Defence takes ‘no wrong doors’ approach to reporting abuse

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday August 12, 2019

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The Department of Defence’s policies and procedures surrounding abuse must be trauma-informed and should foster a reporting culture, according to the Defence Force Ombudsman.

The Ombudsman recently released two reports on abuse in the Defence Force. The first examines Defence’s written policies for making and responding to reports of abuse. 

Ombudsman Michael Manthorpe said he is satisfied with Defence’s policies and procedures to report abuse “for the most part”, but there is room for “continuous improvement”.

To help maintain a “prevention-focused culture”, Manthorpe recommended Defence:

  • Clearly explain the five trauma-informed principles, to provide managers and commanders with a greater understanding of the key considerations in handling reports of abuse consistently with a trauma-informed approach. 
  • Update policies and procedures for equity advisers to incorporate guidance on the trauma-informed principles and approach. 
  • Review the Service Police Manual to include information to help investigators identify how and when matters should be referred to civilian police. 
  • Develop and widely distribute a card, fact sheet, or similar product that outlines all avenues for reporting abuse and accessing advice and support. 
  • Audit the materials that members, managers, or commanders might reasonably access to find information about making and handling reports of abuse to ensure they are cross-referenced with other, more targeted documents about reports of abuse and to ensure they include clear information about referral pathways for victims making reports and sources of advice for members handling reports.
  • Nominate a single area to take responsibility for reviewing and endorsing any Defence materials about making and handling reports of abuse, to ensure consistent and current messaging.

Secretary of Defence Greg Moriarty and Chief of the Defence force General Angus Campbell supported Manthorpe’s “valuable” report.

“It is valuable in terms of highlighting Defence’s commitment to improving our approach to abuse. More importantly, it is valuable in terms of identifying some areas that are inconsistent, require rationalisation or are confusing,” they said in a joint response.

“Defence has a ‘no wrong doors’ approach to reporting abuse, and this may give a view to an outsider that our reporting avenues are disconnected. The variety of reporting options gives victims choice and our support and case management systems are engaged in all cases.”

The second report outlined how the Ombudsman’s Office has administered its Defence abuse reporting functions. It has included statistics on reports of abuse, and steps the Ombudsman’s Office and Defence have taken to respond to these. Its findings were similar to those of the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, in relation to locations at which abuse occurred, types of abuse, and those groups or areas which were particularly vulnerable.

The Ombudsman’s Office has received 1101 reports of abuse within Defence — regardless of when they occurred — since 1 December 2016. They continue to receive reports of serious physical or sexual abuse in the Defence Force, most of which are historic, according to Manthorpe.

Only 12% of reports received by the office relate to abuse alleged to have occurred in 2010 or later, according to the report. There have been 54 reports of abuse since 1 July 2014. Of these, 38 have been assessed, eight have been accepted, and 30 were assessed out of jurisdiction. Seven of the accepted reports involved serious bullying and harassment and five involved sexual abuse, such as serious sexual harassment and indecent conduct.

Meanwhile, 11 are awaiting assessment, and five are not proceeding. 

Future inquiries from the Ombudsman will look at how the policies and procedures are applied in practice, including a review of the training Defence provides to new recruits in relation to unacceptable behaviour across the Royal Australian Navy, the Australian Army, and the Royal Australian Air Force, which is underway.

Manthorpe said he is pleased his office has been able to assist abuse survivors, but the “work is not completed”.

“We continue to seek to provide a trauma-informed, professional service to those who contact us,” he said.

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