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A 'thank you' to all of those assisting survivors of childhood trauma

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 18 Mar 2015

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (19:39):  Tonight I rise to speak on a topic which has all too often been avoided, denied or hidden from public view. It is child abuse-a difficult and emotional subject that continues to affect so many Australians. But I think we owe it to those who have survived child abuse to speak up about how deeply it affects a person across their lifetime and what we can do, in this place, as people of influence, to minimise and address the abuse of children.

I speak tonight carefully and with the greatest respect, knowing that for many people this is a highly personal subject which can elicit very painful responses for those who might be listening or reading this transcript. If that is you, I would urge you to seek help. There are a number of services that can assist. And, most importantly, if your feelings are overwhelming and threaten your immediate safety there is always someone at the other end of the phone if you call Lifeline on 131114. Just as an aside: how grateful we should all be for a service like Lifeline, which is always there and often staffed with volunteers who care about other people enough to dedicate their time to helping them. It behoves all of us to value Lifeline and to use our utmost endeavours to ensure they receive the funding they need to provide the service which so many of us rely on.

As the Australian Greens' spokesperson for mental health, I will acknowledge that I have not always been as well informed about the effects that child abuse can have on adults throughout their lives. Of course I had some inkling, but it is because of meeting some inspiring and expert people, largely in community organisations through my work in the Senate, that I have really come to understand just how devastating and enduring the impacts of child abuse can be on people's mental health and wellbeing, their relationships with loved ones, other people and even-perhaps most devastating-their own children.

I want to start tonight by talking about one of those inspiring and expert people who has contributed significantly to my understanding in this area, and that is Dr Cathy Kezelman, who leads the organisation called Adults Surviving Child Abuse, ASCA. Cathy first visited me in my Parliament House office in 2011. When she left I realised I had had one of those experiences where I now knew some things that I could never 'unknow'. One of those was the frequent link between adult mental ill-health and childhood trauma, and the fact that treating the mental ill-health would often only ever be a matter of treating symptoms that would probably reoccur in one form or another if the underlying trauma were not acknowledged and addressed.

ASCA was founded in 1995 to provide a public voice for adult survivors of child abuse. It helps adults who have experienced trauma in childhood to recover. It also includes people who have experienced child abuse in all its forms-neglect, domestic violence in childhood and other adverse childhood events. Dr Kezelman has her own story of recovery from child abuse, which is movingly and compellingly told in her book titled Innocence Revisited: a Tale in Parts. This year she was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia 'for significant service to community health as a supporter and advocate for survivors of child abuse'. ASCA has recently commissioned a report titled The cost of unresolved childhood trauma and abuse in adults in Australia. It is difficult to determine the prevalence of child abuse because of the secrecy, silence and social stigma which often prevents people from reporting it or talking about it. But we do know that a very significant number of Australians are affected. As detailed in ASCA's report, when considering child abuse of a sexual, physical and emotional nature, there are an estimated 3.7 million adult survivors in Australia. For childhood trauma more broadly, the number is an estimated five million adults. Many struggle day to day with their self-esteem, relationships and mental and physical health.

There are other organisations also doing great work in this area. Craig Hughes-Cashmore of the Survivors and Mates Support Network, SAMSN, is another inspiring and generous person who has helped increase my understanding and empathy. SAMSN works to increase public awareness of the effects that childhood sexual abuse can have on men in their adult lives. And they are providing support for many men who may otherwise be immensely isolated and distressed.

There is evidence that early childhood, especially in infancy through to five years of age, is a critical period in brain development, and adverse experiences that occur at this time can have lasting impacts into adulthood. There is also a vast amount of research on the risk factors for mental illness. In the US, a number of studies have looked at the association between adverse childhood experiences and adult mental health outcomes. These studies found that 35 to 40 per cent of the burden of depression, 56 to 64 per cent of the burden of drug problems and between 67 and 80 per cent of the burden of suicide attempts could be attributed to exposure to one or more traumatic events in childhood, such as abuse, neglect, parental mental illness, substance abuse, incarceration, divorce, or family violence.

The ASCA report, which includes costings by Pegasus Economics, suggests that the annual budgetary cost of unresolved childhood trauma could be as high as $24 billion. Based on conservative assumptions, ASCA has suggested that addressing child sexual, emotional and physical abuse could lead to savings of $6.8 billion annually for combined federal, state and territory government budgets. If all forms of childhood trauma were included, then potential minimum annual budget savings from successfully addressing childhood trauma in adults would be closer to $9.1 billion.

ASCA's report is based on a series of calculations that relate to the known negative life outcomes associated with childhood trauma, including health consequences and also social and psychological impairments such as: education impairment, underachievement in the workforce, difficulties in finding and maintaining healthy relationships, and interaction with the criminal justice system. The dollar and human cost of childhood trauma is tragically high. An Australian study into child sexual abuse victims found that 32 per cent had attempted suicide and 43 per cent had considered it. Hundreds of thousands of survivors live a life that feels alone and isolated, in their experience, and have become used to hiding their suffering from others. Others are prevented from experiencing the joy or confidence that makes for a fulfilling life.

One of my inspiring community-based teachers shared a story with me that I have never forgotten. It was about a young man who began to feel extremely anxious when his wife became pregnant. He developed a deep sense of fear and foreboding that because he had been abused in his youth he, too, might become abusive of his child. What should have been a wonderful and joyful time in a man's life was stolen from him, because of his previous experiences. Many similar stories have emerged through the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. They have been harrowing and heartbreaking. Many of the stories feature children being punished, disbelieved, ignored and accused of lying when they tried to get help. As of 1 March 2015, the commission has handled 22,022 phone calls; received 9,525 letters and emails; held over 3,000 private sessions; and made 510 referrals to authorities, including the police.

On average, it takes survivors 22 years to disclose the abuse they have experienced. Generally, it takes men longer than women. But recovery is possible. As Dr Kezelman and her colleagues outline in their report:

With active early and comprehensive intervention-appropriate support, specialist treatment and trauma-informed practice interventions - and Australia is a leader in that - adult survivors of childhood trauma and abuse can lead healthy, positive and productive lives. Their children, too, will benefit, because the resolution of trauma in parents intercepts its transmission to the next generation.

I join with ASCA in calling on the government to invest heavily in services to support Australian adults affected by childhood trauma. While it makes economic sense, it also makes sense on a human level. And this is the most important thing to me: that people receive the support and care they need to recover and live long, healthy lives.

I thank all those working to assist adult survivors of childhood trauma in their recovery journey. I am hopeful that the work of the royal commission will lead to a significant improvement in the prevention and treatment of child abuse.

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