• The Ngarra Jarra Noun program takes survivors on cultural healing camps on country (Supplied by Ngarra Jarra Noun)Source: Supplied by Ngarra Jarra Noun
Since the apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, survivors have called for action beyond symbolism – from trauma-informed healing programs, to financial compensation – to make up for generations of pain.
Rachael Hocking

26 May 2020 - 2:28 PM  UPDATED 26 May 2020 - 7:55 PM

Charlie Knight’s first memories are of foster homes and boarding schools. 

From the age of one until well into his teens he was displaced again and again across South Australia – from Campbell House Farm School in Meningie, to the Largs Bay Cottage Home.

It was behind the walls of these family homes and institutions that he suffered shocking abuse.

“If I didn't say my words properly, I'd be beaten with a feather duster,” he tells NITV News.

“Same with my brother. We were actually stripped naked and then were flogged with a feather duster. And that was very tortuous for us.”

Eventually Charlie was separated from his brother Kenny and by the end of his teenage years was living as a "street kid", he says.  

“The impact it had on my life is that it's about knowing where you come from, like your belonging, who are you. Are you the person that people say you are? I don't know. My culture, my dignity was taken from me.” 

The proud Ngarrindjeri man says it’s taken 30-odd years to "know who I really was", but that he found love and has been married since the 90s.  

Eventually, in 2013, Charlie was asked to share his story as part of the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sex Abuse. 

A few years later he lodged his application to the National Redress Scheme for people who have experienced institutional child sex abuse – a major recommendation from the Royal Commission which promised up to $150,000 for survivors. 

“It's not about money. It's about you, yourself, your people, your family,” says Charlie. 

“And I'm happy that the government has agreed to it, with all these institutions of Christian belief… They’re making the institutions, making these foster homes pay for what's happened.”

Charlie’s application was supported through the Ngarra Jarra Noun service run by the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA) – and while he has been successful in his submission, others haven’t been so lucky. 

VACCA tells NITV News it is supporting 36 clients with their Redress applications. Of those clients, only 11 have seen determinations. 

Four clients have been waiting for decisions on their applications for more than a year, and nine applications have been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I think there's a lot of things wrong with the Scheme,” VACCA CEO Muriel Bamblett tells NITV News. 

“The assessment process, there's lots of issues around flexibility,

“It doesn't often take into consideration all of the other issues that sexual abuse brings about… how it contributes to ongoing removal and trauma, and grief and the impact that it has particularly on mums that can't parent their own children because of their own trauma.”

Ms Bamblett says the way the Scheme has been carried out is also at odds with Aboriginal ways of working with one another.

“The mainstream model - it challenges us every day. It's very much driven by a process that's alien to Aboriginal people,” she says. 

“They actually wanted you to be acknowledged or you had to meet an assessment criteria, where you actually had to demonstrate that you had been a victim of sexual abuse.”

“But many of our people have to go through a process of self-discovery about trust, about how do you actually develop a relationship with someone before you can tell your story.” 

“I think there's a lot of things wrong with the Scheme,” - VACCA CEO Muriel Bamblett

Taking it to the courts

The slow rate of assessment on applications and cultural differences are just some of the barriers survivors have faced in accessing the National Redress Scheme for people who have experienced institutional child sex abuse. 

While the government has agreed to pay survivors, they also require the institutions that placed children in harm’s way to sign up voluntarily. If an institution has not signed up, a survivor may not be paid. 

This is what Yorta-Yorta woman Suzanne Nelson was told when she looked into lodging an application.

As a child Suzanne was taken to the Lutheran Children’s Home in Kew, Victoria. The organisation has since closed its doors to the public, and successive charities which have taken over its operations have not signed up to the Scheme. 

On VACCA’s advice, Suzanne has decided to take her fight to the courts.  

“There was also a lot of anger with me, the fact that they didn't sign up,” she tells NITV News. 

“What happened to me in the children's home was seen and heard, but no-one ever did anything about it. I felt that I had to do something,

“But what's really, really ironic about it all is that we're going back into a system, the same system that removed us, the same system that failed to protect us, to get justice.

Suzanne says her fight in the courts is not just about justice, but a bigger part of her healing towards addressing the intergenerational trauma she has endured and been part of. 

"I think we have so many layers of trauma... as things happen in your life all you're doing is just pushing down these stories and you push them down, you push them down and they fester," she says.

"And like most people did, I had a time of alcohol and drug abuse just to change those emotions, to help you deal with them. The thing is that once that's worn off, you still got the same emotions there." 

Suzanne is one of 20 of VACCA’s clients currently pursuing civil litigation – a process Ms Bamblett says could result in more reparations than what the Scheme is offering.

“I mean it's never going to be enough…  it's never going to be anywhere near,” she says. 

“If they took civil action and they were ever able to prove how it contributed to all of the dysfunction, all of the issues around lack of culture, around lack of connection, around mental health, family violence, all of the issues that are associated, in a civil court you would be granted millions.”

In a statement to NITV News the Commonwealth Department of Social Services said the Minister has written a warning to institutions named by survivors in their applications. 

"... failure to fulfil their moral obligation to join the Scheme by the June 30, 2020, deadline means they will be named and shamed and will face financial sanctions," the statement reads. 

'Never too late' 

In March this year, the Victorian government announced its own compensation scheme for survivors of the Stolen Generations - making it the last state to do so, 23 years after the landmark Bringing Them Home report which documented the repercussions of decades of child removal policies. 

The $10m scheme will come into effect in 2021 and will involve counselling services, a funeral or memorial fund and redress payments to survivors.

Like the National Redress Scheme, it too faces a large hurdle: many survivors will not live long enough to benefit.

That bittersweet reality was keenly felt when - in announcing the compensation scheme - Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews declared, "It’s never too late to do the right thing".

His words still hung in the air as survivor Kutcha Edwards read a dedication to Aunty Eunice Wright, who had passed just days earlier. 

In May last year, NITV News reported that Yorta Yorta man Glen Atkinson received a phone call telling him he was successful in his application for redress. Hours later he passed into the Dreamtime. 

Ms Bamblett says despite the sadness the community feels each time a survivor passes, she is proud of governments for introducing compensation schemes. 

"I was in parliament that day and just thought, he's an amazing man to be able to put that on the table for Aboriginal people," she says. 

"He did it in acknowledgement of Eunice Wright, who sadly didn't survive to be able to hear the announcement."

The journey towards healing 

Charlie and Suzanne say while they have pursued different paths towards justice, their healing journey has been connected. 

Through the Ngarra Jarra Noun program they have been on cultural healing camps - an alternative to mainstream models of counselling that involve taking survivors on Country and fostering connections and conversations. 

Suzanne tells NITV News that while she hopes she can achieve justice through the courts, it is the camps "where the actual healing can take place". 

Meanwhile, Charlie says in recent years he's found family he never knew growing up and that this has been more valuable to him than the journey towards redress. 

"I think, is life worth it? Yes. Life is worth living for a reason, because it's about, if you do meet your family, you're happy. 

"You know that this family has missed you. They've heard about you but they've never met you, until now."