Perched on the sofa in her modest Sydney home, snoring dogs by her side, Lyn Belsham’s eyes lit up as she talked about her plans to hit the road once coronavirus eases.
“I want to hop in the motorhome, go and see the Twelve Apostles, then I want to visit someone in Perth,” the 72-year-old said.
Optimism for the future is something she couldn’t have imagined six decades earlier.
A childhood robbed by rape and inequality left her facing an uncertain outlook for most of her life.
The distress and trauma from the abuse meant she was unable to subject herself to intimate medical procedures, including pap smears.
With time, came the courage to seek justice for what had happened to her.
But as she bared her soul through the National Redress Scheme for survivors of child sexual abuse, she was knocked back and was told her recollection of abuse did not meet the benchmark required for any financial relief.
“I felt like I was worthless, and I felt that I wanted to end it.”
It’s been two years since the redress scheme began.
Around 7,500 applications have been made and more than 3,000 have got to the stage where payments have been offered to survivors.
An independent review is currently underway into the scheme, examining its successes and shortcomings as more claims continue to roll in.
The Federal Government concedes there were early failures with properly handling the deep trauma experienced by victims as they recounted their experiences, while survivors and their advocates have been left confused with the inconsistencies and delays in considering claims.
Abuse at home and in care
Abuse was a prominent feature of Lyn Belsham’s childhood in Sydney in the 1950s.
One of five children, Lyn grew up in what she describes as a “shack” in Sylvania Heights. Her father was an abusive drunk who would take out his anger on his children.
“I was running away all the time … and so the welfare kept picking me up and locking me up,” Lyn said.
She became pregnant at 13 and gave birth to her first son when she was 14.
“I was ashamed when I fell pregnant. Right up until I was in my late thirties, I felt that shame.”
The abuse Lyn would endure wasn’t restricted to the family home.
During her time at the Parramatta Girls Training School and stints at the Metropolitan Girls Shelter, Lyn was sexually abused by a paedophile doctor undertaking medical examinations of girls in the institutions.
She recalls four occasions when she was subjected to “internals”, as she described them.
It was this abuse that would go on to become the subject of her redress battle.
‘What good is this going to do me?’
When the National Redress Scheme began in July 2018 as a result of the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, it was billed as a way for survivors of abuse to seek some reparation for the horrors inflicted upon them.
While money would never heal the physical or mental scars, it was hoped it would provide people with a modicum of support.
Lyn Belsham applied for redress and contacted advocacy group Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN) for help with her application.
The lengthy process requires applicants to detail the abuse they endured.
Few will argue there shouldn’t be any process to verify or categorise claims made by abuse survivors, but many maintain reliving the graphic details of crimes committed against them is a terrible experience.
The National Redress Scheme made its ruling in the middle of 2020. Lyn Belsham wasn’t eligible for any money.
It left her with suicidal thoughts.
“After two years, why do this to me?” she told the ABC.
People who are knocked back have the opportunity to appeal the decision, which has been made by an unnamed redress staff member.
“I thought, what good is this going to do me, to put myself through this again, just to get some money?” Lyn asked.
The review process demanded Lyn reveal more detail about the abuse she endured, something she described as “traumatic”.
A month later, the situation changed dramatically.
Her rejected claim was now deemed worthy of a six-figure payment.
“Because of the shame, I don’t think I deserved it,” she said.
“I’m about to kick the bucket myself, and I get this money and I can’t enjoy it.
Complex claims can drag for years
Robyn Kruk, the chair of Mental Health Australia and a former independent assessor for the Defence Abuse Taskforce, is overseeing an independent review of the scheme.
“There’s no doubt that early on, particularly, there were quite significant problems with the scheme and over time, we’ve sought to remedy those problems,” Social Services Minister Anne Ruston told the ABC.
Senator Ruston said changes had been made to the scheme to ensure survivors of abuse were supported through the traumatic experience of sharing their stories.
“I think the other thing that probably surprised us as much as anything was the level of complexity of the claims,” Senator Ruston said.
“I think we, initially, probably believed that people, when they came forward, would probably only be naming one institution.
A straightforward claim, according to the Minister, can be finalised within six months — after the application has been made, the details are verified with the institution involved, the institution is given a right of reply, and an offer for redress is made and considered.
Senator Ruston said more complicated claims could drag out.
“We absolutely recognise the horrific trauma that they suffered as children, and equally the trauma that they go through when they have to retell their stories,” she said.
“Nobody is doubting the fact that the abuse took place, but we have to make sure we’ve got the right institution against which we’re actually making this application.”
Senator Ruston argues there’s a willingness from the Federal Government to listen to any recommendation the Kruk review makes, in a bid to make the difficult process quicker and easier to navigate.
There are advocacy groups across the country which help survivors of abuse make their applications, and Lyn turned to CLAN.
Her experience of delays isn’t isolated.
“We have elderly care leavers abused in Australia’s orphanages, children’s homes and foster care who are into their third year of waiting,” CLAN chief executive Leonie Sheedy said.
“In the two years that the redress scheme has been established, I’ve never heard of anybody getting their claims settled within six months — except for a dying man, who was 54 and they knew he was dying.”
Lyn Belsham’s message to fellow abuse survivors is clear.
“If you hang in there, and you don’t stress out about it, you’ll be successful in the end,” she said.