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Published: 10 October 2018
Author: Linda Le and Ian Dallas

Redress for abuse survivors - it’s about more than penetration

The National Redress Scheme’s focus on the type of abuse act committed rather than the impact of an act on a survivor (see our recent blog How the new sexual abuse redress scheme is not working) is not only shortchanging some survivors, it also betrays a lack of understanding of the effect of this abuse on survivors.

In this blog, we examine what the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse said about this issue and how a better appreciation of the commission’s findings might help both the Federal Government and institutions in their efforts to improve the current system.

Common effects of abuse

The Royal Commission found that one of the most common effects of abuse is its impact on the mental health of its victim. Depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder were frequently cited by the Commission as consequences of that abuse, along with nightmares and difficulties sleeping. Additionally, the Commission found that child sex abuse often impaired the interpersonal relationships of survivors, especially regarding intimacy and parenting. Drug and alcohol dependency resulting from child sex abuse was also common among survivors. However, this is by no means an exhaustive list of the impact of child sex abuse.

Many of the abuse survivors seen by our institutional abuse lawyers tell of the impact that abuse has had on all parts of their lives including their mental, physical, social and economic wellbeing. However, in our experience, the effect will often vary significantly between survivors: where some individuals will experience complex and lasting trauma, for others, the harm may not be as significant.

What can the National Redress Scheme do to alleviate this impact?

The Commission offered a framework to guide determinations made by the National Redress scheme and provide tangible recognition of the seriousness of the injury suffered by survivors.

One of its recommendations was that monetary payments be made based on three key criteria: the severity of the sexual abuse, the severity of the impacts of the abuse and additional elements, such as whether the survivor was a ward of the state at the time of the abuse. These recommendations were based on its finding that the impact of child abuse may differ between individuals and over time.

The final matrix produced by the Federal Government as part of redress establishes a hierarchy of abuse that does not reflect the lived experience of survivors due to its emphasis on penetration. Under this scheme, only survivors who suffered penetration are eligible for the maximum payment of $150,000. For survivors who suffered non-penetrative abuse, the maximum payment available under this scheme is a mere $50,000. The Redress Scheme therefore calculates payments on the basis of the severity of the act, rather than the severity its impact on the survivor, for which it only makes a minimal allowance of up to $10,000 (unless there was penetration).

However, this does not reflect the lived experiences of survivors as we at Ryan Carlisle Thomas have seen many cases where individuals have been subject to significant and prolonged non-penetrative abuse that has led to significant emotional and physical trauma

Abuse is more than penetration

It is unfair for the National Redress scheme matrix to imply that only instances of penetrative abuse may be classified as extreme. To do so would be to undermine not just the suffering of survivors but also the key findings of the Royal Commission regarding the complex effect child sexual abuse may have. It may also ultimately limit the capacity of the scheme to alleviate the impact on survivors and achieve justice which is deeply concerning.

Ultimately, in addressing the effect of child sexual abuse on survivors, the formula for calculating payments should not be reduced to a question of whether or not there was penetration. Rather, the National Redress scheme should re-evaluate its current matrix to consider the abuse suffered more holistically in line with what was originally proposed by the Commission if they are to stand any chance of ensuring that justice is finally restored.

But what else?

While we query the capacity of the scheme to provide tangible recognition of the suffering of survivors given its emphasis on penetration, we do recognise that the matrix was but one recommendation made by the Royal Commission to alleviate the impact of child sexual abuse on victims and survivors.

For example, the responses of institutions to child sexual abuse allegations can have a profound and potentially ongoing impact on victims. Their responses to disclosures of abuse, the actions taken to address the issue at the time of reporting and broader protective procedures can do much to alleviate the impact on child sex abuse. The failure of institutions to adequately respond to child sex abuse by either denying or silencing allegations may further traumatise survivors and place future children at risk.

Further, an inappropriate response may have the effect of cementing a survivor’s distrust and fear of institutions. In religious contexts especially, the impact of child sex abuse and a failure of the institution to properly respond to it may lead to a loss of religious faith altogether. Instead, these institutions need to be looking to adopt a proactive, serious and compassionate response to child sexual abuse.

To this end, institutions themselves have a direct role in alleviating the impact of child sexual abuse on survivors beyond relying on the National Redress Scheme to prioritise interests of victims and survivors of institutional child sex crimes because, in the words of the Royal Commission: “We cannot avoid the conclusion that the problems faced by many people who have been abused are the responsibility of our entire society.”