Anne: listening and not judging

interviewed by isabella moore


Anne is a social worker with Knowmore, the independent service giving free legal advice to people who are considering telling their story or providing information to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Anne has worked in a range of programs delivering services to children, adults and families primarily within the mental health sector. Most recently she worked with people whose mental health issues contributed to them being in the criminal justice system.

Anne spent seven years as a Commissioner with the Ryan Commission in Ireland. She heard the testimony of hundreds of adult witnesses of childhood institutional abuse who gave evidence to the Commission’s Confidential Committee and had a key role in the preparation of the Commission’s 2009 report.

Anne closely identifies with the social work profession’s commitment to justice, self-determination and dignity for all. Her skills draw on family therapy training and systemic thinking practice.

When you describe Knowmore to prospective clients, what do you say?

I emphasise that it's a free service, and provides a legal advice and referral service for people engaged with the Royal Commission.

I try to communicate that they don't have to be actively engaged with the Royal Commission, they don't have to have registered, they just have to be affected by the work of the Commission.

What is your role at Knowmore?

I'm a social worker, one of a team of 5 nationally. We're employed to support the lawyers, who make up the bulk of the service, with the work they do with clients.

When a lawyer speaks to a client, support staff are often asked to sit in on the conversation or to call back and speak to the client afterwards. People can also ring and speak to us directly.

We speak to clients about their counselling needs, or general support needs, anything arising out of their contact with the Royal Commission.

How did you come to work with Knowmore?  

I trained in Ireland, and worked there for 4 years before coming to Australia in the 1980s. So, the bulk of my working experience has been in Melbourne.

Coming to Knowmore was a change from my previous work in mental health, it was time to do something different, and I have a background in this area.

I worked with the Ryan Commission in Ireland, so it was familiar terrain. I also enjoy working with other disciplines, and liked the idea of social work in a legal setting. I also liked the model of service that Knowmore was providing.

Has your role at Knowmore differed from your role with the Ryan Commission?

While the scope is very similar, my role and function is quite different.

There are a lot of parallels between the Royal Commission and Ryan Commission: particularly in the way it has been structured and the approach to dealing with clients.

The Royal Commission has done a lot of the things we did in Ireland and also a lot of the things we might have done if we had the benefit of hindsight.

In Ireland, we had no real idea of what the response would be when the inquiry was initially established. There's a saying, "If I had known where I was going, I wouldn't have started from here." So I think the Royal Commission here benefited greatly from the Irish experience.

What are some of the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse that you have observed?

The two main things that come to mind are the secrecy that surrounds abuse, which has a damaging and lasting impact on someone's development; and the shame that goes with that.

There is also another layer of damage for people who are Forgotten Australians [Ed: children and child migrants who experienced care in institutions during the 20th century]. They experienced a complete lack of attachment and grew up without the support of close relationships, which is extremely damaging for personal development.

How does your approach to working with someone who has experienced CSA differ from your approach to working with other clients?

People engaged with the mental health system are known to be disproportionately more likely to have experienced childhood sexual abuse. It's not the only contributing factor, of course, but it's a significant one.

The secrecy that surrounds child sexual abuse means that it's not something that is properly focused on. Many people who behave strangely, who can be seen as difficult to work with, are often struggling with secret histories which they haven't talked about.

In the past, it was easier to see behaviour in response to abuse as related to other things: that children were uncontrollable, that it was their own fault.

The more accepted practice was that children would be punished for misbehaviour.

Have you found story-telling narratives to have therapeutic value?

I believe very strongly in the therapeutic value of story-telling narratives. I've seen the benefit of it firsthand. In Ireland, for example, people who came to the Ryan Commission could tell their story in a confidential setting, on the understanding that they would never be identified, or that their narrative would give rise to any legal action or publicity.

It was about listening and not judging. Narrative therapy is not competitive, it's whatever you want to talk about for the purpose of telling your story and being heard.

It's understood that the story is not a faultless account, to be analysed by an expert. No one is told that they are wrong, which happens so often with other verbal exchanges. People are often ridiculed and abused because their view differs from the mainstream, or they express what might be seen as an alien view.

Of course, sometimes it's important to listen with intent, as a lawyer does, and for many survivors the law can be a powerful intervention.

Could story-telling narratives be better utilised in counselling and social work?

Narrative therapy is an extensive, established, practiced form of therapy. However, I think it's undervalued by the administrators, because it's seen as a slow process and not easily measured, which is very short sighted.

I do believe that things move in cycles, so we will come back to a better understanding of what is clinically effective, but for now the focus is on short-term, solution-focussed intervention and medication. In my opinion in the longer term it's demonstrated not to be as effective, compared with when people are allowed to tell their story.

There is a lot of unmeasured benefit in being heard, for people who might otherwise have to deal with trauma in silence: they can become marginalised, and often take their own lives.

As a society, we are in the process of helping people move on from those negative outcomes. The Royal Commission has been a very concrete, public process and the fact that the Commission and its Commissioners are highly regarded and validated is brilliant. Politicians have joined the shift to overturn the past experience of secrets and shame with the Federal Government’s commitment to a redress scheme.

People who disclose abuse now know they’ll be believed, because they’ve seen others be believed.

Do you believe that people who report child sexual abuse will receive a better response in the future?

Yes - it can never be as it was before, now that the reality of child sexual abuse has been outed around the world.

There are so many examples of high profile people, seen as above the law and beyond reproach, who have been found to have lied and misrepresented themselves. Many of them have been brought to justice, even if just by being exposed. That has changed everything.

I'm still shocked when I read about someone on trial for having committed child sexual offences just a few years ago. I would imagine that people would be more hesitant about abusing children now and more aware of the risk and consequences of being caught, because children are now being believed.

Our first reaction is now belief, where it used to be disbelief.

That of course will have its own problems, because a person’s good name can be damaged so easily. But there will always be more protection for children, which is the most important thing.