On Tuesday 13 March the Faculty was privileged to hear from Winthrop Professor Helen Milroy, for the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture, on her experience as a Commissioner for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Professor Milroy shared recommendations from the report, and called for us as educators and health professionals to actively assume responsibility for protecting children from abuse.
The Royal Commission was a five year inquiry held between May 2013 and November 2017. The Commission was contacted by 16,953 people within their Terms of Reference. They heard from 7981 survivors of child sexual abuse in 8013 private sessions held across capital cities, regional locations and correctional facilities.
Some key findings from the Royal Commission:
- Of the 7981 survivors, 63.6% were male
- 14.9% identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander
- Average age at the time of their private session was 52 years
- Average age at the time of abuse was 10.4 years
- Of the 74.3% who talked about the duration of abuse, 14.4% of females and 8.9% of males experienced abuse between the ages of 6-10
- A total of 3489 institutions were mentioned where child sexual abuse had occurred
- 221 survivors were abused in health and allied health institutions (2.8% of survivors)
Regarding the impact of the abuse to the wellbeing of survivors, the major impacts were on mental and physical health. Many of the survivors had significant chronic health problems, and Professor Milroy noted that in hospital wards and some of the most complex patients in general medicine, there will be an over representation of people who have had backgrounds of child trauma because it impacts not only on their health but how they cope with their health problems.
As an institution we train professionals and medical practitioners to work with children. Some questions Professor Milroy raised included:
- Do we know how to respond to a disclosure from a child, adult or older adult?
- Are we a trauma-informed institution? For students and staff? Do we teach a trauma-informed curriculum?
- Do we train across all of our disciplines – child safe clinicians, educators, workers and researchers?
- Are we proactive in preventing and managing vicarious traumatisation (including re-traumatisation which may occur during treatment for health problems) and compassion fatigue?
Professor Milroy said there are starting to be shifting attitudes at all levels, with sustained positive impact in the media and people being given permission to talk about these types of conversations.
While there needs to be strategic national leadership and coordination moving forward, with initiatives to create child safe communities, standards and improve regulatory oversight and practice, Professor Milroy suggested each institution and individual has to take responsibility for their impact on child safety.
“We’re part of a community and it’s our role and responsibility to do the best job we can. Protecting children from child abuse is everybody’s business.”
Reflecting on the Royal Commission, Professor Milroy said it was an enormous task that was profound, disturbing and inspiring, yet offered a unique and powerful opportunity for survivors and families to tell their stories.
“When I was listening to these stories I realised how I was listening differently to a normal psychiatric interview. As a psychiatrist we have this chatter going on in our heads – what does this mean, what’s my next question, do they fit into this diagnostic category – which we come to a premature closure on their story. It’s so important to be fully present, to listen with our full selves and be emotionally present. I think we don’t do that very well as clinicians.”
Professor Milroy encouraged us as clinicians to value our patients as we can learn something from everyone we see and we don’t thank our patients enough for the valuable experience they’ve offered us. One of the most remarkable things that Professor Milroy witnessed throughout her time was the extraordinary personal determination and resilience among survivors.
“Resilience was the strongest factor where people were able to cope with the abuse. We saw many survivors who, with professional help and the support of others, have taken significant steps towards recovery.”
Final Report with 17 Volumes was released in December 2017. You may wish to read the Executive Summary on page 5.
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