'Society failed us': abuse survivor wants more than an apology

Hannah Coleman-Jennings was two-and-a-half years old when she was sexually abused in a daycare centre run by a Christian community group in Sydney in 1996.

The daily flashbacks of the abuse she suffered at the hands of those trusted to care for her led her to attempt suicide seven times. Her first attempt was when she was just seven years old.

Hannah Coleman-Jennings 24, was one of the youngest people in the public gallery when the prime minister apologised to survivors of institutional child abuse. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

Hannah Coleman-Jennings 24, was one of the youngest people in the public gallery when the prime minister apologised to survivors of institutional child abuse. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

The 24-year-old Canberra woman was one of the youngest survivors in the public gallery when Prime Minister Scott Morrison apologised to victims of institutional child sexual abuse on Monday.

Mrs Coleman-Jennings said she struggled to listen to the speeches, as they reminded her of what she has endured.

The cynical part of her also felt it was too little, too late, as the widespread abuse of children should never have occurred in the first place.

But ultimately she felt that the apology - and the royal commission that preceded it - has shone a light into some of the darkest corners of Australian society, where child abusers were allowed to thrive for generations.

"I am happy we are now talking about this. Evil happens in the darkness when we turn our backs. Hopefully by talking about this, by raising awareness and really focusing on the abuse of children we can stop it happening in the future," Mrs Coleman-Jennings said.

"It was really hard being the youngest person there, and knowing it's continued. When people think of child sexual abuse, they think of something that's happened in a 1970s boarding school. It's hard for people to wrap their minds around the fact that this is still happening today. This happens. It happened. Society failed us by letting this happen and it should never happen again."

While Mrs Coleman-Jennings still struggles daily with what happened to her, those that abused her have never been held to account.

The police files in her case went missing and her abusers made threats that forced her family to flee the state.

Hannah Coleman-Jennings 24, with her husband Connor Coleman-Jennings. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

Hannah Coleman-Jennings 24, with her husband Connor Coleman-Jennings. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

"It's the most awful thing. I relive the abuse every day. It can be a sound, a smell, a phone call from someone. It doesn't stop when the abuse stops. It happens over and over again and it will happen until the day I die," Mrs Coleman-Jennings said.

After she gave evidence to the royal commission, Mrs Coleman-Jennings said her case had been referred onto the police integrity unit.

With the help of her family, her husband - whom she has been friends with since she was eight years old - and her support dog, Mrs Coleman-Jennings is managing to hold it together.

But she believes the federal government must make it easier for survivors to access the Commonwealth redress scheme. The organisation in which she was abused has not signed up to the scheme.

"They should bring in legislation that compels institutions to sign up. I think the way the redress scheme is set up with regards to victims who are now in prison makes it very difficult for them. Really the abuse is the thing that set them on the path to prison and I think we need to make it easier for them to take part,"  Mrs Coleman-Jennings said.

She also believes there needs to be a cultural change in Australia's institutions to truly keep children safe.

"I think there needs to be accountability and change in governance. The people who are in power now are people who were around when the abuse occurred, possibly covering it up," she said.

"The Scouts have changed their culture around child sexual abuse so now no adult leader can be alone with a child, it has to be two leaders. I hope that kind of change spreads to all institutions."