Children need to be heard – Moira Rayner - Madonna Magazine

Children need to be heard – Moira Rayner

03 June 2018

Page from Royal Commission reportResponding to the Institutional Responses to Child Abuse Royal Commission, senior lawyer Moira Rayner says real child protection requires fundamental change in adult formal relationships with children.

Children need to be heard Moira Rayner Responding to the Institutional Responses to Child Abuse Royal Commission, senior lawyer Moira Rayner says real child protection requires fundamental change in adult formal relationships with children. Every child needs to be heard while they are children. They should have a direct say in decisions that will affect them. They have a right to have their perspective taken seriously. It is a basic infringement of human dignity for any child to be subjected to violence, pain, humiliation or shame. The greater the dependence of a little human being on another for the necessities of a decent quality of life, the greater the other’s duty to protect that little person because they are so vulnerable.

Though every child is born resilient, the resilience can be beaten, starved or destroyed. That’s what the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission documented. However, its recommendations did not protect children’s rights.

Who will protect children’s rights?

It may be primarily the role of parents and the function of a family for their own children, but our community also has a responsibility. I have believed that for a long time, because of my experiences early in my career – and because of the parenting I received myself.

I was brought up in a religious home, taught in a religious school, worked for religiously established hospitals, orphanages and inquiries. Now I work as an employment lawyer, investigator and mediator. I also work on a professional standards committee, and am sometimes invited to advise religious groups. I’m a spiritual director. I’m neither ignorant nor innocent of the self-satisfaction of people with religious beliefs who enjoy institutional power.

The way the Royal Commission into child abuse worked made me uncomfortable. There were no children in its meetings, but the damaged adults that a damaging childhood creates. Their memories were raw and much pored over. Many of those most accused were dead or very old and sick. The Commission’s chosen process of gradual announcements of more and more evidence, at the least, of failures of kindness, responsibility, justice and empathy and stories that broke the heart, named them all. This tore down the veneer of sanctity claimed by targeted institutions responsible for educating, housing, treating and forming a child’s full potential as human beings. But the focus became fixed on the Roman Catholic Church.

The revelation that nearly 4500 priests and religious had been suspected or accused of child sexual assault and cruelty, and that nothing effective was done to protect children cannot be ignored. Decades later, few named men (and some women) made legal cases capable of being tested, prosecuted or convicted. Criticisms and recommendations of the Commission have been publicly received as the Catholic Church’s fault. In the public’s eye the response of the Catholic Church in particular has protected less prominent but equally authoritarian religious groups, from the Salvation Army to large and small evangelical Protestant sects, and non-Christian faiths. Similar dynamics leading to cover-ups and inaction operate within them too.

That Royal Commission recommendations have highlighted sacramental privileges of the Catholic Church does not give me confidence that they or any other institution will change. Not only because some of the Commission’s recommendations seem like political posturing – one cannot expect the Catholic Church to lift secrecy of the confessional, and there is no evidence that mandatory reporting ‘saves’ victims of child maltreatment – but because no person and no organisation willingly gives up power.

Those named and shamed have set up more institutions to ‘set standards’ and require internal reporting of failures of trust and claims of harm. These are as vulnerable to rigidity and bureaucracy as anything that went before.

What is required of institutions, secular or sacramental, involved with children, directly or indirectly, is an urgent core sense of responsibility for interacting with children as little human beings with the morally equal human right to be treated with dignity, respect and to be listened to and consulted continuously about their experience of decisions that affect their lives.

Children’s rights became a major issue for me early in my career.

I once represented a toddler who had been fostered far away from her parents and had had no contact with them for eight months. Her mother had a mild intellectual disability and her father a brain injury. I appeared before the magistrate to argue, not that the toddler had the right to be raised by her parents, but merely that she had the right for someone other than her parents to make this case. The magistrate threw it out, saying the parents had forfeited their rights and there was no place for any advocate for the child but the Department. The parents lost their first baby and, over the next few years, the 10 more children born to them.

For me, a standard-setting bureaucracy gives the illusion of child protection. A fundamental change in adult formal relationships with children would provide the reality. Children’s needs and perspectives must be at the centre of decision-making. In my ideal world it would be law that every child has the right to be listened to with respect and to participate in the decisions that most affect her, such as who she will live with and how will she relate to school, neighbourhood, community and to other people. This right, and confidence arising from its expression, is capable of changing characters and outcomes.

The Commission’s proposed national compensation scheme will not, I predict, do anything much. It can never be enough. State governments won’t opt in, nor will any named institution. The money will never be ‘enough’. This leaves it to the courts and those who can afford them to look for ‘compensation’.

Accountability for failures of systems to promote and respect children’s rights requires a lot more change to current practices and beliefs about children and their ‘truth’. If it is left to the courts, only damaged adults and specialist law firms will chance it.

Every child in my experience has an acute sense of right and wrong and needs to experience what it is like to be loved, treated justly, listened to and reassured. Put that at the core of your business.

Moira Rayner is a former Commissioner for Human Rights and Equal Opportunity (Victoria, WA) hearings commissioner of the Australian Human Rights Commission; helped establish and chaired the Board of the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre, and established the Office of the Children’s Rights Commissioner for London.