THE ROYAL COMMISSION INVESTIGATES CHILD ABUSE AND SEXUAL EXPLOITATION OF CHILDREN IN STATE CARE.
The Royal Commission has now conducted several damaging hearings into private and religious organisations which have been accused of allowing children to be sexually abused. There have been public hearings into the Catholic Church, the Salvation Army, YMCA and many others.
So far government departments which have been involved in the out of home care of children have been largely left out of the spotlight. The Royal Commission has held one public hearing into the notorious NSW Parramatta Girls Home. Many Parramatta victims of abuse had been struggling for years seeking compensation and it was only after the Royal Commission Hearings that the NSW Government finally reacted to the claims in a positive way announcing measures which would assist in resolving claims for compensation in a compassionate way including the introduction of 18 Guiding Principles to guide how NSW agencies would respond to civil claims for child sexual abuse. The NSW Government promised that claims will be finalised as quickly as possible and that agencies would be guided by the understanding that litigation can be a traumatic experience. The Government also indicated that state agencies would not generally raise the passage of time as a defence or reason not to allow a claim. Under current laws there are time limits which apply to historical abuse claims. (http://www.facs.nsw.gov.au/about_us/media_releases/assisting-victims-of-child-sexual-abuse)
The Royal Commission has now moved to order government departments to hand over 10 years of data relating to the alleged and proven abuse of children (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-01-15/child-abuse-inquiry-turns-focus-to-exploitation-in-state-care/6019660) and government departments throughout Australia are scrambling to collect the data that the Royal Commission has demanded.
In Victoria we know that this is likely to be a particularly difficult task. A February 2012 Ombudsman’s inquiry into the Department of Human Services’ record keeping with respect to ward/child protection records was damning. In the executive summary of the report the Ombudsman said:
Numerous reports over the last 15 years have documented the harm caused to many children held in care. Those reports have highlighted the need for former wards and children in the care of the state to have access to the records concerning their time in care, for emotional, medical, psychological, financial or legal reasons. In some instances, the existence of such records are the only means by which a former ward can reconnect with a sibling or parent from whom they were separated at childhood.The department currently holds in storage around 80 linear kilometres of historical records stored in boxes at numerous locations.The department has not inspected or indexed a considerable portion of these records. Accordingly, it cannot provide an accurate estimate of what portion of this total holding relates to wards of the state.Despite having had the majority of these records in its archives for over 15 years the department has only indexed and catalogued records relating to 26 of the 150 plus years worth of records relating to wards and institutions it holds. The majority of these records remain in large part uninspected, unindexed and unscanned.
Whilst the Victorian Government subsequently put some more resources into managing ward records, survivors groups and advocates still believe that much of the material that should be available to claimants has either been destroyed or cannot be located because of the state of the archives. Many survivors of abuse believe that Government departments throughout Australia have not been motivated to properly archive the records so that information is maintained and retrievable because to do so would open these Departments up to successful litigation. Angela Sdrinis Legal believes that there is a strong case to be made that ward and child protection records should be held and maintained by a separate entity/department.
Whilst the Royal Commission has largely focussed on historical allegations, we know that children in child protection continue to be vulnerable to abuse and sexual exploitation. Angela Sdrinis Legal acts for a number of children who have been recently abused in care. There have also been recent media reports that networks of paedophiles have been targeting and sexually abusing children in residential care units across Victoria.
Whilst the Royal Commission has said that one of its jobs is to “bear witness” with respect to the horrific wrongs of the past, we have seen that even before handing down any of its final findings or recommendations, the Royal Commission has already made a huge difference to victims of abuse and the way in which organisations are now responding to allegations. Importantly the Royal Commission also means that children of the future are likely to be safer.