On August 30, 2004 the Commonwealth Senate Community Affairs References Committee released the first of two reports about the abuse of children in institutional care (Forgotten Australians: A report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children).
It is impossible to convey the true nature and extent of the abuse and suffering inflicted in these institutions. The Committee received submissions from hundreds of survivors. The detailed accounts of physical abuse and neglect, emotional abuse and neglect, sexual abuse, broad dehumanisation and cruelty by people (many of whom claimed to promote Christian values) charged with the care of so many already-vulnerable children, demonstrates the horrific lives that thousands of Australian children endured in “care”.
The Committee report states that one Committee member described the inquiry as, “The most emotionally wrenching period I have spent in politics in fifteen years”, and this view was shared by all members. The Committee members and staff involved in the inquiry found that, “The scale and magnitude of the events described in evidence was overwhelming”. Two senators broke down when speaking at the release of the report.
My own research in this field leads me to the conclusion that the accounts of many survivors - of extreme physical violence and degradation, sexual violence, emotional torment and psychological disintegration - rank with those of survivors of concentration camps and prisoners of tyrannical regimes. The fact that this violence was committed on children arguably makes the abuse of power even more terrible. If ever one needed evidence that human beings are just as capable of extreme cruelty as they are of extreme goodness, then this report provides it.
So it has always been. We should not fool ourselves that such unevolved savagery has not happened - and does not happen still - in Australia. This is not to condemn all people in these institutions, but it is to condemn those who were responsible for perpetrating these acts, and those responsible for enabling the perpetrators to do so.
Committee findings and recommendations
Some of the Committee’s findings were that:
- There has been wide-scale unsafe, improper and unlawful care of children, a failure of duty of care, and serious and repeated breaches of statutory obligations.
- Many comments in recent years by governments, churches and care providers reveal a complete lack of understanding of, or acceptance of, responsibility for the level of neglect, abuse and assault that occurred in their institutions.
- Governments, churches and agencies should issue formal statements acknowledging their role in past institutional care policies and practices and the impact this had on the lives of many care-leavers. These statements should express sorrow and apologise for the physical, psychological and social harm caused as a result of the care-leavers’ experiences as children in institutional care.
- These acknowledgments must be accompanied by other positive measures.
- A national reparations fund for victims of institutional and out of home care abuse should be established.
Simply by investigating and recording what has happened, the inquiry has performed a courageous and valuable service. The recommendations made in the report recognise the needs and entitlements of survivors of institutional abuse. These recommendations now place the onus on governments, religious institutions and associated agencies to respond. Australia is not the first country to go through this process, nor will it be the last. The Committee’s proposals are informed by the experience and practice in other jurisdictions, such as Canada and Ireland, which are plainly instructive. To an extent, the responses of other jurisdictions will form a standard against which to judge the responses of Australian governments and religious bodies.
As the most effective official response in meeting the needs of survivors, the Law Commission of Canada recommended the use of redress programs that are designed with survivors and which involve responses to all their needs. These redress programs should include features including apologies, compensation, counselling and other services, education and access to records. The LCC declared that five principles must be respected in all processes through which survivors of institutional abuse seek redress.
- Survivors should possess all information necessary to make informed choices about what course of redress to undertake.
- They should have access to counselling and support.
- Those conducting or managing the process (judges, lawyers, police) should have the training necessary to enable them to understand the circumstances of survivors.
- Continual efforts should be made to improve redress programs.
- The process should not cause further harm to survivors.
In Ireland, revelations of abuse in state orphanages, industrial schools and other institutions prompted Prime Minister Bertie Ahern to make a statement on May 11, 1999 acknowledging and apologising for the abuse suffered by children in institutional care. Mr Ahern acknowledged that the effects of abuse “ruined their childhoods and has been an ever-present part of their adult lives”, and admitted that they were “grossly wronged, and that we must do all we can now to overcome the lasting effects of their ordeals”.
Several strategies were implemented to address the situation including the establishment of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. In 2000 the government agreed in principle to a compensation scheme. The Residential Institutions Redress Bill was presented on June 11, 2001, establishing the Compensation Advisory (CAC) Committee. The CAC responded to the government in January 2002 in its report entitled Towards Redress And Recovery, making recommendations about the form and content of the compensation scheme. The Residential Institutions Redress Act 2002 was passed on April 10, 2002, establishing the Residential Institutions Redress Board and associated bodies, which were enabled to award compensation to survivors of abuse in named institutions.
Funding for this compensation scheme came from government, with contributions from responsible religious authorities. The compensation scheme was launched on December 2, 2002 and will last for a period of three years. The average award to date is 80 000 euros (approximately $A137 000). Applications for compensation are assessed through an evidentiary process and awards are calculated based on four heads of compensation including the severity of abuse and injury.
Nothing can change what has happened. However, after the revelation of truth comes the possibility of at least partial redemption. The responses from governments and responsible religious institutions are awaited.
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