The Victorian Government has been at the forefront of introducing reforms to improve the criminal justice system’s response to child sexual abuse, including institutional child sexual abuse. The government recognises the importance of providing support to victims and survivors involved in the criminal justice system and is working to ensure the system operates in the interest of justice and protects the rights of the complainant and the accused.
Stronger laws for victim survivors of sexual violence
The Victorian Government is committed to preventing and improving responses to sexual violence and harm. In November 2021, in responding to the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s (VLRC) report ‘Improving the Justice System Response to Sexual Offences’, the government announced major reforms to consent legislation in Victoria and committed to an affirmative consent model and criminalising stealthing. The government also committed to consider further reforms to inform a 10-year strategy to address sexual violence and harm to be delivered in 2022.
Although the VLRC report was not specifically focused on the experiences of children and young people in the justice system, there were several considerations and recommendations to improve services and collaborative practice for children and young people, including updating the protocol between Child Protection and Victoria Police. The VLRC report was also supportive of the expansion of the Intermediary Program and the Child Witness Service. The Victorian Government will consider these reforms and others in response to the VLRC recommendations through its new 10-year strategy, which is being developed in consultation with victim survivors and other stakeholders. The strategy will include a focus on the needs of children and young people as a priority cohort. Any outstanding or ongoing recommendations from the Royal Commission will also be carefully considered to make sure this work is aligned.
Reforms to prosecution engagement with victims
In late 2019, the Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP) introduced a new electronic Record of Victim Engagement (ROVE) that documents all communication between solicitors and victims, or social workers and victims. The ROVE is an internal tool, accessible to both solicitors and social workers, that supports the OPP’s multidisciplinary approach to victim engagement by enabling relevant staff working on a case to have visibility over what advice has been given to the victim. The ROVE also contains built-in prompts to remind solicitors of their obligations under the Victims’ Charter Act 2006 (Victims’ Charter) throughout the course of the prosecution. The multidisciplinary approach is now firmly embedded across the trial divisions of the OPP (see, for example, Case Study 3).
The OPP is auditing approximately 200 prosecution files from the 2020-21 financial year against Victims’ Charter obligations and OPP decision-making processes, to ensure the ROVE promotes a consistent and high-quality level of support for victim survivors.
Case study 3. Use of multidisciplinary approach by OPP to support complainants
The OPP’s multidisciplinary team supported a young person who had been the victim of child sexual abuse by their music teacher. From the time they had escaped the abusive situation, the young person had not been able to play their musical instrument again.
The young person had developed complex mental health issues and found it very challenging to trust anyone in authority. The OPP solicitor and social worker worked closely with the young person’s support person to gain their trust. The young person struggled with the idea of going into court, but wanted to read their Victim Impact Statement. The OPP team and police informant worked collaboratively to ensure the young person had the appropriate support needed at court. The young person ultimately did read their Victim Impact Statement aloud and said they felt supported by the whole court, including the judge.
The matter concluded in early 2020 and the OPP social worker recently received an email from the young person containing a video of them playing music. The email thanked the social worker for supporting them to reach a place where they could enjoy playing music again.
Protections for witnesses giving evidence
In the 2020-21 Victorian State Budget, the Victorian Government allocated $9.9 million over four years to the Intermediary Program, resulting in the program becoming ongoing after a successful pilot phase.
The Intermediary Program provides support via intermediaries for all children and young people, as well as for adults with cognitive impairment, who are complainants in sexual offence cases and witnesses in homicide court matters. Intermediaries are skilled communication specialists with professional qualifications in speech pathology, psychology, social work, or occupational therapy who assess and facilitate communication between eligible witnesses and the police or courts. This helps ensure communication with the witness is trauma-informed and suitable to their individual needs. Intermediaries help police, lawyers and the judiciary to plan their questioning so the witness can understand, participate, feel more confident, and provide better quality evidence for their case. This improves access to justice and makes the trial fairer and more efficient.
The Intermediary Program experiences high demand and received a total of 1,316 requests for its services during the three-year pilot period that ran from 1 July 2018 to 30 June 2021. 87 per cent of requests received by the program were for complainant witnesses in sexual offence matters, while 73 per cent of requests involved the provision of intermediary assistance to young witnesses under the age of 18. Around 80 per cent of court requests for the Intermediary Program relate to young people who also engage with the Child Witness Service.
Child Witness Service
The Child Witness Service (CWS) is a Victorian Government-funded initiative that helps child victims and witnesses feel safe and supported throughout the criminal justice process. The CWS offers a specialist case management approach to preparing and supporting children and their families to give evidence from remote witness rooms. This evidence is then televised into courtrooms in the Magistrates’, Children’s, County and Supreme courts of Victoria. The CWS supports between 500-600 children and young people each year, with 80 per cent of these cases involving a sexual offence. During COVID-19 restrictions, the CWS continued to provide support to child witnesses and their families using face-to-face, virtual, and other online channels.
Since early 2021, the CWS has enlisted a specially trained Court Dog named Kiki to provide emotional support in the pre-trial stage and during witnessing in court matters. Between 1 January to 31 October 2021, Kiki has supported 70 child witnesses before and after trial, and while they gave evidence.
Additional funding of $1.8 million across one year was allocated to the Intermediary Program and CWS in the 2020-21 Victorian State Budget, to enable the services to respond to the increased need for support that is anticipated to result from courts receiving increased funding to hear more cases.
Recorded evidence and alternative arrangements
The 2020-21 Victorian State Budget provided $0.5 million over one year for the implementation of a new Virtual Court Support Program (VCSP). The VCSP allows the Child Witness Service and the Intermediary Program to provide flexible, COVIDSafe options for victims and witnesses to participate safely in court hearings online. This program applies in all courts where serious indictable offences, like child sexual abuse, are heard, including the Supreme, County, Magistrates’ and Children’s courts.
The purpose of the project is to increase the availability of COVIDSafe support options to improve eligible witnesses’ participation in criminal matters across Victoria by:
- establishing regional arrangements to enable child witnesses to give evidence locally
- improving technological solutions to allow witnesses to give evidence remotely
- managing a bank of portable devices to loan witnesses who do not have adequate equipment to participate in hearings virtually, and
- providing ‘on-site’ technical troubleshooting to support individual hearings at a local/regional level.
Additionally, a new facility with eight remote witness rooms, break-out rooms and family waiting rooms will be designed and constructed as part of the VCSP, further enabling victim survivors to deliver evidence in a way that is trauma informed and best suited to their needs.
Building on the previous investment in the 2019-20 Victorian Budget in response to COVID-19, and in addition to the VCSP, a further expansion and upgrade of audio-visual link (AVL) equipment has occurred across the Supreme, County, Magistrates’ and Children’s courts of Victoria.
For the Magistrates’ Court, the AVL project has delivered upgrades to an additional 27 courtrooms across 11 metropolitan court houses and an additional 17 courtrooms across 15 court houses in regional and rural Victoria. In the County Court, there are now 46 courtrooms that have been upgraded with AVL technology.
System enhancements for victim survivors
Improving accessibility of information relating to prosecutions
In early 2021, an extensive review of the current OPP website was undertaken with a focus group of victims. The focus group was asked a set of questions about the current website to determine if the information provided was clear and accessible. In response to the feedback provided, the OPP overhauled the website, revising its structure, language and tone. The OPP is also reviewing how it can better support victims to provide feedback on their experiences using the OPP’s services.
Reforms to criminal law
Empowering victim survivors and families to share their stories
The Victorian Parliament passed reforms via the Judicial Proceedings Reports Amendment Act 2021 (Act), which received royal assent on 21 September 2021. The Act commenced in stages. On 15 December 2021, it removed an existing prohibition on publishing details likely to identify a deceased person as a victim of sexual offending. This allows families of deceased sexual offence (or alleged sexual offence) victims and others, including the media, to publish details likely to identify a deceased person as a victim of sexual offending if they wish to do so.
This reform, which builds on reforms from late 2020, aims to ensure victim survivors of sexual offending have greater agency over their stories and that these stories can be shared with the dignity and respect they deserve.
The Act also allows family members and others close to the victim to apply for a victim privacy order to protect the identity of a deceased victim of a sexual offence or alleged sexual offence. The court can make such an order in certain limited, appropriate circumstances, where the undue distress to the applicant outweighs the relevant public interests, such as freedom of expression and open justice. The victim privacy order scheme commenced on 15 October 2021.
Improving professional responses
Reporting child sexual abuse
A key theme of the Royal Commission was the importance of encouraging the reporting of child sexual abuse allegations. The Royal Commission recommended that victim survivors should be able to report to, or seek advice from, police through a number of different channels. In response, Victoria Police has developed and implemented several initiatives.
Victoria Police’s guidance for victim survivors, the Reporting Sexual Offences Booklet, was revised and published in February 2020. This booklet is provided to every victim survivor when they enquire about how to proceed with a sexual assault report.
Victoria Police’s website has also been revised to provide greater clarity for victim survivors regarding what to expect from the reporting process.
What victim survivors can expect when reporting and interacting with Victoria Police
When reporting to Victoria Police, a victim survivor can expect the following:
This response also applies to victim survivors of historical institutional child sexual abuse. Historical institutional child sexual abuse offences can still be reported to and investigated by specialist detectives. Victim survivors can report anonymously if they are not ready to make a formal report. If a victim survivor wishes to report historical sexual abuse involving institutional or religious organisations, they can contact the SANO Taskforce by phone on 1800 110 007 or by email at email@example.com.
Identifying and disrupting child sexual exploitation
Victoria Police developed the Child Sexual Exploitation Disruption Guide (Guide) in June 2020 to inform all Victoria Police operational members on disruption opportunities and offender characteristics. The Guide provides practical methods to better assist Victoria Police staff in the identification and disruption of child sexual exploitation, including online grooming; to improve workforce understanding of child sexual exploitation; and to develop a baseline standard of practice for the detection and management of people who sexually exploit children.
The Guide encourages cross-agency collaboration, for example between Victoria Police and government departments, as a strong mechanism for disrupting child sexual exploitation and improving holistic responses to address the complex needs of children who experience additional vulnerabilities. It ensures that child safety is front of mind and provides a consistent approach to investigations.
Specialised police referrals for victim survivors
In line with Royal Commission recommendations, Victoria Police continues to make referrals for victim survivors to Centres Against Sexual Assault (CASA) within two hours of initial contact with the police, unless the victim survivor does not consent.
Victoria Police has strong working relationships with each CASA and works collaboratively to support victims. Such collaboration is strengthened by Multi-Disciplinary Centres (MDCs), located in Bendigo, Dandenong, Geelong, Mildura, Seaford and Wyndham Vale, where police and CASA are co-located and provide partnered services to victim survivors.
The collaborative nature of MDCs reduces the need for victim survivors to go to different services to access assistance and can prevent them from having to relay the experiences of their abuse multiple times. MDCs can also provide immediate access to specialist family violence practitioners in discreet locations to help ensure the privacy and safety of victim survivors.
Investigating reports of child sexual abuse
In response to the Betrayal of Trust Inquiry and the Royal Commission’s inquiry, Victoria Police has implemented a suite of reforms to investigate child sexual abuse more effectively. These include the establishment of the SANO Taskforce, which specifically investigates institutional, historical and new child sexual abuse.
The SANO Taskforce is based in Victoria Police’s Crime Command and is comprised of specialist sexual offence detectives who identify links between offenders and offences through the use of modern, specialist investigation methods.
Since its establishment, the SANO Taskforce has:
- received over 1,640 referrals from the Royal Commission (many institutions contacted police directly either during or after the inquiry)
- actioned over 1,640 information reports, and
- conducted over 250 full investigations to date.
The Royal Commission recommended police agencies provide channels that allow confidential reporting to encourage prisoners and former prisoners to report allegations of child sexual abuse, including institutional child sexual abuse. Victoria Police is developing a poster to encourage reporting among victim survivors currently in prison.
As recommended by the Royal Commission, the SANO Taskforce’s practice complies with the philosophy underpinning the Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Team’s model, where the police officer who has initial contact with a victim survivor should remain the point of contact for the victim survivor and be the person who takes the investigation from that point through to the end of the process.
Staff training for prosecution matters
Across 2019 and 2020, the OPP rolled out an extensive and mandatory training program for solicitors and social workers in line with Royal Commission recommendations.
The OPP’s victim-specific training committee has developed a victims training program, which all solicitors must complete as part of their performance plan. The components of the program change each year to address emerging issues, but the overall purpose is to assist solicitors in understanding the needs of victims and to promote continuous improvement in victim engagement.
The 2019 Victims Training Program was aimed at equipping solicitors and social workers with the necessary skills to communicate with victim survivors and witnesses more effectively. The 2020 Victims Training Program expanded on existing capability to engage with victims, witnesses, and others affected by crime. It was designed to help staff better understand how trauma impacts victims of crime, and how this might manifest during the trial process. Training was also provided regarding victim survivors of institutional sexual abuse (see Table 5).
Table 5. 2020 Victims Training Program
% of solicitors and social workers who attended
|Communication Skills and Conferencing with Victims and Witnesses||100%|
|Survivors of Institutional Sexual Abuse||97.41%|
|Understanding the Impacts of Trauma||100%|
|Practical and Effective Ways of Working with People with Disabilities||85.52%|
As a result of this suite of training, the effects of trauma are now better understood by OPP staff, who have reported having greater levels of confidence in dealing with victims of institutional abuse
Quote from a training participant on the effects of institutional abuse and trauma
|"I found the training useful. I especially appreciated learning about the physiological/developmental impacts of child abuse on the brain. That was something I didn’t know about and helped me appreciate how that affects a person’s emotional/relational capacities, which helped me re-think the way I will engage with victims of child abuse in future conferences."|
Improved outcomes in Victorian court matters
As recommended by the Royal Commission, the Victorian Government continues to work with its courts, prosecution, legal aid and policing agencies to ensure delays are reduced and kept to a minimum in prosecutions for child sexual abuse offences.
For example, sex offence matters in the Magistrates’ Court are case managed through specialist sex offence lists. Within those lists, all cases involving child complainants are identified and closely managed in order to minimise delays, identify issues at an early stage, promote early resolution where appropriate and ensure the child is linked to appropriate support services. Where appropriate, the child will be supported by the Child Witness Service and also referred to an intermediary to assess the child’s communication capacity.
The Judicial College of Victoria provides education programs and resources to assist judicial officers to understand the impacts of trauma, including child sexual abuse. This material predominantly covers legal and procedural issues in child sexual assault trials, including evidence law, jury directions, sentencing and managing vulnerable witnesses. In 2021, the college continued to maintain its Criminal Charge Book, which contains material on child sexual offences, and delivered training on the essentials of evidence law.
As part of the initiative to support victims of crime in the 2021-22 Victorian State Budget, the college received funding to continue its Intermediary Program education. The program provides education to judicial officers, so they understand how to work effectively with intermediaries who support children and young people, as well as adults with cognitive impairment, to provide evidence in court.