Later today, our Parliament will deliver a formal National Apology to the victims of child abuse perpetrated at the hands of Australian institutions. Words have power, but action means a lot more, writes Liana Buchanan.
Today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison makes a national apology to victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse. Around 400 balloted tickets have been made available to attend the ceremony in Canberra, while another 400 organisational representatives will also attend and local ceremonies will see hundreds of others come together around Australia to witness the apology.
This historic event marks the rightful acknowledgement of decades of abuse that has been, until recently, hidden. It follows the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which exposed thousands of allegations, and made more than 2,500 referrals to police.
The abuse disclosed has, in many cases, led to catastrophic impacts on the lives of victims who survived, and their families and loved ones. For too many others, their lives have ended as a direct result of childhoods destroyed through abuse.
As the balloting of tickets suggests, today’s national apology ceremony will afford only a fraction of those affected the chance to attend and be acknowledged in person, while at the same time the National Redress Scheme attempts to respond to an enormity and scale of abuse that in fundamental ways simply cannot be put right.
In reality, we can only approach redress for the past, never fully achieve it, but we can and should be judged by the ambition and commitment of that approach, and the extent to which it leaves victims and their families not with a sense of action that has been balloted or rationed, but with a sense of justice and healing.
More urgently we cannot see today’s apology as the close of a finished episode.
For many children and young people, their path to safety and away from a future damaged by abuse depends on what we do now, what happens when the spectacle of apology has subsided and the media focus has moved onto other issues.
The royal commission has pointed the way in this. Its final report released last December includes 189 new recommendations urging action to protect children and young people by creating the policies and systems that target the prospect of abuse, as well as address damage our institutions have allowed to occur over decades.
If anyone should doubt the continuing threat, last month a warning was sounded in the Victorian Parliament with the tabling of the first data from the Reportable Conduct Scheme administered by the State’s Commission for Children and Young People, of which I am the Principal Commissioner.
In its first full year of administering the Scheme, the Commission disclosed in its annual report that in 2017–18 it received more than 850 notifications representing more than 1300 allegations of reportable conduct against children and young people in out-of-home care, schools, religious and many other organisations – alleged conduct spanning sexual offences, sexual misconduct, physical violence, behaviour that causes significant emotional or physical harm, and significant neglect.
The Scheme, together with the Child Safe Standards, flow from Victoria’s earlier inquiry into child abuse in non-government organisations, known as the Betrayal of Trust inquiry. These schemes have been recommended for national implementation by the royal commission. If fully implemented, they promise an unprecedented breadth of protection for children and young people, mandating child-safe organisations and capturing harmful conduct that falls below or meets the criminal threshold, while working across agencies to ensure an appropriate response.
The royal commission envisaged national action on these measures, and states and territories are at various stages in achieving this, with Victoria the only state so far to have legislated both. Few others have yet made a firm commitment to do so.
Together, these measures are designed to ensure organisations have the policies and processes in place to create conditions of safety and empowerment for the children and young people they work with. They also ensure organisations properly investigate reportable conduct through robust processes under the independent oversight of agencies like the Commission.
So what have we found? At this early stage in Victoria, we are still seeing significant variability from organisations in the quality of their investigations. Many organisations need to improve before the community can have confidence that all allegations of child abuse are receiving proper attention.
There is also a continuing tendency to not interview children, even when they have important evidence to share, and to not give enough weight to their evidence relative to adults.
If we have learnt anything from the royal commission, and from Victoria’s own Betrayal of Trust inquiry, it is the tragic cost of ignoring or dismissing the voices of children and young people who speak out about what is happening to them.
If we are not to face the enduring prospect of future apologies when the damage is already done, it is vital that we hear their voices to prevent and address abuse.
We often hear that keeping children and young people safe is everyone’s responsibility, and in an important sense that is true – especially when it comes to the organisations and institutions that have direct contact with children.
It is also true that the moral responsibility to act depends on the capacity to do so, and in this sense we must acknowledge and call to action the capacity of federal, state and territory governments to act in collaboration to end abuse.
They can do so by giving full effect to the recommendations of the royal commission, and by cooperating to ensure that protections operate consistently across Australia.
Now that the extent of past abuse has been exposed, along with organisations’ many failures to prevent and respond appropriately to that abuse, we have an obligation to act. It is up to governments in particular to enact the spirit of today’s apology through the policies, laws and resources necessary to prevent future abuse.
Governments must also consider how today’s apology cannot just be about the failure to respond to the abuse of others, but for their own role directly creating the systems and circumstances in which abuse occurs.
Today, there are children in desperate situations in offshore immigration detention, children in state care whose lives are deeply compromised by their experience, and children in youth justice detention whose human rights have been consistently violated, their futures damaged by their undeniable mistreatment.
This suffering is starkly and disproportionately borne by our Aboriginal children and young people. There can be no policy aim that countenances the abuse of children, and the systems designed to respond to abuse must not be allowed to perpetuate it.
A genuine national apology must signal a national commitment to end all abuse. A safe childhood and a healthy future cannot be a ballot open only to some in this country.
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