Victims of abuse lose out in new compensation scheme

Issue 
Gang-rape victim Katrina Keshishian delivers a 120,000-strong petition calling for the reversal of cuts to victims’ compenstio

The NSW government made drastic changes to the victims of crime compensation scheme in 2013. One change made was the replacement of lump sum compensation payments with drastically smaller recognition payments, with compensation payments only for direct costs associated with the crime.

Tying compensation for survivors of sexual and domestic abuse to any direct loss of income ignores the complicated realities of abuse. It lets down survivors who, as a result of the abuse, never had opportunities to earn an income as they otherwise would have. One long-term US study found that adult survivors of childhood abuse earned on average $5000 less a year than their peers. An Australian study found their annual healthcare costs averaged $1856 more than that of their peers.

There is a wealth of evidence linking abuse in childhood with worse education and employment outcomes and higher healthcare costs. Any just and fair system of compensation would recognise that abuse is messy and often has a domino effect, which, while not direct, is just as real.

When I was 15, I was gang raped. I never applied for compensation. I wasn’t even aware that compensation existed until I was in my 20s. When I did start the application process, it brought back so much trauma that I had to choose between continuing with the application and protecting my mental health. I chose my mental health and delayed applying.

That choice ultimately cost me up to $40,000 when the NSW government brought in legislation that slashed compensation. The most I will be eligible for will be a recognition payment, because at 15 I was not employed and therefore suffered no direct loss of income, even if my earning capacity has been reduced as a result of the psychological injuries I incurred.

I was not a very sympathetic victim. I was already a very troubled youth. I was drunk and stoned in the middle of the day and had been drinking heavily for two days. I had gone willingly with the rapists to a secluded area to drink with them.

I was told multiple times it was my fault and I had been asking for it by drinking with these men. It took me years to believe that by drinking with them I was not responsible for them dragging me into a more secluded area and taking turns raping me.

This internalised blame that so many people experience makes coming forward to seek justice or restitution even harder, and often needs to be worked through before someone is ready to make a compensation claim.

I cannot put an exact monetary figure on what this rape has cost me. But I do know that I live day-to-day with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the symptoms of which make holding down employment and studying much harder than they otherwise would be.

I also cannot say what percentage of my PTSD comes from the rape, and what percentage comes from other abuse. I had already experienced childhood sexual abuse and like 72% of women who experience this, I went on to experience more

I do not know if I would have completed school had I not been gang raped. I had already dropped out of school once. I had been asked to leave home and was living in a refuge and drinking heavily. I do know that I re-enrolled and returned to school less than a month after the rape, but I only lasted a term.

A month after the rape, I attempted suicide for the first time and started drinking and self-harming more. Because of this, I was asked to leave the refuge and, with nowhere stable to live, I attended school less and less until I stopped going altogether.

This is a position in which many abuse survivors find themselves. But because the ongoing impacts of the abuse are not always clean cut or easily traceable it does not make them any less real or costly.

As with childhood abuse, the loss of income and earning capacity faced by survivors of domestic abuse is often indirect and difficult to put an exact sum on.

On top of the tangible costs, there are costs stemming from the loss of opportunities resulting from the abuse. These costs often continue long after the relationship has ended. Added to the economic burden of mental illness stemming from trauma are the job and education opportunities often lost as a result of abuse.

The government needs to recognise the ways in which the impacts of sexual, family and domestic violence differ from other forms of violence, and reflect this in how these abuses are compensated.
I am not saying that there should be no compensation for direct loss of income. That should exist as well as a lump sum not tied to income and it should not make up the bulk of compensation available through the victims of crime compensation scheme.

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