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STANDING COMMITTEE ON COMMUNITY AFFAIRS
06/04/2009
Implementation of the recommendations of the Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians reports

CHAIR —Welcome back, Ms Walsh. You have information on evidence and witness protection. We have a submission from Micah, but I do not think we have one specifically from the Esther Centre.

Ms Walsh —It is from both. We put it in the name of the legal entity.

CHAIR —Would you like to make an opening statement before we go to questions?

Ms Walsh —As you know, the involvement of me and Micah has been pre the Forde inquiry. We have for a long time been engaged with forgotten Australians in looking at pathways for progressing the issues and acknowledging the abuse they experienced whilst in care. The three main areas in which we continue to be asked to work with people and we ourselves feel passionately about are: justice, heeling and social inclusion or citizenship participation.

Many people feel that their rights as citizens have been ignored for a long time. They really want to participate in pathways that will re-engage them in community life and stop the shame that they carry with them from living in orphanages as children. Whenever we have public forums right across Queensland people say that for the first time they are telling their family that they were a child in an orphanage. That whole process is ongoing and no one inquiry or mechanism can at any given time resolve those issues for the hundreds of thousands of people affected when you include the children of forgotten Australians.

We feel that most of the activity around forgotten Australians has been constrained by the limitations of our justice system. Nationally this devolving of who is responsible for child protection is a really big barrier to looking at what is the most effective way to address the injustices and the human rights violations that many people experienced whilst in care. There are a couple of mechanisms that we think are really linked at the moment with the government’s agenda on human rights consultation. We encourage you to provide that consultation with the evidences of the Senate inquiry hearing or any of your own reflections, because it has been the absence of a human rights framework that has led to the whole issue being dealt with state by state and by policy really rather than an independent and external decision maker about what should be done about the extent of the abuse, the criminality of it and matters of redress and compensation.

Secondly, there is the social inclusion agenda. I will give you some work that we have done through Lotus Place about making sure that social inclusion is not just looked at from a geographic disadvantage perspective. There are many communities of interest. Forgotten Australians are scattered within every community. They are looking for ways to have their reconnection with community life and their own capability and potential as people acknowledged and have improved access to services so that they and their children, whom many of you have heard feel significantly disadvantaged, can realise their potential.

Healing is really a combination of what pathway people personally choose and the services that are available. We stress the need to learn from the evidence of what has worked in different areas and what needs to be built upon now, but really make sure that the scope of services and the framework for service delivery is across the broad perspective. Often it is only put down as a psychological or a counselling issue. That is an important component of any service system but really there needs to be the ability for people to be resourced to be active as citizens. There needs to be a participatory process, which the mental health field is very passionate about and really advocates for. We would really like that to be foundational in any response to forgotten Australians as well as the ongoing impacts of trauma, grief and the loss of attachment.

One issue that constantly comes up now is that people who were in care as children and who are parents in the child protection system now have a need for some independent advocacy around redressing the imbalance of power that they feel. Many feel a strong sense of discrimination—because they were in care they are bad parents—rather than any commitment by governments to recognise that the abuse they suffered in care was a shared responsibility of the state and churches and that has had an impact on how people parent today. People are feeling further marginalised by the child protection system now in that sometimes their inability to relate to a social worker is being confused with their ability to parent or not parent. That power imbalance really does need some addressing to stop the intergenerational removal of children from within both Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous families where people were in care.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Thanks for that further information. Could I go through some of the things in your submission. You have quite a lot under the heading ‘Accountability and responsibility’ as to how in your view churches might properly make restitution and deal with those issues of engaging with those who have been abused in their care and bringing them to the table and so on. I think you say this is based on something that came out of the Boston archdiocese in the USA.

Ms Walsh —Yes.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Is this what they actually have in operation in that archdiocese?

Ms Walsh —No. It is what the victims and survivors of clerical sexual abuse are advocating for in America. The Esther Centre have in 10 years processed over 3,000 complaints against the church or state. We strongly recommend that there be more than internal processes. There are no benchmarks for how churches have to deal with historic allegations of abuse. Every church has its own complaint process. Every church decides how transparent or not it is going to be about that. The Catholic Church’s Towards Healing is a national program, but its implementation is not nationally applied. It is still very locally driven according to how local bishops and religious orders want to deal with it. The problem for the public and for victims of abuse and their families is that there is no clear picture of what is going to happen when you actually do process a complaint, even though there is a document. When people speak to each other or hear how different complaints have been heard, it varies greatly.

The benchmarking around money is significantly different in every jurisdiction and every church. In some cases people feel that private school complaints are dealt with completely differently from those of people who were in orphanages. There is often an element of where churches want to assess the dysfunction of the victim in order to determine what money is going to be paid and proportionately look at what could be from the perpetrator of the abuse and what is the vulnerability of the victim. We would argue that the vulnerability of the victim means that there should be a higher rating for the abuse that has occurred, because the offender has taken advantage of that vulnerability. It should not be something that diminishes the responsibility or the outcome of the internal process.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Has any of this been put to the church or churches in Queensland?

Ms Walsh —We are beginning to relook at how to put to the churches where we should be after Redress in Queensland. There have been forums where people have put forward their views, and many victims have written to churches asking for the processes to be much more sensitive to their needs and for them to have much more of a dialogue with victims about how to proceed. It is not something that should be dealt with in secret. We advocated that there be some religious ombudsman or some external statutory body that churches should report to, given that they are treated differently under the law because of the way that churches are constituted in Australia. The secrecy and the lack of sensitivity to the needs of victims is a continued complaint about the processes across all church denominations. The Uniting Church in Queensland has been very clear in the work that it has done to make the system very transparent. There are benchmarks and people are generally satisfied with how they are treated and engaged in that process, because it is very clear. As advocates we are very clear about what we need to do. We do not have to do a lot of following up. The process is the same for anybody who wants to put forward a complaint.

Senator HUMPHRIES —One thing you advocate is for the church to release all personnel files of accused priests, church employees and volunteers. When you say ‘release’, to whom do you say they should be released?

Ms Walsh —That was in the context of when there were investigations occurring. There are many victims who would say that there have been blocks through the police investigations or whichever body and that in the internal process they often do not get the information that they ask for. So it would have to be in line with whatever body was investigating. There is a view by victims that there have been blockages to releasing information. Of course, the churches often say they do not have it, but I suppose there is not a lot of faith in that.

Senator HUMPHRIES —We are talking about church officials or priests who have died rather than those who are still alive?

Ms Walsh —Yes, but even when they are alive too. There is greater cooperation between the churches and police now but over time that has not always been the case. People who put in a complaint 15 years ago would have had a very different experience from people who have done it more recently. There has been a major shift in the relationship between police and church authorities.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Under the heading ‘The Forde Foundation’ you point out that the state government contributed $4½ million to the trust initially. You say:

Churches were required to contribute to the foundation by the Inquiry but have never done so.

Ms Walsh —There have been some small amounts of money given, through a day that was marked to collect funds, but generally forgotten Australians and other stakeholders have been disappointed at the lack of investment following the Forde inquiry by any of the churches.

Senator HUMPHRIES —When you say they were ‘required to contribute’, do you mean they were invited—

Ms Walsh —The recommendation was that the state and the churches contribute. That would be the same for redress. The state government has done the Redress Scheme. It was not as the recommendation stated that it should be the state government and the churches. Generally people feel that the governments take the responsibility, and there is not enough—or none in some cases—responsibility taken by the churches. That is particularly when it is not really all about the nature of whether or not a child was in care. People were placed in institutions through private arrangements and through the care and protection of the state. Abuse occurred by priests in those institutions but they were not the carers. They were based in those institutions, and they were there for their religious duties, but they were sexually abusing children in those institutions. That was not part of the care arrangement; it was sort of a parallel process. The Sisters of Mercy or the other religious order would have been responsible for the way in which children were cared for. The priest was outside that system and therefore the archdiocese or the religious institution’s hierarchy is responsible for them.

From a victim’s point of view, and from the point of view of many of the public, the churches do have a responsibility to acknowledge the significant abuse of power that occurred by having a religious person within an institution—but not part of the care of the children—in exercising their religious duties take advantage of the fact that they were based in an orphanage and abuse children. In some cases, that was at the knowledge of the authorities. In Brisbane in evidence to the Forde inquiry a priest was transferred to an orphanage with the knowledge that he had sexually abused children in parishes.

Senator HUMPHRIES —This is the last question from me. You recommend a number of changes and a number of things the churches should be doing. Possibly some process might be engineered in Queensland for that to occur with respect to churches in Queensland. The other possibility is that the focus here could sort of shift to a national negotiation, perhaps even involving the Australian government talking directly to national representatives of churches about bringing them under the umbrella of some kind of national scheme where they in fact contribute to the cost of a national redress scheme in some way.

Ms Walsh —A national approach to it would be the preference, mainly because people live all over the place. They do not necessarily live where they were abused, so a national approach has always been advocated as the preference. That is why I stated that a lot of the work that has been done in Queensland has been done within the set of limitations at a given point in time. It was a policy decision in the end. There were many other requests to look at whether the Law Reform Commission should look at ways in which redress could be done through the courts. The final decision was a policy decision that responded to the Forde inquiry, but it may not necessarily be the best way to do it.

Certainly the Irish and Canadian schemes were much clearer because they were external to government. It was not the government that was responsible for the abuse determining how the redress would be measured, applied for and paid out in the end. They set up a redress board. They set up clear benchmarks. It was really taking on board a personal injury and harm framework. None of our redress schemes take on that framework in Australia. I suppose this is recognition that every country has a different approach to supporting vulnerable people. The issues of Centrelink payments have not had to be accommodated in looking at redress, because the amounts of money are much smaller than the amounts of money that would be done internationally. On the balance of things, at any given time that is the decision that has been made. In Ireland there would be lots of critics of the cost of the legal representation. The onus of proof was much greater than what the redress schemes in Australia are. It is really about looking at the pros and cons of both of those things and, at the end of the day, what people are happy with. There is no one scheme that is going to meet everybody’s needs.

Senator HUMPHRIES —I have one more question. There are a number of witnesses who are coming before us this afternoon who make in their submissions very critical comments about the Esther Centre and the agencies that are under the Lotus Place umbrella. One of them says, ‘These organisations have done little but act as tools in disempowering the former residents.’ I think it is fair to offer you a chance to make a comment on those criticisms, because presumably they will repeat them this afternoon.

Ms Walsh —I am fully aware of those criticisms and I accept that we certainly are not able to meet the expectations or the needs of everybody who comes to us. We have chosen a particular way of operating based on what we believe is the majority. There are people who would rather run their own organisation, and that is to be considered; however, when we considered it, we also had lots of people who were saying that they did not want that. It was really the balance of the information that we had before us at any given time. There are major dynamics of how people understand and use power both within themselves and within us as professionals, and we try to reflect seriously so that we do not misuse our role and disempower people, but we understand that we do not agree with everybody and that at times we have to make decisions based on what have become very scarce resources for a population group that has grown overnight. We really advocate that it is time to move on from simply the Forde inquiry and that we need to move forward to ‘Is there going to be a national framework for the delivery of services to Forgotten Australians, and what are the principles and practices that organisations like us operate in?’

We were the first organisation. We recognise that we did not get it all right. We have been developing our processes as we go. The needs of people presenting change regularly. We are very committed to people’s participation as citizens and as people who experienced the abuse, and we did involve people constantly in advocating for redress; however, people did not necessarily agree with what the majority came up with. We have always supported people to enact their citizen rights and to present for themselves as individuals to their local members of parliament and to inquiries such as this. We do not seek to control all the points of view that people have. As you would know, there is a very diverse range of points of view about how we should move forward.

We look forward to a much more national framework where we are not operating as a service system in isolation from the other major initiatives that are going on within government and where forgotten Australians, as a target group of people with specific needs, can actually hit the agenda a bit more with the Social Inclusion Board, with human rights consultation and with the reforms that are happening under disability. This population comes through all those initiatives very strongly, so it is about making the links. I suppose we would see ourselves more as needing to be a gateway to the service system than actually being the service system. With five or six staff, you cannot respond to the number of people.

We have acknowledged to former residents that we really struggled with the demand of the Redress Scheme. We only got about $160,000 worth of additional resources. We were the only agency funded to assist with application processes. We were learning as we went. It all had to be done very quickly. We acknowledge that we have made mistakes and that we have not got it all right for everybody, but we look forward to a much more comprehensive framework that services sit in so that we are not just an isolated group of three initiatives responding to such a big population with such significant needs.

Senator FURNER —What sort of database system do you presently have?

Ms Walsh —We have a service record system which we have built ourselves as an organisation. It basically enables us to record all services that are provided through a case-management process and also through the reception system.

Senator FURNER —Approximately how many clients do you have on that?

Ms Walsh —Over 2,000.

Senator FURNER —Does that take into consideration the families of those clients?

Ms Walsh —Yes. We have had non-recurrent projects from time to time, and we have strongly advocated for the need to support families in the child protection system. As for supporting the families of people presenting, to what extent we can do it is probably an issue for people. We cannot always do everything everyone wants, but we try to make some linkages and try to do the minimum we can do.

Senator FURNER —Have you recently surveyed the clientele with respect to their needs?

Ms Walsh —Based on the information that has been given with Redress, we are discussing with the Queensland government the need for a survey. We would prefer to do that as a whole service system involving Forde, Micah through Esther, the Historical Abuse Network and the Aftercare Resource Centre. We would like to see the Queensland government implement a survey that was done in Victoria—so that it can be used for national comparisons—with maybe one or two extra questions, given that we have had the Redress Scheme. But that is currently in discussion with the statistical division of government, who have said they are interested in assisting in delivering that so that it could go out to everyone who has applied through the Redress Scheme and could inform where we are going from here as a service system, rather than just keep doing what we started doing. That was within the specific context of the Forde inquiry, which was a smaller group of people, whereas now it is a much larger group of people. We need to really look at what we can do with this amount of resources for this population and what the key linkages are that we need with other Commonwealth and state service system reforms that are going on at the moment. There are some great opportunities at the moment if ‘forgotten Australians’, as a specific target group, could be recognised by the Australian and state governments.

Senator FURNER —In respect of delivery of a survey, do you foresee any impediments in terms of distributing that document?

Ms Walsh —Clearly people have different approaches to surveys in terms of their literacy skills, but I think that through Redress we have probably been able to pick up ways in which people could be assisted and the broader service system in the state could be asked to assist people in completing a survey. You do not have to have knowledge or specific understanding of the needs of people to assist them with a survey. Given that Redress has occurred in Queensland, there is a wider acknowledgement that people who were in care do have specific needs within the services. They are presenting across a whole range of services already. So it is about how people can assist them so that both the human services sector as a whole and people who were in care as a whole can somehow start looking at how everybody makes this their business and how everybody can improve and enhance the quality of their services and that former residents and forgotten Australians know where to go for services. You cannot just create a one-stop shop, there needs to be the whole service system understanding the needs, from GPs to psychiatrists to homeless service providers to aged care providers. The role that a specialist service system like ours plays needs to be focused on being able to make those connections with people. The unmet needs of people would like us to really get back to addressing since Redress are things like oral histories, public speaking, doing more communication to the public and professionals about how their needs should be met, finishing some of the memorial projects that people wanted to set up, and reunions. Some of those community building exercises sometimes get lost when you are faced with having to deliver services with the Redress Scheme going on.

CHAIR —There are obviously a lot more questions and we are running out of time. One of the issues is about the funding of the Lotus Place centre and the various streams within that organisation. Is there any federal money in that?

Ms Walsh —No. We did receive a federal grant a number of years ago that helped us with the IT training that people referred to. That was a really valuable contribution. It was only for 18 months but it really did add value because it was skill development. It gave us the ability to set up the computer lab.

CHAIR —We are going to have a look so that senators can see it. The computers are still there but there is no ongoing funding for the program.

Ms Walsh —No, but we do integrate it with the funding we get. People still do access the computers and some people do courses. Some people prefer to do a course that we pay for at TAFE; other people prefer to do a coaching style where they can just plod along and are coached as they do it. There is really no one way to do it. It is trying to follow where people want to do things and how they want to do them.

CHAIR —The state government funding is on a recurrent basis?

Ms Walsh —It is to be reviewed after 30 June.

CHAIR —At this stage you have no idea?

Ms Walsh —I understand that there is going to be a new framework for looking at it, taking into consideration the issues around redress.

CHAIR —In terms of Redress, you said that the Lotus Place centre received some funding to look at the various support needs of people going through that.

Ms Walsh —Well, the application assistance.

CHAIR —We heard detailed evidence from the Western Australians last week about the support that they were offering, and it just seemed to me that it seemed to be more detailed in terms of the acknowledgement of the kind of emotional support that people require during that process than was available in the Queensland system.

Ms Walsh —Definitely Western Australia learned from our mistakes. They offered services across a range of agencies to assist with application assistance. We were doing the assistance both by phone and by face-to-face. We did do some visits to Palm Island and Townsville and Rockhampton. I think part of the problem with the Queensland Redress Scheme was the timeframe it was in and that there was not enough time given to the numbers involved. We have a record of about 70 people who would be eligible who did not know about the scheme, the fact that the scheme did not respond to foster care. People who were in adult mental institutions have also requested that there be an apology. Those things are not complete yet. But certainly the timeframe around implementation of Redress with very little additional resources was a major issue.

CHAIR —The aspect of closure of the scheme has come up in Western Australia and by submission in Tasmania as well. Has there been any discussion raising this question this afternoon with government about people who did not claim by the closure date?

Ms Walsh —We have raised it. It is not a finished discussion, obviously. However, on the point that Senator Humphries made before about whether people need an ongoing or another place, I think the lessons of the redress schemes everywhere are showing that timeframes and the ability to just get your life into some sort of order to be able to fill out an application process by the due date and get the necessary documentation is an unrealistic request given the lives that people are living, or something that was much longer period of time as a public hearing. Very few people presented at the Forde inquiry. Many more people have come forward since. And people regularly say that they would like the opportunity for their experience to be on the public record, that being in a private sense through a human service provider is not adequate and that any process that it would be good if it could be looked at for the future of where people’s testimony could be on public record and where there could be a much longer period of time for that to occur.

Certainly the New Zealand process that they use to go around the country to hear from people who were in mental health institutions would be worth some consideration. It is taking the time, it is providing enough resources for people to be supported emotionally in the process and to be followed up later. I think we have been restricted by the limitations and timeframes of inquiries and the way inquiries are held and then there is a set of recommendations, and then to engage with that you have got to engage with those recommendations. That is probably not the best process in terms of the long-term needs for healing and public recognition and redress that people are looking for. But no-one is going to knock back any opportunity, regardless of how limited it is, to put these matters in the public arena.

CHAIR —One last question. The Esther Centre, Lotus Place, is actually located in Brisbane and is a wonderful place. As you know, I am a big fan, but there is one place for the whole of Queensland and in fact there is no place elsewhere in Australia. Do you have any ideas about how you could extend that kind of model elsewhere?

Ms Walsh —I think it is really important that it is done within a framework of where we are going with all this in general. You just cannot fund a service and say therefore meet all the needs of everyone who has ever been in care. It cannot be done by one service. So it has to be linked with the existing service system, because the people who have been in institutional care or out-of-home care and foster care are a very diverse group of people. They are some people who are really educated, contribute enormously to public life in their professional life and in their local communities, and there are people who that has been denied to them even though there aspirations to do so are really high. They have been denied an education and they have been not able to keep up with the pace of change in society in terms of their employment options. So it needs to be looked at as a whole service system and where it fits with other aspects of human and community services. For example, there is the whole issue of after-care services for people. We talk about children in care and there is a lot of literature and lot of advocacy but not a lot of action around transition from care. But then there is after-care, and I think that what the forgotten Australians and lost innocence and stolen generation reports all demonstrate really clearly is that a percentage of people will need ongoing care, ongoing support, ongoing access to services. So looking at it in the scope of how services are provided nationally, as well as in the states, is really important.

We have certainly advocated in Queensland that, if there is a change in the way services are provided, there is a community approach to it where there could be outreach from the centre to local communities. Whenever we go into other communities, people overwhelmingly say they want the opportunity to get together, the opportunity to reconnect, and to be told what other services they might be eligible for in the community. So a community capacity response to complement the more individual responses that counselling and support work give is really important. A lot of people are already on a different pathway to healing. Even when people have concluded that process, they still want connection, they still want to offer support to other people. So going to Rockhampton, for example, and having a community meal and some information sessions about what services are in their local area would be really good. Every Wednesday of Child Protection Week in Queensland is acknowledged as ‘remembrance day’, which acknowledges the inadequacy of the government’s response to child protection in the past and the victims and survivors of care. So it would be really good to be able to run some of those things in cities other than Brisbane. We recognise the limitation of only being in Brisbane. Percentage wise there are a lot of people living in the South-East Queensland corner, but even getting to the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast is really difficult for us with the way our current resources are allocated.

Senator BOYCE —I have a question which it might be easier to put on notice, because you might want to think about it. You have spoken about the fact that there has been no national action from the churches—and you and Senator Humphries have talked about what that might look like. For the purpose of having a baseline, could you give us an outline of what you think are any good initiatives from individual churches, and how these might be expanded, and of where there are big gaps of nonperformance. You mentioned that the police are perhaps adopting a better attitude to people who are being abused, rather than having too close a relationship with the churches in the past.

Ms Walsh —I am not sure whether it was the relationship, but there were barriers to processing historical abuse claims.

Senator BOYCE —It was probably one institution. Institutions are very good at talking to each other, but they are not very good at talking to individuals.

Ms Walsh —There has been an enormous change, certainly in Queensland. We had the Fitzgerald inquiry, which changed things significantly in terms of the police. But I think the institutional relationships between the state, the churches, the judiciary and all of that are really important. I think lot of people believe that the churches need to have more public accountability, because they do play a significant role.

Senator BOYCE —Absolutely. Could you outline for us where you think we are at right now. I think there has been some sporadic improvement.

Ms Walsh —Yes, there has been.

Senator BOYCE —It would be good if you could tell us which you perceive those to be and which ones you think should be broadened out further. If you want to give us a written answer to that, that is fine.

Ms Walsh —I will give a written answer. I think the very fact that every church now has a protocol is a significant improvement on what it was like 10 years ago. In the last 10 years we have seen churches put enormous energy into looking at developing protocols. It is the understanding of how those protocols need to be implemented that needs more attention across the board. Also, there is the ongoing responsibility to actually pay and contribute funds for redress and for counselling or healing. The best way to do that remains to be debated. Certainly some people find enormous strength in being able to reconnect with the church, but other people never want to go near a church again. So there needs to be a balance between what the churches themselves do to re-engage with victims. That is a very powerful part of healing and it is part of the mandate of the churches. People see it as the churches’ core business, so the pain when they are excluded from that process is much greater. But in terms of individual churches I would be happy to provide that in writing, from our own experience. We do not relate to every single church in Australia but, for the ones that we have related to, we are happy to give you feedback on where the gaps are.

CHAIR —In terms of the national approach, the formation of the alliance was one of the recommendations that came out of the whole process of people working together across states. Do you see that as a future direction?

Ms Walsh —It is really important to have a national approach, and therefore the alliance plays an important role in that. There probably needs to be more discussion about how that actually operates, because the money for its operation is minimal. In order for the expectation of forgotten Australians that their participation will feed into a national alliance, the states have to have the capacity to do that locally. At the moment that is not the case. A lot of work by forgotten Australians is done voluntarily. People put enormous energy into the research. They have insight into how services should and could be provided to assist them. I think there needs to be a national alliance that somehow represents the states, but then the states need the resources to engage people. You will get a lot of criticism about the lack of engagement and participatory processes of services, but that costs money. Also, it means that you need people who have those skills. The combination of skills that people need to do those kinds of activities is important to acknowledge, but it cannot be done on $100,000 a year for the country. That is the budget of AFA at the moment. Making linkages with other peak bodies is, I think, really important too, because forgotten Australians have a lot to offer to a whole range of human service organisations.

CHAIR —Thank you very much.

[11.52 am]