Latest Royal Commission Report on Child Sexual Abuse Risk: Is your school a high risk institution?

On 19 June 2017, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) released its latest research report considering why child sexual abuse occurs in institutions, entitled Assessing the different dimensions and degrees of child sexual abuse in institutions (the Report).  The research project was carried out by Professors Patrick Parkinson and Judy Cashmore of the University of Sydney, who were contracted by the Royal Commission to establish a means of differentiating between types of institutions in terms of the level of risk of child sexual abuse according to their characteristics and the services they provide.

The Report’s analysis assessed the differential risk of child sexual abuse across institution types (such as schools) and provider types (such as faith-based activities and services). The project sought to identify which institutions and activities constitute more risky environments for child sexual abuse than others by examining the four dimensions of risk on child sexual abuse in various child-related institutions and activities.

Dimensions of risk

The four dimensions of risk of child sexual abuse identified in the Report are:

  • Situational risk;
  • Vulnerability risk;
  • Propensity risk; and
  • Institutional risk.

The Report concludes by rating institutions and activities using their risk levels in all four dimensions to illustrate high, medium and low risk institutions. Where there is an elevated risk across all four dimensions of risk, the institution is by its nature and operation described as a ‘total institution’. This cumulative risk-based assessment is to be distinguished from a ‘total institution’ in the context of organisational culture (see our previous article on the report The role of organisational culture in child sexual abuse in institutional contexts).   Each of these four risks is discussed further in this article.

Risks according to the nature of the activity

Situational risk and vulnerability risk differentiate the particular risk of child sexual abuse associated with different kinds of activities, as they target the propensity and opportunity of a potential perpetrator to commit abuse.

Situational risk

Situational risk has two conceptual elements:

  1. opportunity to be alone with a child, which may facilitate and transition to unlawful behaviour; and
  2. opportunity to form relationships that could involve physical contact or emotional closeness, which may facilitate breaches of professional boundaries and abusive behaviour.

Situational risk is also affected by the physical facilities in which activities occur, organisational climate and the quality of child protection policies. Situational risks are classified as either modifiable or unmodifiable depending on the nature of the activity.

Unmodifiable risks include those which arise in activities that, by their very nature, tend to allow more opportunity for isolated time with a child and therefore cannot be modified (such as in foster care organisations). By contrast, modifiable risks are those in which the inherent situational risk can be mitigated through some effort.

The Report notes that there are very few institutional settings in which risks of child sexual abuse are inherently unmodifiable, as in most situations steps can be taken to reduce the risk.

Vulnerability risk

While all children and young people are vulnerable to child sexual abuse, some are more vulnerable than others. Vulnerability risks arise where an organisation is working with children who are at a greater risk of sexual abuse than others. The Report notes that children with greater vulnerability risk may be clustered in certain kinds of organisations or parts of the community.

A number of characteristics increase vulnerability risk and can be exploited by perpetrators, including intellectual and other disabilities, a background of family breakdown/dysfunction, prior maltreatment and individual motivations of the child to remain silent. However, the main factor affecting vulnerability risk is age; research shows that young children are less vulnerable to sexual abuse than upper primary and lower secondary school aged children.

Risks arising from the characteristics of the institution

Propensity risk and institutional risk differentiate the particular risk of child sexual abuse associated with institutions conducting activities with children because of their characteristics, culture and staffing profile.

Propensity risk

Propensity risk is the risk that there will be perpetrators of sexual abuse within the organisation, elevated by the clustering of those with a propensity to abuse children in a particular institution.

The main factor affecting propensity risk in a general school context is the gender distribution of the school’s staffing profile, as the Report identifies gender as the most significant issue in propensity risk. While some women sexually abuse children, a much greater majority of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are male. The implication of this is that schools with a predominantly male staffing profile have a greater risk of child sexual abuse than those with a predominantly female staffing profile.

The Report clarifies that this does not mean that institutions should be discouraged form having largely male staff, noting that the need for male role models should not be overshadowed by the minority of male perpetrators. However, institutions that have elevated vulnerability/situational risk profiles, and which have predominately male staff, will need to develop specific strategies to moderate that risk.

Institutional risk

Institutional risk stems from the characteristics and culture of an institution that may make abuse more likely to occur, or less likely to be properly dealt with. The Royal Commission has previously commented on key factors that elevate the institutional risk of child sexual abuse in child-related organisations in a number of its Reports and Research Projects (see 10 key elements for a child safe organisation).

The Report identifies that there are numerous factors that are relevant to the assessment of institutional risk, affecting the likelihood of abuse disclosure and an organisation’s willingness to act protectively if abuse is disclosed. Institutions with high institutional risk are those with a tendency towards inadequate protective responses and they often have the following characteristics:

  • a culture of not listening to or respecting children;
  • a strong ethos of group allegiance and close-knit relationships between employees;
  • an aura of respectability that makes it very difficult for others to believe disclosures;
  • deference to internal organisational rules, to the exclusion of external authorities;
  • inadequate internal disciplinary processes;
  • unclear expectations about staff-student relationships;
  • a culture that discourages complaints and minimises the significance of abuse;
  • greater importance being placed on protecting school reputation rather than protecting child wellbeing; and
  • invisible or unimplemented child protection and complaints policies.

See our previous article for more information on organisational culture.

What does this mean for schools?

The trend of child protection legislative reform across Australia has seen the concept of risk management become a significant element of a school’s response to the increasing array of child protection obligations that impact upon all aspects of the school. In our Briefing Paper based on the Victorian Child Safety Standard 6, we provide a practical guide to implementing child safety risk management strategies in school environments. Although that Paper was written for the Victorian legal context, its content is valuable for all schools in Australia.

The findings of the Report should influence risk assessments undertaken by schools in relation to child protection and upholding child safety and welfare. Ultimately, schools must take a proactive role in identifying and controlling risks to child safety as each school’s environment and culture is unique.

The key findings of the Report for schools are as follows:

  • Schools are in the highest risk category in terms of situational risk. Secondary school environments are a particular risk because they may provide greater opportunities for teachers to be alone with students or to form friendships.
  • Upper primary and secondary schools present a medium-level of vulnerability risk. There is a high risk where there are high levels of father-absent families and/or parents with mental illness or substance abuse.
  • All schools operating in low socioeconomic status areas present a particular vulnerability risk. Children in families living without one or both parents are disproportionately at risk of abuse and neglect, with such families more likely to be clustered in lower-income neighbourhoods.
  • Generally, all-boys’ schools have a greater percentage of male staff than co-ed or all-girls’ schools and therefore, in terms of situational, vulnerability and propensity risks, child sexual abuse risk in an all-boys’ school is significantly elevated.

In addition to child protection legislation requiring the implementation of risk management systems and strategies, the need to manage the risk of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts is well-documented in research and previous reports of the Royal Commission (such as Risk profiles for institutional child sexual abuse) and hence schools should already be aware of the importance of developing and implementing risk management strategies for their particular risk context.

As the Report notes, a child safe organisation will have sought to minimise risks to the extent that it is reasonably possible to do so. Most importantly, it is stated that an institution with a low situational risk “starves even the committed sex offender of opportunity” or facilitates their detection.

About the Author

Kieran Seed is a School Governance Reporter. He can be contacted here.

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