7. COVID-19

Response to COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered the lives of every Australian. As would be expected, the effect of the pandemic has been greater on vulnerable and marginalised communities. Many programs and initiatives have been put in place to minimise the impact of the pandemic, and its economic effects, on Australians.
The Alliance for Forgotten Australians noted the severe impact that successive crises have had on survivors. Specifically, the 2019-2020 bushfires and COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in a ‘complete restructuring of our society’, with ‘forgotten Australians and other survivors’ particularly vulnerable:
People who are homeless or borderline homeless and people who have lost their homes during the bushfires are having to deal with the closure of or limitations around service provision and delivery. Our people are very much the ones who are suffering in a way that middle class people aren’t suffering.1
Similarly, the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA) linked the bushfires and COVID-19 to difficulties ensuring effective service delivery. VACCA noted that it does what it can with limited resources, but that survivors are experiencing detrimental effects from the lack of ability to hold events like cultural healing camps and face-to-face services.2
People with Disability Australia made similar comments, to the effect that COVID-19 had added another layer of complexity to providing services to vulnerable survivors:
The key thing here is around face-to-face interactions. I’m a big fan of technology, but, having worked with the council myself over the years, nothing can beat face-to-face interactions with people. That is going to be a challenge that we’ll need to address over time in terms of how we reach out and connect to people – survivors in hard to reach settings – and how we provide them with a safe, therapeutic space.3
Tuart Place echoed these concerns, noting that on 23 March 2020 it has ‘switched to phone outreach’ and was seeking to establish other mechanism of support, such as virtual support groups. However, due to issues like resistance to technology and literacy levels, only about half of these offers are taken up.4 This causes concerns for some of Tuart Place’s clients:
Because of COVID-19, Tuart Place has had to stop its face-to-face support, and we’re very concerned about our most vulnerable and elderly participants, particularly those who rely on attending the centre.5
Likewise, knowmore Legal Service noted its concern around the appropriate level of support being provided to survivors during the pandemic, stating:
With the additional stress and anxiety around their potential health concerns, regular communication from the scheme on where their application is in terms of how it’s progressing would alleviate them of that anxiety. A lot of people are concerned that they will pass away before a decision is made. In some way, communicating to a survivor that they haven’t been forgotten and that their application is progressing and exactly what state it’s at, and if an idea of a time frame could be provided, I think that would be a very helpful extra step in the current situation.6
Another specific difficulty that was raised by multiple witnesses is the need to provide a statutory declaration with applications for redress. While there are more general issues with this requirement, in the current public health situation this creates greater difficulty for survivors.
Tuart Place stated that, whereas before the COVID-19 situation, they would escort applicants to get statutory declarations witnesses by appropriate people:
At the moment, we need to send it out to them. It gets difficult once we send out the application; it may get signed, or it may not, or people become overwhelmed when they’re by themselves with all this paperwork. So, it certainly has posed a challenge in getting that final step in the application process finished.7
knowmore Legal Service echoed this concern, noting that many of their clients were having problems submitting their applications with a statutory declaration:
Many of our clients don’t know people in the categories who can witness a statutory declaration. I’m in Queensland and I know that the Department of Justice and Attorney-General has closed the community justices of the peace program. You used to be able to find a JP at your local library or shopping centre or hospital, and that’s not available anymore.8
knowmore went on explain that social distancing guidelines made it difficult for ‘people to engage and go out and find somebody or have somebody visit’ to assist in witnessing a statutory declaration. It also noted that the requirement was unnecessary, as there are ‘other ways to prosecute’ fraudulent claims.9
Professor Kathleen Daly saw a need to address COVID-19 and its impact on survivors by aiming for greater operational transparency:
Clarify how applications are considered and the grounds on which they are determined, clarify the meaning of key terms in the assessment framework, notify survivors about the progress of their claims at known time markers, and publish a flow diagram or online tracker that shows the steps that DSS staff take in working through a claim and how much time each step takes – this may include reasons for delay.10
A similar matter was raised by knowmore Legal Service, in light of the fact that as a cohort, many survivors are potentially susceptible for the COVID-19 virus, and are ‘very concerned’. knowmore stated that its clients were concerned that their applications may not be determined in time. It said that the ‘timely processing of applications’ would ‘greatly help our client group’.11

Committee comment

The current COVID-19 pandemic and the necessary social and economic restrictions in place to control the spread and effect of the virus are causing major issues in vulnerable and marginalised communities. While these issues are being felt by almost every member of the Australian community, the Committee has no doubt that they are felt particularly strongly in the survivor community.
It is also clear that this is causing massive concern amongst survivors. This is partly driven by uncertainty and anxiety over whether their claims will be processed in time – or indeed, whether they will be processed at all – and steps need to be taken to ensure that survivors have these anxieties lessened wherever possible.
In the Committee’s view, this raises two matters. Firstly, greater efforts need to be made to ensure that information about the NRS’s continuation throughout the COVID-19 pandemic is clearly communicated to the public. Further, the efforts at communication need to be undertaken in such a way that they reach the vulnerable communities that are applying for redress under the NRS.
Secondly, the Committee is concerned that the support services available to survivors are being severely impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, and the lack of face-to-face contact that social distancing engenders. While social distancing is necessary to contain the spread of the virus, and is likely to continue for quite some time, additional support services need to be put in place to ensure that survivors are not left to deal with their anxiety and concern without appropriate support in place.
The Committee believes that both of these matters need to be examined as part of the second anniversary review, as a matter of the highest priority.
The issue of providing statutory declarations with redress applications is also a matter or the highest urgency. Indeed, in the Committee’s view, this matter should not be left to the second anniversary review alone.
In the immediate term, the need to submit a statutory declaration during the COVID-19 pandemic needs to be removed, by whatever means available. At present, it is a significant impediment to applications being submitted, and given the age and health profile of some survivors of historic child abuse, presents an unacceptable obstacle to access some form of redress.
More generally, the matter of whether the statutory declaration is necessary at all must be examined by the second anniversary review. As some submitters and witnesses to this inquiry have raised, there are other means of dealing with fraudulent claims that do not make this impost on the vast majority of applicants for redress.

Recommendation 13

The Committee recommends the National Redress Scheme closely monitor its operations during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that the National Redress Scheme is as responsive as possible to the increased levels of anxiety, and the more limited access to counselling and psychological care services that is available to survivors.

  • 1
    Mr Boris Kaspiev, Alliance for Forgotten Australia, Committee Hansard, 19 March 2020, p. 3.
  • 2
    Ms Hanina Rind, Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, Committee Hansard, 19 March 2020, p. 18.
  • 3
    Mr Stephen Kilkeary, People with Disability Australia, Committee Hansard, 30 March 2020, p. 39.
  • 4
    Dr Philippa White, Tuart Place, Committee Hansard, 15 April 2020, p. 23.
  • 5
    Ms Cevrina Reed, Forgotten Australians Coming Together, Committee Hansard, 15 April 2020, p. 18.
  • 6
    Ms Anna Swain, knowmore Legal Service, Committee Hansard, 6 April 2020, p. 36.
  • 7
    Mrs Sarah Regan, Tuart Place, Committee Hansard, 15 April 2020, p. 21.
  • 8
    Mr Warren Strange, knowmore Legal Service, Committee Hansard, 6 April 2020, p. 35.
  • 9
    Mr Warren Strange, knowmore Legal Service, Committee Hansard, 6 April 2020, p. 35.
  • 10
    Professor Kathleen Daly, Griffith University, Committee Hansard, 15 April 2020, p. 1.
  • 11
    Mr Warren Strange, knowmore Legal Service, Committee Hansard, 6 April 2020, p. 35.

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About this inquiry

The Joint Select Committee on Implementation of the National Redress Scheme was appointed by resolution of the House of Representatives on 10 September 2019 and resolution of the Senate on 11 September 2019.

Past Public Hearings

11 Oct 2021: Canberra
18 Aug 2021: Canberra
16 Aug 2021: Canberra