Information Sharing and Schools: Part 3 – Royal Commission Recommendations for Information Sharing and Child Safe Organisations

This is the third and final article in a three-part series on the expanding issue of information sharing and how it relates to a school’s systems. In this series, Kieran Seed and Lauren Osbich consider the past and future development of information sharing regimes, particularly in the context of child protection and how schools can gain a stronger understanding of their obligations.

In last week’s article, we discussed the current legislative framework across various states for information sharing and outlined the best practice Information Sharing Guidelines in South Australia. We also looked at the practical ways a school can implement information sharing within their state/territory, between other schools and child-related organisations, and across jurisdictional boundaries. Information sharing is constantly cropping up as part of legislative amendments and new obligations, most recently through the Victorian Data Sharing Bill 2017. That Bill, if passed, establishes the role of Chief Data Officer and promotes the sharing/use of public sector data. The Bill is one in a number of initiatives being put into place by state and territory governments with the aim of improving Australia’s data and information sharing regimes.

In the context of constant legislative change, this week’s article considers previous and potential future recommendations by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) and explores various avenues for providing child-safe information sharing, including Working with Children Checks (WWCCs), child-safe strategies, and following best practice for implementation.

A national Working with Children Check system

The Royal Commission has previously recommended that a national WWCC system be introduced to minimise inconsistencies between individual background checking schemes in each state and territory.  A standardised approach to background checks would reduce complexity and duplication, allow WWCCs to be portable across jurisdictions and eliminate the opportunity for forum shopping by potential perpetrators.

Specifically, the Royal Commission identified that a national approach to WWCCs would address problems with information sharing by providing for:

  • continuous monitoring of criminal histories across jurisdictions
  • visibility of WWCCs across all jurisdictions through a central database
  • standardised information during the assessment process, ensuring uniformity in assessment of disciplinary and misconduct information.

The Royal Commission has emphasised that in the absence of broader child protection policies/procedures, WWCCs do not ultimately make organisations ‘safe’ for children, as over-reliance on background checks may cause a false sense of security to the detriment of ongoing care obligations. This is because WWCCs and background checks only detect persons who have previously been reported or have a criminal history, meaning they can only provide context to a school’s ongoing child protection risk management.

Ultimately, a national WWCC system which promotes intra-organisational and inter-jurisdictional information sharing of criminal history and background checking information will only contribute to keeping students safe if schools use this system in the context of a broader child-safe strategy, using shared information to continuously assess whether children and young people are at risk of harm.

Information sharing through a child-safe strategy

Implementing a child-safe strategy effectively means integrating principles of appropriate leadership, governance and culture, and using WWCCs constructively in the context of a broader approach to induction and recruitment. It also requires that policies and procedures for identifying and responding to allegations and reports of child abuse are flexible and focused on cumulative elements of harm, in order to ensure that all ‘child safety information’ is shared by a school and accessible as required. These elements of a child-safe strategy are likely to form part of the Royal Commission’s final recommendations.

A child-safe strategy must also facilitate information sharing at all levels, and not just at the organisational/jurisdictional level. All individual stakeholders, including children and the community, need to be involved in the information sharing process. In fact, two of the key elements identified by the Royal Commission for creating a child-safe organisation were that children participate in decisions affecting them and are taken seriously, and that families/communities are informed and involved.

The concept of shared responsibility and awareness is at the core of the ‘Day for Daniel’, on Friday 27 October 2017. Schools seeking to facilitate internal information sharing should consult the Daniel Morcombe Foundation’s resources formulated specifically for school children, and by promoting their principles ‘Recognise, React, Report’ in their child-safe strategy.

Other recommendations – record keeping and complaints handling

The Royal Commission has also focused on information sharing in the context of record keeping and school complaints handling, again as part of an overall child-safe strategy.

As discussed in our previous article, the Royal Commission drew attention to the fact that there is ‘no single unified approach to record-keeping and archiving, embracing government and non-government sectors.’ The Commission proposed five child-safe record keeping principles including:

  1. Creating and keeping accurate records is in the best interest of children.
  2. Accurate records must be created about all decisions and incidents affecting child protection.
  3. Records relevant to child sexual abuse must be appropriately maintained.
  4. Records relevant to child sexual abuse must only be disposed of subject to law or policy.
  5. Individuals’ rights to access and amend records about them can only be restricted in accordance with law.

These principles suggest that records should be shared if schools, in their professional judgement feel that a child is at significant risk of harm, and timely and appropriate intervention is key when keeping children safe. It is also likely that there will be a recommendation for a duty to maintain adequate records in order to ensure that relevant information can be captured and shared between child-related organisations.

In a previous consultation paper on out-of-home care, the Royal Commission also commented that sharing information about complaints and investigations may assist organisations in understanding and responding to the needs of children. This suggests that there will likely be final recommendations concerning the kinds of information schools may/must share when they receive and respond to a child abuse complaint or allegation.

Lessons for schools and preparation for the Royal Commission Report

In preparation for the final recommendations of the Royal Commission, schools should have:

  • implemented a comprehensive Privacy Program, including understanding the extent of their privacy obligations and being aware of the various exceptions operating on their use and disclosure of personal information, and including provisions for obtaining the consent of children
  • developed their own information sharing guidelines, making sure these guidelines are integrated into a broader child-safe strategy
  • ensured that their internal information sharing guidelines include qualifications for timely, appropriate and collaborative information sharing, especially within school networks, and that they are flexible enough to respond to potential legislative change in relation to information sharing across jurisdictions.

About the Authors

Lauren Osbich is a Legal Research Consultant and School Governance reporter. She can be contacted here.

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

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