Interview with ACSL Board Member Dr Robyn Miller
Tuesday, 24 August 2021
Melbourne-based Board Member Dr Robyn Miller is an expert clinical practitioner in the field of sexual assault support, child protection and out of home care. Having served as the former Chief Practitioner within the Department of Human Services in Victoria, Robyn was invited as an expert consultant during the Royal Commission, providing advice in the area of child protection and out of home care. Currently CEO of Mackillop Family Services, Robyn brings her expertise in trauma-informed and therapeutic approaches to safeguarding and complaints response to her role on the ACSL Board.
What has drawn you to this role on the ACSL Board?
I was strongly motivated to join the Board of CPSL and then ACSL because of the chance to make a difference in a positive way and be part of the solution. I wanted to be part of responding constructively to the findings of the Royal Commission. I have always known of the really good work the Church has done in many social work contexts, in education, in health and across the board, and the importance of the dominant culture being one of care for children.
However, the immense damage that was caused through malpractice and abuse that happened in the Church – and the fact that this was not responded to well at all – the ‘catastrophic failure’ as it was described, stands along side this.
It’s so important to actually do something about that, to honour the good work that has happened in the Church and at the same time not minimise the learnings from the Royal Commission in any way. So for me, my motivation to be part of ACSL was a combination of being committed to that notion of ‘we are the Church and it’s up to us to be part of the reform’, and making things as they should be, walking the talk. Those gospel values are really strong - how do we walk them in practice? For me it was always about bringing whatever skills and experience I have to making a difference.
What type of work background do you come from? What are the skills and experiences that you bring to the Board?
I trained in social work, psychology and in family therapy and I have specialised in the area of trauma, particularly sexual assault and family violence. I have worked as a therapist and practitioner for over 35 years and have also been engaged in teaching and consulting. My experience has taught me of the devastating impact of child sexual abuse, an impact that can last a lifetime for some. Whilst we know that most sexual abuse occurs within the family, the horror of sexual abuse that happens within institutions is often even at a different level: in cases where out of home care has been provided, the state has seen fit to remove children because of the harm done to them in their family, so it is even more horrific then that the poor child is abused whilst in state care or in the care of people that they are meant to be able to trust.
I spent 14 years as a teacher and therapist at Bouverie Family Therapy Centre part of La Trobe University and was part of a specialist team that worked with victims of sexual abuse and also with offenders. Having seen so close up the grooming, manipulation and the damage done by offenders, I am passionate about institutions needing the right systems and protections in place to create an arena of safety. We can’t be naïve.
In 2006 I began in the Department of Human Services as the Chief Practitioner across out of Home Care, Family services and Child protection and I stayed in that role for nearly nine years. That was part of a real reform journey that was bringing in more trauma-informed approaches to the way that we cared for children, particularly those who have been abused or neglected and bringing a more therapeutic approach to out of home care. Because of this role I was asked to go to work at the Royal Commission in 2015-16 as a consultant to the commissioners about contemporary practice and particularly about practice of children in out of home care and child protection.
I have been passionate about this work and so going into the Royal Commission it felt like at last the big end of town were taking notice – at last the research and the evidence was being put together and people’s stories were being told in a way that was more powerful than ever before.
For the past five years I’ve served as CEO of Mackillop Family Services which delivers out of home care, residential care, foster care. It’s incredibly serious for me in terms of the passion it takes to do that well and to ensure that children are safe at night and that we have scrupulous mechanisms for screening careers and supervising staff properly and dealing with any complaints. What I’m passionate about is using the learnings from the Royal Commission and research and translating that into contemporary practice.
The work of ACSL is actually supporting organisations to do the right thing – it’s not about being a regulatory body or just providing an auditing function – it’s also about providing training and support, which people are crying out for.
Any there any overarching principles that inform your approach to your work on the Board of ACSL?
I think that a commitment to human rights and best practice really guide my approach to my work on the Board. There are basic human rights that need to be respected. The National Principles for Child Safe Organisations and the National Catholic Safeguarding Standards that ACSL has developed are very sound, and are something we should all be enacting. The Standards are very strong and absolutely guide my approach.
Is there a particular perspective that you are hoping to bring to the governance of ACSL?
My strong experience is around practice and working with victims, non-offending parents and also offenders. I’ve also had considerable experience in managing investigations and reviews or practice where things have gone wrong. This ground up experience in both support services and therapeutic work with victim-survivors of sexual abuse and also in therapeutic work with sex offenders has been very instructive in understanding impact of course on children and the impact of that trauma on the whole community. I’ve previously worked as a consultant with difference church bodies from a range of different denominations, including Catholic congregations, looking at the impact of the abuse on their community and helping in reparation and helping in that healing work. What we know is that trauma fragments the individual sense of self, and memory but it also fragments families and communities. So the healing has to happen through connection and bearing witness to those that have been harmed.
Are there particular achievements or milestones that you are anticipating for ACSL to reach over the coming years?
I’m looking forward to growing engagement with Catholic communities and parishes and dioceses, and for Catholic communities to increasingly feel empowered and confident that they are doing the right thing and that they have the right policies, procedures and practice in place. Overwhelmingly, good people in parishes and communities want to do the right thing. I see the role of ACSL as empowering, supporting and providing accountability to Catholic communities so that we’re walking our talk.
I think it’s important that the training continues, that the sharing of experience and building communities of practice evolves – and safeguarding education and practice generally continues to grow.
What are the challenges you see ahead for ACSL? Do you have an insight on how we might work to approach and overcome those challenges?
I think the biggest challenge is to continue to support Catholic entities to remain open and committed to the growth that we’re called to do from the learnings of the Royal Commission, so that we don’t think ‘oh it’s over now, we can go back to normal’ – there is a challenge there to really learn how the wrongs of the past actually happened. To understand how the needs and suffering of children and families become secondary to the misguided desire to ‘protect’ the reputation of the church. The challenge is to have the courage to embrace the changes that we need to and for ACSL to remain clear about what needs to be in place, and support communities to put these mechanisms in place.
I think this is complex and it always has been but it’s about the abuse of power, privilege and position being understood for simply what it is. ACSL needs to be part of the evolving conversation in the community on the misuse of power. ACSL has the important role of strengthening the Church’s integrity going forward – to act justly, to love tenderly with a spirit of humility – honouring the least powerful, those children and adults who have been hurt, and promoting the rights of all to be safe.