Reflections on the Royal Commission and the completion of the public hearing schedule

On Friday 31 March 2017 the Royal Commission completed its last case study via a public hearing. The case study The Nature, Causes and Impact of Child Sexual Abuse in Institutional Settings was the 57th case study completed via a public hearing. The first case study public hearing, Scouts, was held in September 2013.

The Royal Commission will continue its schedule of private sessions of which there are many hundreds to complete. The Final report(s) will come out in December 2017. However it is worth taking stock as the Royal Commissions completes its public hearing schedule.

At Open Place we remember and acknowledge the contribution of the Forgotten Australians. Justice McLellan made this point in his closing remarks on the final day of the last public hearing:

Finally, we extend both our recognition and thanks to survivors who have given evidence. Without them, our public hearings would be a hollow attempt to tell their story. Without them, the realities of child sexual abuse and the extent of institutional failure could not be recognised.

At Open Place we have learnt and benefited from our two Forgotten Australian staff members, Caroline and Lyn.

The critical question is: what has the last four years of the Royal Commission meant for Forgotten Australians? In crude terms, has the Royal Commission been an instrument of good? Do we measure “good” in terms of individual responses and outcomes; all of which will be many and varied? Or do we measure “good” in terms of changes to institutional systems, culture and processes? If we are measuring the latter then the jury remains out.

The Royal Commission process has reminded us of the evils of institutionalization and its lifelong impact on individuals and families. Forgotten Australians, however, still wait for a redress scheme and access to health and aged care.

The Royal Commission released its Final report on Redress and Civil Litigation in mid-2015. The response to this from governments and organizations has been underwhelming.

Organizations, arguably under the pressure of public scrutiny, have tweaked and amended their individual schemes but, in many cases, transparency is still absent; there is no public accountability and no independent oversight of settlement arrangements (including amounts provided). Civil litigation proceedings in many cases bear little resemblance to “model litigant proceedings”.

The Commonwealth has announced a national redress scheme framework (for sexual abuse) but despite the efforts of advocates on the Advisory Council progress is very slow. The Victorian government appears to have pulled back from its commitment to implement the Betrayal of Trust recommendation, that a redress scheme be introduced for all forms of criminal abuse experienced in an institution. We have a “redress dance” going on; the dance floor is empty and there is a reluctance for anyone to ask a “partner” to step onto the floor.

There have been numerous public inquiries in Australia, preceding the current Royal Commission, looking into the state of child protection services and the impact of previous out of home care policy. One of the lessons from these inquiries is that change comes slowly. It is troubling to remember that in Victoria a policy decision was made in the early 1970s to deinstitutionalize Victoria’s out of home care system. It took until 1990 for this to be finally achieved when the last state run institution, Allambie, was closed.

The individual and community costs of a childhood spent in institutional care are enormous. The survivors from this out of home care system are still with us; we see them every day at Open Place and this is nearly 50 years after it was recognised how unsuitable and dangerous institutional care is for children. Today institutional care as a “care” option for children needing safety and protection is no longer with us. But there is another troubling question: is the current state sanctioned out of home care replacement doing any better?

The Royal Commission has left us with two challenges:

  1. How to achieve, with and for Forgotten Australians, a sense of tangible justice that is reflected in the introduction and implementation of an inclusive redress scheme (broader than sexual abuse) that also ensures reasonable access to health and aged care.
  2. How to ensure that our child protection systems and our current providers of out of home care pay regard to the lessons from the past, particularly the importance of sustained family connection.

Author: Simon Gardiner
Simon is the manager of Open Place (the Find & Connect Support Service in Victoria). Simon’s background is in social work and nursing, and has worked for Anglicare Victoria and the Department of Human Services. Simon’s nursing background includes palliative and oncology nursing and a 9 month stint as a community nurse working in Sudan with refugees from Ethiopia.