Former Teacher on Bail for Grooming Runs Children’s Sport Tournament
What Steps Can Sports Organisations Take to Uphold Child Safety?
The Office of the Children’s Guardian (OCG) has stated that online verification of a worker’s Working with Children Clearance (WWCC) is a critical component of the child protection safety net. According to the Report on the OCG’s Statutory Review of the Child Protection (Working with Children) Act 2012, such verification provides assurance that workers hold a clearance, or have such an application underway, and to alert employers to any change in the status of the clearance.
Despite the benefits, the OCG has found that many employers fail to comply with this requirement. In a recent report, inadequate verification may have contributed to a person charged with child abuse offences being able to work closely with children in a sports tournament.
Facts of the Case
Mr G, a former assistant principal, was a teacher at a NSW public school. It is claimed that he regularly interacted with one of his nine-year-old students on Facebook after school. In these online conversations, it was alleged that he:
- gave the student pet names such as “cutie”, “beautiful” and “ms naked”
- asked the student to meet him at a swimming pool and see a movie with him
- sent the student pictures of naked toddlers.
The student’s mother became aware of the conversations, and alerted Police. In a search conducted in late 2014, it was claimed that he had four other videos containing child abuse material on his home laptop.
In a statement of agreed facts, it was outlined that Mr G told Police he was trying to be “funny” when talking to the student on Facebook, and that the student and her young cousin also sent a number of posed pictures of themselves to Mr G.
In August 2016, Mr G was sentenced to one year in jail, after pleading guilty to child grooming and possessing child abuse material. Following an appeal, Mr G was released on bail.
Allegations have surfaced that Mr G, while out on bail, was able to run tennis tournaments which are open to “all age groups” using a fake name.
Responding to the allegations in a statement, Tennis NSW claimed to have only become aware of the situation after being contacted about the allegations, and that since becoming aware, the relevant association has suspended the individual from all activities.
Possible Scenarios Involved in the Case
On the facts presented and without assuming their accuracy, there are two hypothetical scenarios that may have resulted in Mr G being able to run the sports tournament:
1. Mr G was able to obtain a WWCC or commence an application using a fake name, despite being out on bail for a child sexual offence
In its statement, Tennis NSW commented that it remains a “continued frustration” that there are individuals who “attempt to skirt the rules in this manner”. This wording may suggest that the fake identity enabled Mr G to apply for a WWCC using fraudulent details in order to obtain a favourable criminal history report from the OCG.
However, given that criminal history checks require identity confirmation, it seems unlikely that Mr G would have been able to obtain a WWCC check unless he was able to unlawfully manufacture his own identity documentation.
2. Tennis NSW staff were not aware of, or erroneously diverted from, the child protection procedure in place which requires tennis coaches to produce a WWCC
According to the statement, Tennis NSW requires all members, officials, coaches and staff to hold WWCCs and Police checks. However, Tennis NSW’s Working with Children Check policy presents it as a club, centre or association-level responsibility to:
- identify the roles that require a WWCC
- notify existing workers and volunteers that they need to provide a WWCC
- register as an employer with the Office of the Children’s Guardian
- verify the status of each WWCC number, record the result and ensure all applications are up to date.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (the Royal Commission) discussed the child protection procedures of sports organisations in Volume 14 of its Final Report: Sport, recreation, arts, culture, community and hobby groups. In this Volume, the Royal Commission found that many sport and recreation institutions have limited or no record keeping and information sharing practices in place. One impact of this is that perpetrators may be able to continue their involvement with an institution. Tennis Australia was identified by the Royal Commission as an institution that has had difficulty with obtaining information from its affiliates; there had historically been no formal process in place for affiliates to provide key information to Tennis Australia on its central notifications register.
In context, it seems possible that the use of a fake identity enabled Mr G to run the tennis competition without a WWCC, by not being identified by the association as a person acting in a role that required a WWCC.
Possible Solutions to the Compliance Gap
Legislative Amendments and New Offences
The Child Protection (Working with Children) Amendment (Statutory Review) Act 2018 (NSW), which was assented to on 18 April, in part attempts to rectify the verification compliance gap identified by the OCG. Once it takes effect, it will introduce an additional offence for an employer who fails to obtain and verify a worker’s relevant details (including their WWCC clearance number) and to make a record of those details. Employers will be required to:
- verify the relevant details by confirming that those details accord with the details recorded in the working with children register
- update the record to ensure that the worker’s clearance has been renewed, no later than 5 working days after the expiry date for each clearance
- retain relevant records during the period in which the worker carries out their child-related work and for at least 7 years after the worker ceases child-related work for the employer.
The new offence will make it clearer to employers that they must verify an employee’s status using the online WWCC register rather than simply collecting the relevant details.
Refer to our previous School Governance article for more information on the new laws.
Compliance with Child Safe Principles
According to the OCG, the WWCC is part of a range of responses which are essential to effectively managing child safety risks; child-safe environments can be achieved by implementing child-safe practices and strategies.
The NSW Principles for Child-Safe Organisations (the Principles), released in September 2017, are a voluntary measurement of an organisation’s approach to child safety. Under Principle 4, it is stated that while WWCCs are important, organisations should use other pre-employment screening processes, including interviews and reference checks. Leaders in the organisation should also ensure that all staff and volunteers understand their obligations towards children.
Similar principles/standards exist in other jurisdictions in various forms (such as the Victorian Child Safe Standards). In the Royal Commission’s Final Report, it recommended that all sport and recreation institutions implement the Child Safe Standards, in order to progress towards a positive institutional culture focused on child safety.
By complying with the Principles and the Child Safe Standards, sports organisations will be well-positioned to share information effectively and train their staff on legal obligations and organisational policies, increasing the chance of compliant verification processes.
Introducing a Child Protection Compliance Culture
With the pace of regulatory change in child protection laws, in particular through the introduction of new and expanded duties and institutional offences, it is little wonder that child-related organisations are experiencing internal uncertainty and compliance fatigue. In this context, encouraging employees to follow child-safe practices is very difficult.
The best way for organisations to encourage compliance is by developing a child protection and safety compliance culture, reforming policies and procedures to focus on day-to-day child safety practices by employees. Tennis Australia is already taking steps to develop this culture, commenting that it has embarked on a program for safeguarding children, with the aim of increasing awareness across Australia of the importance of maintaining child-safe environments. It has also committed to delivering this message to all of its members.
Refer to our previous School Governance article for more information on the child protection measures being implemented in other sports associations.
As NSW and other jurisdictions prepare their official responses to the Royal Commission, sports and recreation organisations, as well as schools, should be positioning themselves to implement the Royal Commission’s recommendations, not only to avoid compliance gaps such as those presented here, but also to safeguard child safety.
About the Author
Kieran Seed is a Legal Research Consultant and School Governance reporter. He can be contacted here.