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Help needed to restore lives shattered by abuse

By Cathy Kezelman - posted Friday, 13 November 2009

Who will take responsibility for the more than 2 million Australian adults surviving child abuse?

On November 16, 2009 Australia’s Prime Minister will apologise to 500,000 Forgotten Australians and 7,000 Lost Innocents. Having the wrongs perpetrated against them heard and acknowledged will be a crucial step in the recovery process for many of the victims. This apology, like that made to the Stolen Generation, will help unite the Australian community in dealing with the repercussions of another dark chapter in our history.

Sadly, the apology to the Stolen Generation has not been matched by, among other measures, an improved child protection record. In 2007-08, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, representing 4.4 per cent of Australian children, recorded 23 per cent of all confirmed reports of abuse or neglect.


The Forgotten Australians and child migrants suffered a litany of emotional and physical abuse, sexual assault and exploitation, humiliation, physical deprivation, cruelty and brutality. For decades the institutions responsible failed to acknowledge or take responsibility for the horrors perpetrated in their institutions. Many of them have now also apologised but their words must be matched by appropriate redress.

The Federal government has stressed that redress is a matter for state governments and prior care providers. State and territory governments have made a range of provisions although only Tasmania, Queensland and Western Australia have formal redress schemes. Sadly the amount of compensation allocated to victims by the West Australian government was downgraded in July. The true benefit of these government schemes and provisions remains to be seen.

The historical track record of religious institutions has been one of repeated indifference and legal risk minimisation denying the plight of victims in favour of the preservation of the institution and protection of the clergy and workers. The Anglican report issued in June this year hopefully heralds a new era of genuine apology, reparation and pastoral care for victims. Once again the ultimate result remains to be seen.

The Forgotten Australians sit alongside another group of Australians which has long been forgotten - the more than 2 million adult survivors of childhood abuse or neglect. Their plight and needs have perennially been ignored by the Australian community and successive governments. For this group there has been no apology and no redress, and no funds or provisions have been established.

The majority of these Australians suffered their abuse within their families, in or close to their homes. In fact studies show that in 96 per cent of cases Australian children are abused by someone they know, and in 72 per cent of cases the perpetrator is the natural parent. These Australians were beaten, molested, criticised, humiliated, raped and/or neglected by the very people who were meant to protect and nurture them. When abuse is perpetrated by the person/s responsible for a child’s care, the impact including mental health problems and low self esteem can be even greater.

The human brain continues to develop throughout the teenage years and into one’s 20s. Childhood abuse in all its forms as well as neglect, profoundly impacts the developing brain, arresting emotional development and one’s ability to make healthy and empowering choices. There is a pervasive myth in our society that it is easy to get over child abuse. While some survivors of child abuse live healthy integrated lives, many struggle day-to-day to do those things others take for granted. The pain and trauma of their childhood abuse continues to overwhelm them long after the abuse has stopped.


Isolated by an inappropriate sense of shame and self-blame and silenced by collective denial, many Australian survivors fail to receive the help they need.

With the right help and support adult survivors can find a sense of health and wellbeing and live engaged, integrated lives. Yet the services and support which can provide that help are in short supply. There is currently no ongoing funding for adult survivors of child abuse in Australia.

Like the Stolen Generation and The Forgotten Australians, adult survivors of child abuse need to be heard, to have their experiences validated and their needs met. Friday November 13 is Forget-me-not Day, a day on which ASCA, the key national organisation working to advance the wellbeing of adult survivors, will be calling on all Australians to unite in support of Australians surviving child abuse.

The knot of Forget-me-knot Day is symbolic of the “tangle” of childhood abuse, a representation of the chaos and angst child abuse causes. For Australian survivors to date, untangling that knot has most often been a solitary, confusing, complex task. It is high time we, as a community, overcame our collective denial and actively support the more than 2 million Australians surviving child abuse as they throw off the shame and stigma of their abuse.

There are programs of proven benefit and yet few are available due to lack of funding. The question remains, Mr. Rudd - who is going to take the ultimate responsibility for this forgotten group of Australians?

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ASCA’s Forget-Me-Knot Day is held nationally on the second Friday in November 2009. First published in the Canberra Times on November 6, 2009.

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About the Author

Dr Cathy Kezelman is the chair of Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA).

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All articles by Cathy Kezelman

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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