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Commission of care

Commission of care

By Carolyn Ford

Child Welfare Courts Social Media Technology 


The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse brought innovative special measures to its five-year inquiry.

A note went to staff before the public hearing into the Satyananda Yoga Ashram at Mangrove Mountain on the NSW central coast, in December 2014.

It asked them not to wear orange as it was a known trigger of previous trauma for victims of child sexual abuse in the Yoga Ashram community being investigated. Ashram members were known to wear distinctive orange robes.

In Darwin in October 2014, commissioners attended a smoking ceremony at the start of a public hearing into abuse of Aboriginal children at the Retta Dixon home. At the end, they attended a healing event.

At the Commission’s public hearing room in Sydney, there were pillows, tissues and blankets for witnesses, their supporters and people in the public gallery who found at times of stress or high emotion, a blanket provided warmth and comfort.

Commissioners attended at deathbeds to hear stories in private sessions. They travelled to remote communities to hear stories. They visited dozens of prisons to listen as incarcerated victims looked back. At the end of every private session, people were given a card hand-signed by the six commissioners, thanking them for their courage, and a note suggesting ways they might look after themselves in the days ahead.

Abandoned as children by their institutional carers, there was no doubt what happened then mattered now.

Special measures taken during the 57 public hearings and more than 8000 private sessions (and applied to its research and policy program) made the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse uniquely innovative.

As lawyer Pia van de Zandt, the Commission’s general manager, engagement and support, said of the five-year inquiry which concluded in December, “inquiring into the processes and cultures of other institutions meant taking greater care with the design of its own.

“We had the advantage of creating processes and a culture from scratch, a rare opportunity and not one afforded to most courts or tribunals.

“It was survivor-led. We were happy to be agile and iteratively improve our processes as we went.”

The inquiry employed private sessions, a unique truth-telling process unlike any other in the criminal or civil justice systems, used for the first time in an Australian royal commission. The Royal Commissions Act was amended to enable private sessions, a mechanism originally used in Ireland’s Ryan Commission (1999-2009), for this inquiry.

It also used technology and media in new ways and had a wellbeing program for staff, which helped manage vicarious trauma and maintain a high level of productivity. Central to everything were the experiences and needs of survivors.

The Commission even set up a petty cash system to reimburse people attending private sessions for transport costs because “people were spending their last $20 on a train ticket to get to us,” Ms van de Zandt said.

In considering victims’ needs, large and small, the Commission set a new standard of care for investigations of this type. The ongoing UK and Scottish special inquiries into institutional sexual abuse of children have borrowed heavily from it, said Ms van de Zandt, who suggested there were timely learnings from it for any future inquiry.

Private sessions

The Royal Commission conducted more than 8000 private sessions with people, many of whom waited 12 months for their turn to talk. The sessions took place in Commission offices, aged care facilities, prisons, and modest hotel rooms.

People were invited to tell their story, any aspect of it, however they wanted to. Some brought their dog for support. Others had another person speak for them. Questions were kept to a minimum. Commissioners were there to listen, to bear witness.

“In designing our private session model, we augmented our legal approach with advice from psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, and we developed a number of principles,” Ms van de Zandt said. It was critical survivors felt safe, supported and heard, and confident in the process.

Public hearings and witness support

The guiding principles of the private sessions – safety, support, trust – influenced the conduct of public hearings, whose processes closely resembled a court.

Ms van de Zandt acknowledged the comment of Judith Herman, professor of clinical psychiatry at Harvard University Medical School, that “If one set out intentionally to design a system for provoking symptoms of traumatic stress, it might look very much like a court of law.”

Support for witnesses – 1300 on 444 days over five years – in “trauma-informed” hearings differentiated Commission public hearings from a court, while still abiding by legal requirements, Ms van de Zandt said.

“Central to our approach was the wellbeing of survivors, many of whom had not previously disclosed their abuse or had for decades not been believed.

“The process of coming forward with a complaint of sexual abuse has the potential to retraumatise many survivors. In recounting past events, powerful memories and emotions are evoked, often in a distressing way.

“Sharing one’s story can have devastating consequences. As one survivor described it, ‘coming forward is going back’.”

For some witnesses, it was the first time they had spoken of their abuse openly. For others it was the first time they had seen their alleged perpetrator since childhood, or heard a response from institutional representatives. Witnesses, who were able to use pseudonyms or speak from a remote room or have a friend with them in the witness box, were contacted by support staff before, during and after public hearings. Giving evidence was a trauma-trigger for many, and some people needed ongoing support.

Some people attending public hearings behaved inappropriately, threatening harm to themselves or others. The response from trauma-informed security was verbal support over physical intervention.

“It can be really distressing for victims to be man-handled. Any physical approach can trigger trauma. We had counsellors in the court room all day to assist witnesses and people in the public gallery.”

Technology and media

Technology delivered transparency and unprecedented access to the Royal Commission to people around the world.

The electronic courtroom had a raft of features, but the most innovative component was its high definition live web stream.

Tens of thousands watched public hearings into the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Yeshivah school and the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. About 100 people at Ballarat Town Hall watched Cardinal George Pell in Rome give evidence to the Commission in Sydney – a further 54,000 viewers watched the live stream.

To maximise transparency and communication, the Commission used social media. Twitter and Facebook relayed hearing arrangements, witness lists, submissions, and opening remarks of Counsel Assisting. Benefits outweighed risks, but it came with challenges.

As well as the many positive, supportive comments (“On you Gail [Furness SC]. You have my vote” and “It’s not your fault”), there were practical suggestions (“please turn up the volume”), while some posts had to be removed. Some comments indicated trauma had been triggered, prompting private contact by the Commission offering help.

Support from private and government-funded support services was instrumental. Media coverage was encouraged, with opening footage broadcast live on ABC and other outlets. “The media reporting of our activities has helped to bring about the cultural change within institutions that is required to keep children safer in the future,” Ms van de Zandt said.

The Commission conducted off-the-record briefings for media, also forums on reporting trauma, facilities walk throughs, appropriate access to the Commissioners. It provided self-care tips to journalists.


Six commissioners each heard well over 1000 harrowing stories of violent physical and sexual abuse of boys and girls in private sessions. They heard evidence from more than 1300 witnesses at public hearings. This presented a significant risk to the wellbeing of commissioners and staff and to their ability to complete the inquiry.

“Like judges and court staff, our commissioners and staff had high exposure to disturbing information and personal accounts of child sexual abuse. Over extended periods of time, this can have a significant personal impact, including the risk of vicarious trauma,” Ms van de Zandt said.

The Commission’s Well at Work program provided regular debriefing opportunities for commissioners, legal teams and other staff. Trauma and resilience training was given, also training on dealing with people with challenging behaviours and complex trauma impacts. Staff who were parents were also given advice. Staff had access to guided meditation, fitness classes and wellbeing counsellors. Personal health, sleep and anxiety levels were monitored.

The wellbeing program was championed by commissioners. “That judicial leadership, along with preparedness to be creative, a commitment to multidisciplinary, reflective practice and a personalised, trauma-informed approach for people attending the hearings helped the Commission do its work and manage highly emotional and stressful events and experiences, while also maintaining the safety and wellbeing for all,” Ms van de Zandt said.

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