The trauma of child sexual abuse and the potential for re-traumatisation is well recognised and acknowledged. Dr Cathy Kezelman, President, Adults Surviving Child Abuse states:10
People with unresolved trauma may experience lifetime patterns of fear and lack of trust; long-term difficulties with emotional regulation and managing stress as well as chronic feelings of helplessness, all of which affect their relation- ships with themselves, with others and with the world … Survivors may present with deep feelings of insecurity, low
self-esteem, poor frustration tolerance; sensitivity to criticism, and they may be either hyper-aroused (physical or psychological agitation) or hypo-aroused (shut down — emotionally numb) … They often exhibit risk-taking behaviours, and/or are self-harming, suicidal or abuse substances.
The mediation can be a deeply emotional experience for a survivor and there is a risk they will decompensate. Further, a survivor’s trust issues may extend to the mediation process and the mediator. Mediators therefore need to understand, and know how to respond when confronted with, the psychology and trauma of a survivor. Dr Kezelman recommends that practitioners adopt “trauma informed practice” as this can facilitate feelings of trust, safety and empowerment.
From the first meeting with the survivor a mediator will be working to create a safe and trustworthy environment. This includes:
- understanding the potential for re-traumatisation;
- knowing how to de-escalate hyper-arousal or engaging a survivor who is hypo-aroused; and
- empowering the survivor so that they can call time out when necessary or change a dynamic that is not working for them. But just as every case of child sexual abuse is different, so is the survivor’s response. There is no single approach to such mediations — no one-size fits all — a mediator needs to be able to adapt to varying degrees of emotion including anger, shame, guilt and betrayal. In a mediation, the mediator bears witness to the survivor’s usually traumatic story. This can be harrowing and personally challenging to hear. Dr Kezelman notes that when a person hears a story of trauma, the normal response includes shock, anger, horror and grief. But, she says, “feelings of hope and optimism are critical for recovery and it is important that other people hold the hope when survivors can’t”.11 In essence, a mediator needs to balance compassion and empathy with optimism. Distrust of institutions and the legal process can make the mediation process daunting and intimidating. Selection of the venue can make a difference — for instance I mediated a series of forced adoption claims in Perth. The venue selected was a suburban cottage usually designated for family conciliations. The venue produced a peaceful and respectful atmosphere. Informality is often vital to win over trust and to put the survivor at ease. However, that is not always the case. Some survivors see the mediation as a substitute for their day in court, when they finally get to tell their story to a third party to explain what has happened to them, to look at the institution’s representatives and say “look what you have done to me”. Such a person may prefer the mediation to be more formal, to carry more gravitas — not a mediator in a leather jacket or a mediation in a suburban cottage. Conversely, if the survivor has trust and self-esteem issues, going to the 54th floor of a city tower with everyone in expensive suits is unlikely to make the survivor comfortable and trusting.
It is not just the survivor that needs careful consideration from the mediator. The magnitude of the sexual abuse of children by institutions has been described as “one of the great tragedies of modern times”.12 That tragedy is felt not just by the survivors but also by the people within the institutions themselves.
Representatives of institutions that attend mediations can be experiencing their own trauma — eg disbelief, shame or anger that their beloved institution to which they may have given over their lives could be responsible for abhorrent crimes, fear that the monetary claims will bring financial ruin, and resentment that they are required to bear witness to the survivor’s story and to make the apology. The mediator can play a role by reassuring the representative, reiterating the importance of a heartfelt apology and preparing them if necessary for a negative response from the survivor. The apology is a critical part of the process; if it is not done properly the mediation can falter.
Given the now widespread recognition that some institutions were aware of the child sexual abuse, it is unhelpful for a representative to say “we didn’t know … if I had known …”. The survivor may react angrily to this, even when there is no suggestion that the representative was aware or involved in any way with the abuse or any cover up.