Child abuse civil claims lodged by former residents of Tasmanian children's homes


Susan* and Lisa* were teenagers in the care of the state of Tasmania when they were allowed to live with violent, abusive men, despite the relevant government department being aware of the abuse, according to documents filed with the Supreme Court of Tasmania.

They have both launched civil court action over the abuse they say they suffered at the hands of the men, and abuse they were subjected to while living in children's homes.

Their solicitor Sebastian Buscemi says records show the Community Welfare Department, later incorporated into what is now the Health Department, was aware of the abuse and did nothing about it.

Two of the cases relate to abuse in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"[At that time] there were really strict mandatory reporting obligations … and we've clear, unambiguous evidence they did nothing about it," Mr Buscemi said.

Susan

Various court orders put Susan into the care of the state between 1983 and 1990.

In a statement of claim, Susan said the matron of a southern Tasmanian children's home physically and psychologically abused her, and that she was sexually abused by an unknown male worker at the home.

The allegations against the matron include that she prevented Susan from eating for a period of three days until Susan was able to recite a certain prayer, and that she forcibly took Susan to the toilet where she placed Susan's head in the bowl and flushed the toilet three times while Susan was vomiting.

Susan said the male worker came to her room during the time she was prevented from eating, gave her food and then sexually abused her.

The statement said the department allowed Susan to live independently at the age of 14 or 15 and did not provide adequate medical care.

She became pregnant after being raped and her pregnancy was not detected until it was too late to abort.

The statement said she sought support from the father of the child, who continued to abuse and rape her and while the department knew, or had reasonable grounds to suspect, Susan was being exposed to physical and sexual assaults or maltreatment, allowed the living arrangements to continue.

Lisa

Lisa* was also subject to children's court orders in the 1980s and became a ward of the state.

Mr Buscemi said she too was permitted by the department to live with an older man when she was 15, and the man sexually and physically abused her.

In the lead-up to this, according to Lisa's statement of claim, she was raped on a daily or almost daily basis while living at a home in Launceston and was returned to the home despite reporting the abuse to her mother and a child welfare officer.

She was placed with a couple, during which time the man subjected her to "ongoing and escalating sexual assaults", the statement of claim read.

It said she was also abused by her mother and sexually assaulted by her mother's partner.

Martin

Mr Buscemi also represents Martin*, who was subject to various court orders that placed him in the state's care between 1970 and 1981.

In 1981, he was declared a ward of the state.

While at a southern Tasmanian boys' home, Martin was sexually abused by the housemaster on four or five occasions, and was also sexually abused by a taxi driver engaged by the home, his statement of claim read.

It said the housemaster would lace a cup of Milo with a sedative and sexually abuse Martin while he was sleeping.

On one occasion when he was sexually assaulted by the taxi driver, Martin "feared for his life and thought he was going to be killed", his statement of claim said.

Cases 'beyond the scope' of National Redress Scheme

Mr Buscemi said the National Redress Scheme was not a suitable option for the three survivors.

Sebastian Buscemi photographed outside the Supreme Court in Hobart.
Sebastian Buscemi says taking the claims to court is a more traumatic course but the abuse survivors have been left with few options.(ABC News: Loretta Lohberger)

"These cases involve significant degrees of negligence of repeated abuse, of repeated failures to take steps by the state when they knew of abuse occurring that pushes the ranges of compensation and what should be compensated far beyond the scope of the redress scheme," Mr Buscemi said.

All three have post-traumatic stress disorder, two of them have chronic PTSD.

"There's no real precedent of damages in Tasmania but you would expect that these cases would reasonably get in say a Victorian court, more than double the amount of the redress scheme cap [of $150,000]," he said.

In 2018, Tasmania abolished the limitation period for civil claims arising from child abuse, which means there is no longer a time limit for survivors to take legal action.

It is possible for civil claims to settle out of court, and many do in other states.

Susan, Lisa and Martin each sought an informal settlement conference.

But with no response from the State Government after months of waiting, Mr Buscemi said they were left with little choice but to take the matters straight to court, a more traumatic option for abuse survivors.

He is preparing a further 13 claims.

Delays 'unacceptable'

Lawyer Kimberly Allen has more than five clients with civil claims against the state of Tasmania dating from the 1950s through to the early 2000s.

After waiting more than a year in some cases to have the matters dealt with out of court, she is now preparing court documents.

Kimberly Allen from Shine Lawyers
Kimberly Allen says delays for Tasmanian victims of sexual abuse are unacceptable.(Supplied)

"Those delays are just simply unacceptable … why should Tasmanian sexual abuse victims be put through even more stress from those huge delays when we see those claims from other states progressing within a reasonable time frame?" Ms Allen said.

"The people at the top really need to remember these victims have been struggling for most of their lives."

In a statement, Attorney-General Elise Archer said the rights of victims and survivors of abuse was one of her key proprieties and she remained "deeply committed to this important cause".

"I acknowledge increased anxiety caused by delays and we are actively progressing work on processes to manage the significant increase in child abuse claims," Ms Archer said.

"When finalised, these processes will be shared with relevant legal firms to ensure claims can be managed as efficiently as possible."

Elise Archer
Elise Archer says she is working to "ensure claims can be managed as efficiently as possible".(ABC News: Peter Curtis)

With responsibility for schools, youth detention centres and children's homes, state governments face significant potential liability for child abuse.

This is evident in the Tasmanian Government's $70 million allocation to the National Redress Scheme, compared with the Anglican Church in Tasmania, a focus of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which estimated its liability under that scheme at about $8 million.

Ms Allen said her clients included survivors of abuse that occurred in state schools and youth detention centres.

"Our clients were in a very vulnerable position where they were under the care of a government department whose role was to keep them safe," she said.

*Names have been changed.

Sexual assault support services:

  • 1800 RESPECT: 1800 737 732
  • Lifeline: 131 114
  • Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636

 

(Source)


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