Sexual violence: The push to change 'messed up' ACC-funded therapy system for survivors

Warning: This story discusses sexual assault and may be triggering to some readers. 

Last week, the Green Party launched a petition calling on the Minister of ACC, Carmel Sepuloni, to remove the barriers around help for survivors of sexual assault or sexual violence. 

"ACC's sensitive claims system is broken," the party's Instagram post read. "Let's fix it, so that it helps, not harms." 

Currently, survivors must first find a therapist, which is no small feat amid the current lack of trained mental health professionals in New Zealand.

Once a survivor feels comfortable enough to disclose to the therapist that they are a victim of sexual violence or assault, they will then need to go through an "intrusive" assessment process, sometimes carried out by a third party, to prove their sexual assault caused them mental damage. 

Sexual assault survivor Laura Eustace, 26, says the process was "re-triggering". 

"When you're having to go into detail about the events that happened, it's always going to be re-triggering, it's not necessarily a headspace you want to go back to," Eustace tells Newshub. 

"You are having to really go into the details of what happened and what was going on at the time, how you felt after, all the effects that came from it. 

"When you open up about it, it's almost like picking a wound - you start picking at all the first pieces and then all of a sudden you are bleeding all over the place again and you've got to start that re-healing again."

Green Party list MP Jan Logie, who is fronting the petition, told Newshub changes to the ACC process are "long-overdue". 

"It often takes someone a long time to come forward to get the help and healing they need for sexual assault and sexual violence," Logie says. 

"The longer it takes people, the more the harm compounds. We really want to encourage people to come forward and get help as quickly as possible so that we reduce the harm of sexual violence."

Logie says although there is work to be done in order to prevent sexual violence in the first place, part of reducing the overall harm is creating accessible help for sexual assault survivors. 

"At the moment the ACC process is actively causing harm to many survivors.. We can do better and we need to do better."

The 'traumatic, offensive' assessment

The Green Party ideally wants survivors to not have to face a lengthy assessment to prove their sexual assault caused them mental harm. 

"There's two core reasons we want to get rid of the assessment - one of them is that it is very poor therapeutic practice," Logie says. 

She explains survivors supposedly get 14 free sessions with a counsellor before they have to go through an assessment. 

"If there is any significant issue that is identified in those sessions they have to work through, then those sessions get turned around into preparing people for this assessment process, rather than focusing on what is in front of them," Logie says. 

"This huge and precious resource in the mental health crisis is being spent helping people through a process, and that process is not their healing."

Logie says survivors have told her the process is "deeply traumatic", and even the mental health professionals that run the assessments find them "offensive".

"[The assessors] do it because they want a good person in there to be doing it. Everybody they have done an assessment on has disclosed sexual violence [to someone] and not been believed."

Logie says the thought of a survivor not being believed is a "huge barrier" for accessing help, and unfortunately a "very common reality for most survivors in this country". 

"They [the survivors] are being forced by ACC into a process of detailing every traumatic event in their life, not just the sexual assault, all for the purpose of ACC deciding whether they will accept or deny their claim of sexual violence - that's messed up."

For example, if a survivor disclosed to their assessor a violent incident happened in their childhood, it may be decided their trauma-related symptoms have stemmed from that rather than the sexual assault.

"I have heard of an experience when the [victim's] mother had experienced post-natal depression and apparently that had led to the trauma," Logie says. 

Logie believes the Government is spending millions of dollars on a process that does not work for sexual assault survivors. 

"The Government is spending $20 million per year on these assessments that actually have no therapeutic value. This is tens of thousands of hours of psychologists and psychiatrists time that has been tied up in causing harm rather than helping. There is zero logic there."

In an ideal world, the Greens want ACC to work with the victims, the specialised sexual violence sector and Māori, to design the proccess that will actually meet survivors needs. 

Logie says there may still be an assessment, but it would envision it being voluntary. 

"I have heard from survivors that they want to know if they have PTSD, because for some people a diagnosis is important for their healing. But that should be a voluntary process. Not something people are forced into, which is not done in a therapeutic way," she says. 

"The change is just so long overdue - now is the time. I feel more hopeful now than I have before."

'I wouldn't be here'

Eustace, who shared her story of her sexual assaults with Newshub in May, was able to successfully access ACC-funded therapy, and credits the service to saving her life.

It just so happened Eustace's trusted therapist is a clinical psychologist, and she was able to go through the assessment process without having to involve a third party -  but she knows not every survivor gets this privilege. 

"The therapy is incredible. If I didn't have it I know I wouldn't be here," Eustace tells Newshub. 

"I think what ACC has done in terms of helping me get through that has changed my life. I wish more survivors could access it."

At the time of talking, Eustace has been able to have funded therapy sessions for four years, which she estimates would have cost her around $40,000 if she did not have help from ACC.

ACC also provides a whole range of different therapies to try, not just your standard counselling session. So far, Eustace has tried dance-yoga therapy, and has been offered day retreats, group therapy, art sessions and breath work.  

"Everything that is done is trauma-informed, so you have trauma-informed teachers that take you through whatever type of therapy you are trying," she says. 

ACC's Acting Chief Operating Officer, Gabrielle O’Connor, says the organisation is "continuously looking to improve the client experience".

 "Since the implementation of the current process in 2014, new claims have increased by an average of 20 percent each year. We’ve also more than doubled the number of providers from 719 to 2088 individual providers, and we continue to seek more."

ACC sensitive claims and survivors' privacy

Last month, it emerged an Auckland man left disabled by an accident discovered dozens of ACC staff had accessed an old sensitive claim he opened for childhood sexual abuse. It had been accessed hundreds of times since he closed the claim.

Not long after, RNZ revealed ACC call centre workers had shared details of people's injuries and mocked them on the application Snapchat.

The group of more than a dozen employees took photos of clients' injury descriptions displayed on their work screens and posted the images to a private Snapchat group called 'ACC Whores'.

Logie says survivors have told her of their "pain and fear" after these details came to light. 

"I've been hearing from survivors and people supporting them - the pain, and the fear and the hurt from these disclosures are real. I'm very pleased there's going to be an independent investigation, because clearly ACC is not recognising how important this is for sensitive claims survivors," she says. 

"We need them to be working with people and listening to people, not putting the priorities of the organisation and the corporate culture ahead of the wellbeing of people."

Eustace was appalled at the lack of security established by ACC, and questioned why sensitive claims were not password protected. 

"It is a huge violation of privacy. It took me so long to admit my sexual assaults to somebody, let alone people opening up to an assessor in the degree they're having to even obtain ACC-funded therapy - that's just not on."

"If someone saw it that wasn't supposed to, like the perpetrator, that is dangerous. That's the thing that really scares me - if it got into the wrong hands, who knows what could happen?"

ACC announced they will be launching an independent investigation surrounding the incident. 

Logie wants survivors who are struggling to access help, or may have been spooked by the current controversy about ACC to hold the course, and prioritise finding a therapist.  

"In the meantime, we will keep doing everything we can to get this changed," she says. 

Where to find help and support: 

  • Shine (domestic violence) - 0508 744 633
  • Women's Refuge - 0800 733 843 (0800 REFUGE)
  • Need to Talk? - Call or text 1737
  • What's Up - 0800 WHATS UP (0800 942 8787)
  • Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
  • Youthline - 0800 376 633, text 234, email or online chat
  • Samaritans - 0800 726 666
  • Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
  • Shakti Community Council - 0800 742 584