Royal Commission reflections: Healing and support for victims and survivors (Week 1)

The Royal Commission’s key findings and recommendations 

Throughout November we will be reflecting on how the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (the Royal Commission) has changed how we understand and respond to survivors’ healing and support needs. This week, we look at the Royal Commission’s recommendations for improving service systems to better respond to those needs and help survivors towards recovery. 

More than 8,000 victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse shared their experiences with the Royal Commission during private sessions. Through their evidence and accounts, we learnt much about the significant and life-long impacts that the experience of childhood sexual abuse can have on survivors. In Volume 9 of its Final Report, the Royal Commission examined what these impacts meant for the healing and support needs of survivors and how the service system needed to be improved to better meet those needs. 

The healing and support needs of survivors 

While all survivors’ experiences are unique, the Royal Commission highlighted that child sexual abuse can often have profound, long-lasting and cumulative impacts on survivors. These impacts can span across all areas of a survivor’s life, meaning that the healing and support needs of survivors are many and diverse. 

The Royal Commission found that survivors may often need support in relation to: 

  • mental health needs for example, support and treatment to deal with anxiety, depression, PTSD, eating disorders, alcohol and other drug use and suicidality  
  • physical health needs for example, treatment for medical and dental concerns 
  • legal needs for example, assistance and advice to report abuse to police, attend court and make claims for redress and compensation  
  • education, training and employment needs for example, support and assistance to access employment services and education and training opportunities 
  • housing needs for example, support and assistance to find emergency and ongoing housing 
  • financial needs for example, support and assistance to deal with Centrelink or manage debts 
  • social and cultural needs for example, support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors to reconnect to their culture, family and community as part of healing. 

The Royal Commission found that these needs are often interconnected, meaning a survivor may need multiple types of support at once. The Royal Commission also found that survivors’ needs change throughout their lives, meaning the support a survivor needs as a young adult, for example, may be different to the support they need in older age. The Royal Commission emphasised that survivors need support throughout their lives, not just at a single point in time. 

Given the complexity of survivors’ support needs, the Royal Commission emphasised that survivors not only need support to deal with the impacts of their abuse. They also need support to navigate the large number of service systems they may have to engage with to get the help they need. This is especially important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors, survivors living with disability and care leavers. 

Improving service systems 

Problems in existing services 

The Royal Commission noted that support for victims and survivors of child sexual abuse may be offered: 

  • by mainstream services for example, mental health services, GPs, alcohol and other drugs services, housing services and the aged care system 
  • by community support services for example, peer-based survivor support groups and Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations 
  • by specialist services — that is, child and adult sexual assault services  
  • through other systems that respond to child sexual abuse (e.g. the criminal justice system and redress schemes) and through institutions (e.g. out-of-home care, schools and youth detention). 

Considering all of these services together, the Royal Commission found that it was often hard for survivors to get the support and treatment they needed. 

For many survivors, the child sexual abuse they had experienced, and previous responses to it, meant that reaching out for help was challenging. For example, survivors often said that they: 

  • felt shame, because of stigmatising attitudes about child sexual abuse in the community and among professionals 
  • were worried that seeking help would have negative consequences for them for example, they wouldn’t be believed, they would be labelled with negative stereotypes, they would suffer discrimination, or perpetrators would retaliate against them 
  • didn’t trust institutions or authority figures 
  • had concerns about privacy and confidentiality. 

Problems with the service system also made it hard for survivors to get the help they needed when they needed it. Key problems the Royal Commission identified included that:  

  • The service system was split across many sectors and was difficult for survivors to navigate. 
  • Information about available support was hard to find.  
  • Mainstream service providers did not have a good understanding of child sexual abuse and trauma. 
  • Specialist services were under-resourced and there were long wait times. 
  • Services often cost more than survivors could afford. 
  • There was a particular lack of services for certain groups of survivors — including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors, survivors with disability, children and young people, male survivors, LGBTQI+ survivors, survivors in regional and remote communities, survivors entering aged care, and survivors who were or had been in prison. 
  • Not all services were being delivered to the same standard.  

Overall, the Royal Commission found that the service system did not have the capacity to meet the needs of survivors. This meant some survivors were missing out on the help they needed or, even worse, that they were being re-traumatised by poor responses. 

Recommended improvements 

To improve the healing and support available to survivors, the Royal Commission outlined its vision for a responsive service system. This would be a cohesive system that would: 

  • address all aspects of survivors’ wellbeing in a holistic way 
  • be based on the principles of: 
    • trauma-informed practice and an understanding of child sexual abuse 
    • collaboration (services would work together to help survivors find the right service at the right time) 
    • availability (services would be available to survivors at the right place and time, throughout their lives and for as long as they need)
    • accessibility (services would be affordable or free and accessible to all survivors) 
    • acceptability (services would consider the diversity of survivors and respond to their lived, social and cultural contexts) 
    • high quality (services would be based on evidence about what works, delivered by trained and informed workers and regularly evaluated) 
  • be inclusive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander healing approaches. 

The Royal Commission specifically recommended that governments across Australia should work to establish a responsive service system that included: 

  • a dedicated system of community-based support services, with a particular focus on peer-led support, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander healing approaches and services for people living with disability 
  • a national legal service to provide advice, referrals and assistance for survivors to navigate legal processes 
  • a national website and helpline to give survivors, the general public and practitioners information about supporting survivors and available support services 
  • better funded sexual assault services with more capacity to provide specialist advocacy, support and treatment to survivors 
  • mainstream services that better understand the nature and impacts of childhood sexual abuse and can respond more effectively to survivors. 

The Royal Commission also recommended that the Australian Government establish a national centre to lead ongoing work to raise awareness and understanding of child sexual abuse, support help-seeking by survivors, and promote best practice in support services. 

The work of the Royal Commission showed how the service system needed to be improved to better support survivors on their journeys of healing and recovery. Join us next week as we reflect on the work of knowmore’s specialist social workers and counsellors, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander financial counsellors in helping survivors to heal.  

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