By Martin Johnson
When the bullets stopped bouncing
‘Where to now?’ wondered police detective Suzanne Spence as criminal depravity overwhelmed her ability to press on
WORK NOT OVER: Suzanne Spence now helps fight sexual slavery overseas
Following a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, Suzanne Spence thought her dream job in the police force was over before her experience led her into a new mission against sexual slavery.
The retired undercover detective has turned her trauma into a passion for training International Justice Mission workers in investigative skills to fight human trafficking and oppression in developing countries.
Soon after she entered the NSW Police Force at age 19, Suzannne decided to take advantage of her non-typical small stature through an undercover and surveillance role at the National Crime Authority.
“It was around this time that the things I had seen 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,” Suzanne remembers.
While she was brought up in traditional religion, she had not investigated Christianity until she became friends with a fellow police officer during a routine prisoner transfer who happened to be a Christian.
“I [hated] the world and people because of what I had seen and heard”“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 says.
They planned to meet for coffee and she accepted an invitation to join him at a Bible study group beforehand.
“The one thing I remember was that everyone was so nice. I’d never really experienced that before,” she says.
Suzanne went back to the group a few more times and then started a Christianity Explained course run by a local church pastor.
“At the end of the course I had to make a decision – I thought my previous relationship was going to be my future, but that hadn’t happened and so I made a decision to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour of my life. I started going to church... it was a whole new world for me,” Suzanne recalls.
After being promoted to the rank of detective, Suzanne soon found herself investigating many sexual assaults that had happened when the victims were children and the intimate details started to affect her personally.
“It changes you and I wished my faith was 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 victim’s stories and investigating these sort of cases made me ask God, ‘Lord when are you coming, I’m over this’,” she admits.
“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.”
With no de-brief for officers and a culture that says ‘you’re weak’ if you ask for help, Suzanne says she did not recognise that she needed 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 explains.
Finally it got to the point where she was constantly crying and could not eat, sleep or talk to anyone.
After a year of stress leave, she realised she had to end her 24-year career in the force, feeling ashamed and devastated that she had somehow reached her ‘expiry date’.
“I prayed that I would find something meaningful to do that was far removed from police work, even if that was just running a florist shop,” she says.
The first hint of God’s plan came after a women’s event run by Melinda Tankard Reist, an Australian author and speaker who is known for her work on the mistreatment of women and sexualisation of girls.
She was invited by Melinda to give procedural guidance to a sexual assault victim, and soon met more professional women helping combat violence against girls.
“I remember praying to God asking Him what was I doing there amongst such women – I had nothing to offer,” Suzanne recalls.
At a screening of the human rights documentary Miss Representation, Suzanne felt a spark of passion when someone told her she would be “great out in the field” in the worldwide work of International Justice Mission (IJM), a non-profit human rights organisation that rescues victims of individual human rights abuse.
Suzanne took up the offer and is now a volunteer investigative associate and trains staff in surveillance and undercover work to identify women and children who have been trafficked and those who run the trafficking.
“Two years ago I thought my working life was over. 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 explains.
“There’s a sense of passion that I thrive on and it gives me so much joy.”
Thinking of that “rock bottom” time of her life, Suzanne says, “I would go through it all again as God was able to use what I went through to equip me for this work and brought my faith to a whole new level.” ?
For more about International Justice Mission visit www.ijm.org