Jacquie Seemann and Sonya Parsons

Implications for education providers of the final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

Jacquie Seemann and Sonya Parsons

5 February 2018

Employment Contracts Employment Policies Work Health and Safety

On 15 December 2017, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse delivered its mammoth final report.  This was the culmination of the five year inquiry, during which the Commission heard from over 8,000 survivors of abuse.

The report is wide ranging in the scope of its recommendations for an array of parties including the State, Territory and Federal governments, religious and educational institutions.  Below is a broad summary of the most notable recommendations for educational institutions, considering the various themes running through the report.

Underlying the recommendations is a set of Child Safe Standards which direct organisations dealing with children to focus on child safety, to be child-focussed in terms of complaint handling and to ensure that people who work with children are fully qualified and appropriately trained.  Those Standards are set out in detail at the end of this article.  In New South Wales, similar ‘Principles for Child-Safe Organisations’ were endorsed by the NSW Children’s Guardian in September 2017.

Note that in the report the definition of ‘institution’ is very broad, and includes ‘services of any kind that provide the means through which adults have contact with children’, where the relationship is not familial.

The recommendations do not have the force of law, and the Federal government has established a taskforce to consider the report, advise on the recommendations and coordinate action.  The taskforce will run until at least June 2020, although the government anticipates responding to the report during 2018.

Given the suggestion in the report that, when child sexual abuse occurs, the onus should be on the institution to prove that it exercised its duty of care in doing everything it reasonably could to avoid the abused person becoming damaged, it is imperative for schools to be aware of the recommendations and to seriously consider their implementation.

Reporting

Institutions should have a clear, accessible and child-focused complaint handling policy and procedure that sets out how the institution should respond to complaints of child sexual abuse. It should cover:

  • making a complaint
  • responding to a complaint
  • investigating a complaint
  • providing support and assistance
  • achieving systemic improvements following a complaint.

Educational institutions should also have policies and procedures for managing complaints about children with harmful sexual behaviours.

Governance

Institutions should have a clear code of conduct that:

  • outlines behaviours towards children that the institution considers unacceptable, including concerning conduct, misconduct or criminal conduct
  • includes a specific requirement to report any concerns, breaches or suspected breaches of the code to a person responsible for handling complaints in the institution or to an external authority when required by law and/or the institution’s complaint handling policy
  • outlines the protections available to individuals who make complaints or reports in good faith to any institution engaging in child-related work.

Record keeping

Institutions should:

  • create and keep full and accurate records relevant to child safety and wellbeing, including child sexual abuse
  • keep records relating to child sexual abuse that occurred or is alleged to have occurred for up to 45 years
  • ensure that records created should be clear, objective and thorough. They should be created at the time of the incident and clearly show the details of the incident and the author
  • permit individuals whose childhoods are documented to have a right to access their records.

Information sharing

The Commission recommends that:

  • the COAG Education Council should consider sharing information about teachers including former names and aliases, and any allegations or instances of child sexual abuse
  • State and Territory governments should ensure that policies provide for the exchange of student information where a student moves schools, if the student may pose risks to other children due to harmful sexual behaviours or support needs due to sexual abuse.

Online Safety Education

The Commission recommends establishment of a nationally consistent curriculum for online safety education in schools, with training being provided to staff to help create safe online environments.

Minimum requirements for teachers

It is suggested that COAG consider strengthening teacher registration requirements to better protect children from sexual abuse in schools, including reviewing minimum national requirements for assessing the suitability of teachers and conducting disciplinary investigations.  The COAG Education Council noted in September 2017 that the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership was undertaking a national review of teacher registration.

Summary of the Child Safe Standards 

Standard 1 Child safety is embedded within the institution and is to become a shared responsibility between all members, including a requirement to implement risk management strategies which focus on preventing, identifying and mitigating risks, and obligations to disclose or share information.
Standard 2 Children are empowered, encouraged, and supported to express their views and methods are available for children to have access to sexual abuse prevention programs, aid, and information.
Standard 3 Families and communities are informed and involved in the institution and its governance, and their views are represented within the institution’s policies and practices.
Standard 4 Diverse needs are taken into account, institutions are to anticipate the children’s diversity in needs and circumstances and effectively respond to differing requirements. All children are to have access to information, support, and the complaints process.
Standard 5 The people who work with children are fully qualified and suitable for the role. All staff and volunteers receive an appropriate induction highlighting their child safe responsibilities, and their reporting obligations. Relevant staff and volunteers are to have ‘Working With Children Checks’.
Standard 6 The institution implements a child-focused complaint handling system which is accessible and understood by children, staff, volunteers, and families. The complaint system clearly outlines the policy, procedure, roles and responsibilities of each party, and all complaints are to be taken seriously and promptly.
Standard 7 Relevant staff and volunteers receive training on the nature and indicators of child maltreatment, and on the institution’s child safe practices and child protection policies
Standard 8 Risks in both the physical and online environments are identified and mitigated without compromising a child’s right to privacy and healthy development.
Standard 9 The institution regularly reviews and improves all child safe practices in accordance to the Child Safe Standards. All complaints are analysed to identify causes and systemic failures to inform continuous improvement.
Standard 10 All policies and procedures should address all Child Safe Standards, the policies are to be accessible and easily understood, and staff are actively implementing the policies and procedures

If you would like to read more about the reasons for the recommendations, particularly in relation to schools, Volume 13 of the report can be accessed here

If you would like to review your systems or develop new relevant policies and procedures, please contact:

Jacquie Seemann | Partner | +61 2 9020 5757 | jseemann@tglaw.com.au

Sonya Parsons | Partner | +61 2 8248 3409 | sparsons@tglaw.com.au