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Care not speed on abuse probe

Date

The Canberra Times

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The Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, is still in consultations about a royal commission into sexual abuse of children in institutions, and has already run into some problems. One involves reluctance by the states to involve themselves in the inquiry if they are to be expected to contribute to costs. This serves also as a reminder that most of the jurisdiction over the welfare of children, particularly vulnerable children in care, has resided primarily in state and territorial administrations, as has, of course, police and welfare responsibility to deal with abuse of the trust by people such as ministers, teachers or supervisors. This is something recognised in analogous inquiries, such as those into physical abuse and neglect in children's homes, into the removal of the Stolen Generation, abuses in respect of forced adoptions and on children sent from Britain to Australia. These have led to national and local apologies, and, in some places, compensation or schemes to help victims. No doubt, after the inquiry now in prospect, there will be also calls for compensation, from government as much as from perpetrators, and the organisations and bodies to which perpetrators belonged.

The need for whole-hearted participation by state administrations is not merely a matter of adding state to federal jurisdiction, or of the costs of holding the inquiry. State and territory governments will complain that even if the Commonwealth foots the bill for the inquiry, they will be put to considerable expense and diversion of resources to be represented, to prepare evidence and to make available files and experts. Two states - NSW and Victoria - were already planning limited inquiries. Julia Gillard and her cabinet should have considered some of these issues, to have consulted and discussed them with interested parties, including premiers and chief ministers, before rushing, for public relations and political purposes, to make a vague headline announcement about an inquiry.

Beyond that, Ms Roxon must also decide quickly how the inquiry should tackle some particular types of case, worthy not only of inquiries in their own right, but capable of consuming massive resources and creating distractions.

It is, for example, repeatedly claimed - if without much in the way of evidence from criminal justice statistics - that the physical and sexual abuse of Aboriginal children is at horrendous levels. Given that their living arrangements are akin to institutionalisation, is such abuse ''in'' or ''out'' of the inquiry? Likewise with the children of asylum seekers, said to have been grossly traumatised and exposed to abuse by political arrangements designed to deter boat people? The abuse and neglect of children in state care may have some parallels with abuse in church and other institutions 40 or more years ago, but also stands somewhat separate from cases of opportunistic crimes on vulnerable children by spiritual, cultural or sporting guardians.

The general purpose of the inquiry should be clear, but it is so big that derailment, delay or distraction is a risk. The central thrust of the inquiry should be the scourge of sexual abuse of children, objectively and subjectively; efforts to prevent abuse on the part of bodies vested with a duty of care to such children, exposure of what has happened in the past, questions of redress to victims, and, it is to be hoped, the policy and program measures that are necessary to make sure that this can never happen again.

It is certainly to be hoped that a number of commissioners are appointed, from a range of disciplines. Tasks should be divided, if only to ensure answers within a reasonable time. There should be a venue for victims to tell their stories; a separate one, perhaps starting later, to establish context, statistics, and details of how offences came to light, how those with responsibilities responded, the effectiveness of the justice system, the stewardship of managers and the impacts on victims and on broader society.

This cannot, obviously, cover every case, but counsel assisting can no doubt assemble representative cases allowing the responses of police, public officials, and others, including church authorities, to be drawn out and tested. And, if a look backwards is essential, so also is a look forwards, for policies and practices that protect children.

Common sense would suggest that the strands are so diverse, and with so many links to other problems and histories, that there will be a marked need for a strong secretariat, and leader, to bring history, experience, expertise and common sense together. It is a tall order, suggesting that Gillard and Roxon should proceed deliberately rather than with haste, and with as much of an eye to history and good public policy as to the hope of immediate political dividends.

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