What is institutional abuse?
Institutional abuse is child sexual abuse which happens while a child or young person is being looked after by a service or organisation. It can be abuse by an adult, or abuse by another child or young person.
Sexual abuse can include sexual touching of a child; grooming; producing, distributing or possessing child abuse material; describing sexual acts to a child outside of sex education.
Sexual misconduct can include sexual comments, conversations or communications with a child or young person; making comments to a child that express a desire to act in a sexual manner towards them or another child.
What is institutional betrayal?
Institutional betrayal is when an institution fails to prevent or respond supportively to wrongdoings within the institution.
Sometimes an institution acts poorly and creates a hostile environment for the people it should be protecting. Other times, an institution may just not take any action at all. Both can cause harm to the people who depend on the institution.
It’s important to remember that institutional abuse is never the fault of a child or young person. The abuser is responsible for the abuse, and the institution is responsible for keeping children in its care safe.
How common is institutional abuse?
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) sought to understand the extent of child sexual abuse in institutions.
There are limitations to the available data that make it hard to state an exact figure, but the Royal Commission found that the extent of child sexual abuse in institutional settings in Australia is significant. Child sexual abuse has occurred across a wide range of institutions and has affected tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people over many years.
Institutional abuse has happened in childcare services, schools, health services, youth detention, residential care, out-of-home care, religious groups, family and youth support services, supported accommodation, sports and clubs, youth employment, and the armed forces.
In Tasmania, the Commission of Inquiry into Tasmanian Government Responses into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse (the Tasmanian Commission) handed down its findings in August 2023. The Tasmanian Commission examined allegations and incidents of child sexual abuse in Tasmanian Government institutions. The Tasmanian Commission provided 191 recommendations. Their report is available here:
www.commissionofinquiry.tas.gov.au/report. The Tasmanian Government have committed to implementing them all. The response is available here: www.keepingchildrensafe.tas.gov.au.
Who can be affected by institutional abuse?
Institutional abuse can happen to any child or young person who has been looked after by any organisation. Risk rises when children are in an institution 24/7.
Some groups of children are placed in out-of-home care or in juvenile detention at higher rates than other groups. This includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, children with disability, children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
What impact does institutional abuse have?
There is no right or wrong way to feel if you have been affected by institutional abuse.
Children who have been affected by institutional abuse may display a range of emotional and behavioural reactions, including: trouble sleeping, bad dreams or bedwetting; changes in hygiene; quiet or withdrawn behaviour; anger or aggression; anxiety or depression; changes in eating habits; alcohol or drug use; fear of certain people or places; using sexual language or behaviours that are not usual for their age; clinginess; pain or physical discomfort; feeling spaced out.
Adults who were affected by institutional abuse as children can also be impacted in a range of ways, and these might change over the course of their life. Impacts can include mental health issues, anxiety and depression, alcohol and substance abuse, eating disorders, sleep disruption and insomnia, self-blame and low self-esteem.
All these emotions and behaviours are completely normal, and they are not your fault. When you’re ready, help is available.
Survivors of institutional child sexual abuse are strong, courageous, creative and supportive. They are more than the abuse they have experienced.
Disclosing about child sexual abuse
Speaking up about institutional abuse is a very brave thing to do.
Sometimes people ask for help or report the abuse as soon as it has happened. Other people ask for help many years after it has happened. Some people are still yet to talk about the abuse or seek help. It is never too late to seek help or support.
All these choices take a lot of courage, but if and when you feel ready to talk, we are here to support you. You don’t have to go through this alone.
Where to get more information?
Grace Tame, a former Australian of the Year, was abused in an institution - her school. You can find out more about Grace’s story and her work on her website.
Kerri Collins was also abused in school. She gave a powerful statement to the Tasmanian Commission of Inquiry.
The Australian Government has formally apologised to victim-survivors of institutional abuse. You can read the key messages from the apology online.
The National Redress Scheme
One support option that is open to people who have been affected by institutional abuse is the National Redress Scheme.
This is a program that has been designed so that institutions – including schools, churches, and children’s homes – take responsibility for child sexual abuse that they should have prevented. It helps people who have experienced institutional abuse gain access to counselling, a direct personal response, and a Redress payment.
Not everyone chooses to access support through the National Redress Scheme.
In Tasmania there are a number of National Redress Support Scheme providers. These include:
You can find out more at www.nationalredress.gov.au.