Crime victims deserve compassionate, rapid support

BRAVE VOICES: With Ashleigh Cooper (left), Noelle Dickson and Di McDonald who joined me in my call for a serious overhaul of Victoria’s victims of crime assistance.

Parliament House, Melbourne – May 26, 2021


Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) – May 26, 2021: (10:19)

I move:

That this house notes:

(1) the extensive and long-lasting physical, psychological and financial impacts frequently experienced by victims of crime;

(2) the importance of a comprehensive, well-structured and easily accessible system of state assistance for victims of crime that encompasses forms of support and care, including counselling, that are particularly responsive to victims’ individual needs and priorities;

(3) the urgent need to substantially revamp assistance to victims of crime in Victoria which has been identified on many occasions, including in the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s 2018 report on the review of the Victims of Crime Assistance Act 1996, and as part of other formal government review processes dating back to 2009;

(4) the imperative for new, simplified victims of crime award categories in the Victims of Crime Assistance Act 1996 that better define who should receive assistance and in what forms;

(5) the complementary need for enhanced, specialised child-focused services that will lead to better healing and recovery for children and young people who are victims of crime; and

(6) calls on the government to expedite its response to the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s review, especially in relation to the implementation of the critically important recommendations under chapter 13 of the review on restructured forms of assistance.

I should also clarify at the outset that I am using the term ‘victims of crime’ in this motion and speech as a reference to all victims and victim-survivors of crime collectively.

As everyone here knows, it is a very regular practice of mine in this Parliament to raise issues relating to victims of crime. There are countless such issues, and this motion focuses on a very specific subset of those. However, they are as important as almost any group of matters pertaining to how the Victorian government should treat people materially affected by crime.

The motion is largely in recognition of the extensive and long-lasting impacts victims frequently experience and it acknowledges that there must be a well-coordinated and easily accessible state-funded system of assistance in Victoria for victims of crime.

The motion also recognises that those victims’ rights and needs have for far too long been disregarded, discredited and dismissed and that they are often alienated by processes, services and programs that were supposedly intended to help them.

The motion then states that there needs to be an urgent overhaul of the current model of assistance, calling on the government to use the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s 2018 Review of the Victims of Crime Assistance Act 1996 as the main blueprint for change. Government MLCs might well point today to some announcements in last week’s budget that confirmed they are working on the VLRC review’s recommendations. However, I suspect they might also say they are still not ready to implement all of them until at least next year or beyond. If that does turn out to be the case, then I am suggesting that they should in the interim at least act immediately upon the crucial recommendations of chapter 13 regarding the establishment of new and reconceived forms of financial assistance.

As important as it is, the base of evidence for this motion is not purely that VLRC review, though, nor even last year’s RMIT Centre for Innovative Justice report on strengthening victim support services. Instead it is predicated on a diversity of evidence, including reviews and other documents from at least 2009. Back then the Department of Justice’s Reviewing Victims of Crime Compensation discussion paper was already raising many questions about the merits of the state-funded assistance program, which still persists to this day. In turn, today’s motion is also shaped heavily by the personal accounts of many victims themselves.

On that note I would like to thank and pay tribute to every victim of crime here with us in the gallery today and to express my continued admiration for and awe at your capacity to continue to live your lives with such courage and dignity even after everything you have endured. It is truly humbling, and it means so much to me that you have come here today to support this motion. I also thank the many victims of crime who could not attend in person but are watching and listening today. As part of that I salute those young victims of crime who are following the debate, because to me their interest in these matters is symbolic of the increasing feedback that my colleague Mr Grimley and I are receiving about the general inadequacy of support for children and young people directly affected by serious and violent crimes.

I would also like to quote our Premier, Daniel Andrews, who tweeted on February 18, 2020, and I quote:

It’s easy to say you’re against child sexual abuse. It’s another thing to actually demonstrate that. Victims should always be supported—no matter what. Anything less simply isn’t enough.

Dan Andrews @DanielAndrewsMP

I have pinned this to the wall of my office to remind me of our Premier’s commitment to victims of crime.

Accordingly, in part (5), I have sought to reflect one of the current policy priorities of the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare and its CEO, Deb Tsorbaris. That organisation and indeed many other people undertake vital work in assisting young people to recover after witnessing and/or directly experiencing a crime, but additional specialist services are also still badly needed.

This is both in the crime’s immediate aftermath and also later in life, especially where conditions such as PTSD and psychosocial impacts continue to exert sustained adverse effects on these victims in a multitude of forms.

Of course it would be wrong of me not to acknowledge that globally there has been a growing recognition during recent decades of the rights and interests of victims of crime. We just need their needs to be prioritised. Many important developments have certainly occurred here in Victoria, including the introduction of the victims charter in 2006, the creation of the victims of crime commissioner role in 2014 and indeed last week’s response to the call of Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party and other stakeholders for the first-ever dedicated victims legal service.

However, the world over there has unfortunately also remained a wide gulf between lofty rhetoric about victims’ rights on the one hand and its actual translation into meaningful outcomes on the other.

Here in Victoria the most disheartening thing of all has been the continual evidence of a criminal justice system affording more weight to the interests of those who break the state’s laws than those who abide by them. This has unfortunately been compounded by the retention, even amidst repeated complaints and criticisms, of a structure of assistance that most crime victims say devalues and often re-traumatises them. Partly this is because Victoria is one of only two Australian jurisdictions that still uses a judicial model and a victims of crime assistance tribunal in this field.

Over time this system has become so bewildering and created such instant and high barriers to surmount that victims typically need to hire lawyers, including at their own substantial expense, to help them understand and navigate many of its complexities and difficulties. Some victims have even had to launch their own lawsuits against offenders instead of relying on this model.

Overall the system is far too cumbersome. Its response times and processes are laborious, with waiting periods of Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal claim approvals historically averaging around nine months and some even lasting four years. It is also underpinned by some strange rules that leave it poorly geared to account for victims’ level of pain and suffering, their current circumstances or their future requirements. There are numerous other problems as well and to illustrate just a fraction of them it may be helpful for members if I relate a selection of experiences that some victims have allowed me to share with you.

Among those is the case of Janelle Saunders, the mother of 11-year-old Zoe Buttigieg, who was raped and murdered in Wangaratta in 2015 by a recidivist violent criminal. Janelle was treated atrociously by the victims assistance system in so many ways. This included being left unaware that other people who had not even seen Zoe since she was a baby were approved for compensation as so-called secondary or related victims.

The funds available to Janelle as the primary victim were accordingly reduced and she therefore ultimately lost access to the counselling sessions that she continues to require to this day. Notwithstanding her ongoing deep trauma, news of the termination of the counselling was then conveyed to her through the mail and in the space of only four words in the most soulless, bureaucratic and miserable letter I have ever seen. The letter delivered the words that funds were exhausted. I would suggest that an official review of Janelle’s case on its own should be enough to see the current system terminated.

Another case is Kerryn Robertson, the mother of Rekiah O’Donnell, who was shot and killed by her partner in Melbourne in 2013. Kerryn and her family encountered serious difficulties in relation to financial support too, as they were told that a lump sum of money that had been set aside for sessions with a counsellor—one that had to be selected from a very limited list of approved counsellors, I might add—could not be used for any other purposes. Both Kerryn and Rekiah’s sister Indiana, who was only 15 at the time, only used a few of those sessions.

They later felt they needed assistance with many other priorities instead, including with education, as their learning and work were both set back after Rekiah’s death. However, that help was not available. Indiana’s money was also embargoed until she was 18, rather than being accessible for the urgent, immediate support she needed, which should have catered more specifically to the need of a teenager. They are both still experiencing many repercussions from all of that.

Here today in the gallery is Noelle Dickson, the mother of Sarah Cafferkey, who was murdered in Bacchus Marsh in 2012 by a violent criminal, inexplicably on parole. Noelle has actually interacted with the victim assistance system more than once, but her experience has never been a pleasant one. She felt she was confronted by a system that was constantly and quite extraordinarily requiring her to actually prove she was a victim. She was asked to recount her experiences multiple times to multiple doctors, counsellors and others. This was even after all the relevant facts had been clearly established, including in court, and even though like almost every victim of crime she already had more than enough to process as it was, without all of the extra stress and trauma of having to recite her story over and over again.

I thank you, Janelle, Noelle, Kerryn and Indiana, for consenting to me sharing just some of the many elements of your very difficult experiences with the existing system. I also thank the many other victims who have allowed me to potentially tell their stories too. If only there had been more time available to me today. I also hope that I can say on behalf of all of you that neither you nor I believe that the solutions here are especially difficult to achieve and implement.

In fact, and as the wording of the motion highlights, they are actually substantively identified in the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s (VLRC) review chapter 13 findings. Among other proposals, these recommend the replacement of the existing act’s award categories with six more broadly based streams of support. Collectively these are aimed at delivering more transparent, more predictable, less confusing and fairer assistance. They are also far more closely based on victims’ individual priorities rather than being constrained by arbitrary, predefined limits, caps and other restrictions. As part of this they lift the current maximum time limits for claims. These limits are simply not aligned with the reality that every victim of crime responds and heals in their own unique way and at their own individual pace. Many are unable to move forward for a very long period, and it is ill informed to presume they will always do otherwise.

The VLRC’s proposed changes also reflect the widespread dissatisfaction with the existing primary, secondary and related award categories in particular and the complexities around who can apply for and receive assistance as well as how, when and why. They also honour the crucial importance in many cases of more immediate access to support. Crucially in cases like Janelle’s they will also permit access to counselling services on a long-term basis, where this is appropriate to recovery needs, irrespective of whether any limits that might apply to other forms of assistance have already been exhausted. Equally, though, they do not mandate compulsory attendance at counselling, especially where this is not in someone’s best interest, as was true for Kerryn, Indiana and Noelle.

In the event funding should be a sticking point for any of these changes, then the government would do well to instigate a dedicated review into the potential production of a victim levy, as the VLRC separately recommends in chapter 18. Other states and territories far more adequately resource victim support in this way, compelling offenders themselves to fund a greater share of victim assistance. Naturally I acknowledge that it is important to review laws and policies carefully and not rush the results. In the case of victims of crime assistance, though, I would say that asking people to wait at least 12 years for the serious reforms that are required is stretching that sentiment beyond all acceptable limits.

In such circumstances I do not think it is unreasonable to ask that these reforms now be introduced immediately. Furthermore, the road map for change already exists. The government should by now know exactly what it needs to do. Sadly, none of us has the power to end all crimes or violence. However, if these reforms are implemented, they will obviously improve one vital aspect of how we respond to these acts and enhance the wellbeing of past and future crime victims in the process.

It is often said that a society—and a Parliament—is best judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable, and there are very few people who experience more vulnerability or feel more demoralised or broken than those directly impacted by serious crime. No words from me can adequately lay bare their pain and trauma nor the heavy burdens they carry—generally for the rest of their lives.

However, what I can say with confidence is that there is an obligation on every one of us in this Parliament not to forget or overlook them and certainly not to exacerbate their suffering. We must all recognise that the very least we can do is to make available forms of support that are compassionate, sensitively delivered and genuinely responsive to their needs. Frankly, those aims should be absolutely intrinsic to what this Parliament is about. It is for each of these reasons and many more that I thank everyone for listening and that I commend this motion to the house.

Other Members’ responses

Summing up

[In this latest budget, the government has] committed money, and I am extremely grateful for that, but we need to do more. We need to put victims of crime as the number one priority.

Tania Maxwell MP, Legislative Council: May 26, 2021

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (11:45): In summing up my motion, I would like to sincerely thank Ashleigh, Scott, Di, Noelle, my staff and my intern Vera for being here today and for supporting this motion. I would like to thank and acknowledge the very emotional contributions by Mr Ondarchie and Mr Limbrick today. Your voices have certainly been heard, and I thank you for standing and giving your heartfelt contributions. I would like to thank everyone who has spoken today. I would like to reiterate many of the words that Mr O’Donohue brought to the chamber, and I thank him for those words in support of my motion.

This motion is something that I have wanted to bring to the house since the day I was elected. Even before I was selected, when I became a member of the victims reference group with Mr O’Donohue and when I co-founded of the Enough is Enough foundation, victims were always at the core of the work that I wanted to do and achieve. Little did I know then that I would actually have the honour and the privilege to be elected to Parliament and bring my work to represent victims of crime in this house.

I agree with Mr O’Donohue that we certainly need a cultural change. We need to be putting victims at the forefront of the work that we are doing to support them. We need to stop with the priorities for offenders over victims. We have raised the impact statements today. How does an offender get to have a say and redact information in a victim’s impact statement? That is absolutely insulting. It is abominable. It just should never be happening.

We have got to look at ways that we can prevent crime, and I have stood here in this place so many times and talked about early intervention and primary prevention. A way we can support victims is to prevent these crimes from happening. We know that the government has a strong focus on mental health at the moment, and I certainly hope that our victims of crime and survivors will be considered as a priority in becoming supported through accessing mental health.

Dr Kieu stated something in his speech, about the $60,000 for victims of crime, with the $10,000 of special assistance. What I want to bring to the attention of this house is that I have seen offenders in prison, incarcerated, receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation. That makes me furious, when we have victims of crime sitting up there who have to fight and be retraumatised to get a single cent. It is wrong—and I am sorry for yelling, but I am so passionate about this. It is an absolute disgrace. Trauma does not leave these victims when the sentencing is handed down. They experience it for the rest of their lives, and they need to be supported. We need to invest in that early intervention.

When everybody goes to bed at night I hope the last words that go through your minds are: ‘Victims of crime—we need to support them’.

I acknowledge the government in this latest budget is doing that. You have committed money, and I am extremely grateful for that, but we need to do more. We need to put victims of crime as the number one priority.

Motion agreed to.