly Hughes
“A young patient presented herself to you for chiropractic treatment,” said Judge O’Sullivan.
“You were in a position of power over your victim … you abused your power and raped her.”
Unable to comment at the time of the attack, Ms. Wynands questioned the gravity of the crime.
“When I got the call about the decision, I just burst into tears,” she said.
“I was relieved because I was believed.
“It was a confirmation that what he had done … he should never have done.”
Nobody should be prevented from expressing themselves
When Ms. Wynands was attacked, she said the pressures of living in a small community meant she did not feel safe or received support to report her abuse.
Heather Wynands wants other survivors to know that you should never be ashamed or stigmatized when talking about sexual assault.
ABC News: Kelly Hughes
But she wants to change that culture.
“Nobody should be prevented from speaking,” she said.
She said the decision to talk about what happened to her all those years ago was “life changing” and wanted other women to hear her story, feel empowered.
“Do it. No doubt do it, ”she said.
“We have to get up and report these people. We have to show them that we are stronger than them and we will not take it anymore.
“I finally feel free, I can be myself and no longer have to hold my head in shame.”