Susan Kendall AM, Social Worker and International Mentor

bw-8The community has the eyes and the ears that can keep women and children safe.

Susan Kendall has accumulated over 45 years of experience in the field of social work, including more than 25 years spent working in sexual assault services. Her depth of knowledge and practical experience cover a vast range of situations.

In 1972, Susan became one of the first members of the Child Abuse Team at Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children in Sydney, now known as The Children’s Hospital at Westmead. She acted as Liaison between the hospital and Elsie’s Women’s Refuge, helping to establish the first official refuge in Glebe. She also worked in the first integrated service for children with disabilities.

From 1989, Susan worked at the Northern Sydney Sexual Assault Service for 24 years, including 15 as Coordinator and seven years as a part-time counsellor. She resigned in January 2014. This work involved providing crisis and longer-term counselling for victims, as well as advocacy, liaison and referral to appropriate medical, legal and social services. She also ensured that medical/forensic examiners documented injuries correctly in order to provide the strongest possible evidence for prosecution purposes.

Since 2000, Susan has been working in Timor Leste, travelling there three times a year for two months each trip. Timor Leste is the poorest country in the Asia-Pacific region, so resources are scarce, particularly in remote areas. Susan is a founding member of PRADET, a psychosocial service for people who have experienced trauma from sexual assault, trafficking, domestic violence, mental illness, child abuse or imprisonment.  Central to Susan’s work is the Fatin Hakmatek program (meaning ‘quiet place’ in Tetum), offering facilities including emergency sleeping rooms for victims and their children at Dili National Hospital and three district hospitals, with plans to extend to other remote hospitals. These victims are referred on to other services that provide protection (such as police and child protection officers), long-term refuge, legal support, financial support and assistance with reintegration. Where possible, an individual is assessed by multiple services in one location. A comprehensive data base is maintained.

As well as providing a safe haven, direct counselling services and group work, PRADET also advocates to strengthen the human rights of their clients with both government and community by developing referral pathways to enable access to services, and by promoting legal reform. This is achieved by delivering  culturally sensitive community education and training, working together with school teachers and students, village chiefs, women’s and youth organisations, health workers, the police, and the media, to ensure that sexual abuse, child abuse, domestic violence and human trafficking are all recognised as criminal offences. PRADET also provides comprehensive community education programs, which are co-facilitated with community police, addressing the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs, and the causes, nature and impact of trauma and mental illness, with strategies to respond.

One of Susan’s key initiatives was to produce a tri-lingual Medical Forensic Protocol (Tetum / English / Portuguese) to document each victim’s testimony, including details of physical injuries as well as the emotional impact of domestic violence, sexual assault or child abuse. This is the same protocol for adults and children, females and males. Susan has been involved in training East Timorese midwives who are responsible for the forensic examinations and documentation, this documentation very often being the main evidence used by a prosecutor in any court case that eventuates. Susan has thus ensured stronger and more sensitive protection for victims as well as a greater likelihood of justice. The midwives are also available to provide counselling and follow-up care.

International research estimates that 80% of women who are referred to psychiatric hospitals for the treatment of mental illness have been sexually abused as children and are more likely to experience domestic violence as adults unless the problem is addressed.

Working in Timor Leste has strengthened Susan’s belief in the power of informed communities. Unlike the more siloed approach to mental health, sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse in her Sydney work, Susan finds that her overseas experiences are providing her with the opportunity to foster meaningful collaboration between a range of services, enabling her to approach each person’s situation holistically, offering the prospect of safety and justice.  She finds that people can and do overcome the barriers and challenges that confront them, with appropriate care and resources.


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