Institutional Child Sexual Abuse – The Indigenous Experience

By Alister McKeich

The current Royal Commission investigating child sexual abuse has brought to light the horrific and abusive conditions that children were subjected to under the “care” of various institutions. Not least affected were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, who were removed from family, land and culture under the auspices of “Stolen Generations” policies of the 20th Century.

The effects of such abuse – which include physical, emotional, sexual and cultural – have inherently damaged Indigenous communities, the inter-generational ramifications of which can be found in the ongoing high child-removal rates, incarceration, health issues and other poor outcomes across a range of social indicators.

The Royal Commission has a task ahead of itself in dealing with the cultural nature of institutional child sexual abuse when engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and requires the support of agencies such as the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service to do so.

The Royal Commission 

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was set up in January 2013 in response to the overwhelming evidence of abuses committed against children while in the “care” of institutions such as church-run homes, orphanages, foster homes and social clubs. The federal government also recognised that the responses from such institutions – such as the “Toward Healing” and “Melbourne Response” from the Catholic Church – were inadequate.

While initially due to finish in July 2015, the Commission has been granted a two-year extension to 2017 due to the extremely large number of calls made to the Commission. The Royal Commission aims to provide the opportunity for survivors of sexual abuse to tell their story to a Commissioner in a one-on-one private session. It also investigates specific case studies of systemic sexual abuse through the Public Hearing process and conducts research into some of the broader issues involved.

The Role of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS)

With respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, in September 2014 Justice McClellan stated that 827 Aboriginal people had contacted the Commission, representing 18 per cent of all people making contact. VALS is working with other Victorian Aboriginal agencies to create opportunities for Aboriginal Victorians to engage with the Commission, raise community awareness and contribute to the research of the Commission.

VALS has worked directly with clients and Aboriginal inmates to facilitate private sessions for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. This work highlights the reality that many Aboriginal people who were institutionalised as children are now incarcerated. VALS has also provided research papers into issues of Civil Litigation and Redress, providing an Indigenous viewpoint on the issue.

Rates of abuse for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

The 1997 report Bringing Them Home stated that between one in three and one in 10 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were removed from their family, land, language and culture and placed into institutions between 1900 and 1970. Within many Indigenous communities, particularly in Victoria, it is rare to find families that remain unaffected by the experience of removal. As is being uncovered by the Royal Commission, where there were high rates of removal, there were high rates of sexual abuse.

Bringing Them Home also found “almost one in 10 boys and just over one in 10 girls allege they were sexually abused in a children’s institution”, while “one in 10 boys and three in 10 girls allege they were sexually abused in a foster placement or placements”.

Most instances of alleged sexual abuse in institutions outlined in Bringing Them Home were not reported to the institution – for boys in institutions or foster homes, over 90 per cent of alleged sexual abuses were not reported to the police, institution or caregiver. For girls in institutions, over 88 per cent of cases went unreported, while for those in foster homes, the figure was just over 70 per cent.

However, these statistics are based only on instances of sexual abuse that were told to the Inquiry by way of anecdote – specific questions regarding sexual abuse within institutions were not asked as a discrete measure of the Inquiry. As the current Royal Commission progresses, it is becoming apparent sexual abuse in particular institutions and circumstances was greater than what was previously anticipated.

Aboriginal children in out-of-home care today

Aboriginal children continue to be removed and placed in out-of-home care at far higher rates than non-Aboriginal children, in all states and territories. In Victoria, Aboriginal children are placed in out-of-home care at a rate of over 15 times of non-Aboriginal children, the highest in Australia.

These high rates can in part be attributed to the intergenerational effects of removal and institutionalisation. As such, it is important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to be engaged in the Royal Commission in order to ensure that children in care placements are protected from all forms of abuse, and to ensure it is acknowledged that victims continue to suffer from many subsequent issues as a direct result of past abusive experiences.


The Royal Commission is currently exploring models of redress for survivors of institutional childhood sexual abuse. It is the view of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service that redress for formerly institutionalised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons is a joint responsibility between both the institution and the government.

Although the abuse may have occurred under the “care” of employees or religious persons affiliated with a particular institution – and thus may be culpable on an institutional basis – it is the view of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service that ultimately, it was legislation passed by the government at the time that allowed the victim to be placed in a vulnerable position in the first place.

As such, any redress scheme should be a joint partnership between the institutions and the relevant state or federal government, with a specific component that acknowledges the additional level of cultural abuse experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Alister McKeich currently works in a senior role at the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and is studying a Master of Laws at Melbourne University. Alister has lived and worked in remote communities in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands of the Western Desert. Alister is also a musician, photographer and published author.

Featured Image: AFP/Les O’Rourke