Child Safe Frameworks Get More Complicated Post Royal Commission: It’s Time to Take Action Now

Child Safe Framework

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) highlighted that, as well as the multiplicity of laws relating to child protection around Australia, historically there have been inadequate and inconsistent approaches to child safety in many organisations. In response to these inadequacies and inconsistencies, a number of state governments developed state-based standards or principles to improve the way organisations that provide services for children prevent and respond to child abuse and other harm. Key examples include the Victorian Child Safe Standards, the Queensland Child and Youth Risk Management Strategy requirements and the West Australian CCYP Child Safe Organisation Guidelines.

Since the release of the Royal Commission’s final report, there was hope for a more unified and perhaps national approach to child safety and child safe standards frameworks. This will most likely occur in the future, however, in the short term, the multitude of frameworks and standards/principles is only becoming more complex.

The Royal Commission Child Safe Standards

The Royal Commission released its Final Report in December 2017, consisting of 17 volumes and 409 recommendations. Of those 409 recommendations, approximately 40 are applicable to religious schools in Australia (the remainder are directed at governments and non-educational organisations).

The Australian Government and the government of each state and territory have accepted, or accepted in principle, the vast majority of the Royal Commission’s recommendations.

A key recommendation (Recommendation 6.4) is for all child-related ‘‘institutions’’ to implement a set of nationally-consistent Child Safe Standards as identified by the Royal Commission. There are 10 Royal Commission Child Safe Standards that represent the Royal Commission’s view as to best practice in child safe organisations in Australia. They are quite broad, to enable flexibility for institutions of varying sizes and natures, and centred on child sexual abuse, given the focus of the Royal Commission.

In addition to the recommendation setting out the Child Safe Standards themselves, the Royal Commission also recommended that the Child Safe Standards be mandatory for all institutions engaging in child-related work, embedded in state and territory legislation and that independent oversight bodies in each state and territory have responsibility for enforcing them.

With the exception of Victoria, every state and territory government has accepted the Royal Commission’s recommendation to adopt a set of nationally consistent, mandatory and enforceable child safe standards based on the Royal Commission’s Child Safe Standards. Victoria already has a robust standards regime in place and has stated that they will review this regime in light of the Royal Commission’s Child Safe Standards.

AHRC National Principles for Child Safe Organisations

The Royal Commission also recommended that the Commonwealth take a national leadership role by establishing a National Office for Child Safety, to drive national consistency in child safe institutions. The Australian Government accepted this recommendation and established the National Office for Child Safety, which commenced on 1 July 2018.

The Australian Government took the lead on responding to the recommendation for nationally consistent child safe standards by referring the Royal Commission’s Child Safe Standards to the National Commissioner for Children, who sits in the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). The AHRC was tasked with leading the development of draft National Principles for Child Safe Organisations. The resulting Principles (the AHRC National Principles) are based on the Royal Commission’s Child Safe Standards, as well as the work of Australia’s Children’s Commissioners and Guardians and the 2005 National Framework for Creating Child Safe Environments for Children. The AHRC National Principles will be presented to the Coalition of Australian Governments (COAG) for their endorsement. This is expected to occur in late 2018. After endorsement, the AHRC National Principles will become the national benchmark for consistent standards for child safe organisations.

The AHRC National Principles broaden the scope of the Royal Commission’s Child Safe Standards beyond ‘child sexual abuse’ and cover other forms of potential harm. The AHRC National Principles explanatory document provides high-level, rather than practical, details on how the AHRC National Principles can be implemented, since they are aimed at being flexible enough to apply to a very broad range of institutions.

Next Steps

Once the AHRC National Principles are endorsed by COAG it is likely that they will then be referred to the relevant state and territory governments, each of which will then either adopt the AHRC National Principles directly or publish their own sets of contextualised principles based on the AHRC National Principles. As the Royal Commission recommended (Recommendation 6.10) that an independent body in each state and territory monitor and enforce the Child Safe Standards and that this body be able to delegate this to sector regulators, it is likely that sector regulators in each state and territory will then issue more detailed statements in relation to how they expect child services organisations in their sector, such as schools, to comply with the AHRC National Principles.

So, we will go from a set of national Royal Commission Child Safe Standards, to national AHRC National Principles, which will be interpreted by each state and territory who will, most likely, produce their own branded or jurisdictionally-specific version of the AHRC National Principles to take into account various terminology and legal and regulatory frameworks already in effect in their jurisdictions. The process from adoption to implementation of a new standards framework process might be stretched out over a year or two, or, like in the case of the Victorian Child Safe Standards, it may happen in a matter of months.

Victoria introduced its own child safe standards regime as a direct result of a recommendation from the Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations – the ‘Betrayal of Trust’ Inquiry. The Inquiry’s final report was tabled at the end of 2013, the government responded mid-2014 and by the end of 2015 the Education Minister issued a Ministerial Order, making compliance with seven Victorian Child Safe Standards a registration requirement for all schools (government and non-government) and setting out direction as to what schools needed to do to evidence compliance. Schools had seven months (two of which were taken up by the summer school holidays) to prepare for compliance with the Victorian Child Safe Standards which revolutionised how Victorian schools approached child safety – at the end of the seven months they were asked to sign an attestation of compliance.

While the process of including any nationally consistent child safe standards in each state and territory’s regulatory regimes is likely to take some time, schools should start to prepare for this eventuality now. Schools can prepare for a similar regime in their own state or territory by starting to consider now how their school’s policies, procedures, practices and culture meet the AHRC National Principles (since these will be the likely benchmark) and identifying where there may be gaps. Schools should start to amend policies and procedures where required and commence the culture change process.

About the Author

Deborah de Fina is the Principal Consultant – Child Protection at CompliSpace. She can be contacted here.

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