On 18 August, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) released a publication identifying the key elements for creating child safe institutions (the Report). The Report was based on a research study commissioned by the Royal Commission and conducted by the Social Policy Research Centre and the Parenting Research Centre: ‘Key Elements of Child Safe Organisations – Research Study’. The purpose of the research study was to obtain advice, opinion and consensus from a panel of 40 academics, children’s commissioners and guardians, as well as regulators and other child safe industry experts and practitioners on what should constitute key principles, elements and sub-elements of child safe organisations.
The Report is one of many interim reports produced by the Royal Commission on key topics ahead of the release of its final report to be delivered at the end of 2017. School Governance has reported on these interim reports as they have been released. The most recent report was on the working with children checks (WWCC) regime in Australia, in which the Royal Commission recommended a national WWCC scheme (see our article). The Report also advocates for a national system of child safe organisation requirements.
10 key elements for a child safe institution
The research study commissioned by the Royal Commissions originally focused on nine key elements of child safe organisations, however after reviewing the research study’s report, and additional comments from respondents, the Royal Commission decided on 10 key elements for its Report.
- Child safety is embedded in institutional leadership, governance and culture.
- Children participate in decisions affecting them and are taken seriously.
- Families and communities are informed and involved.
- Equity is promoted and diversity respected.
- People working with children are suitable and supported.
- Processes to respond to complaints of child sexual abuse are child focused.
- Staff are equipped with the knowledge, skills and awareness to keep children safe through continual education and training.
- Physical and online environments minimise the opportunity for abuse to occur.
- Implementation of child safe standards is continuously reviewed and improved.
- Policies and procedures document how the institution is child safe.
Key research findings
The research study explored the respondents’ views of the nine proposed elements of a child safe organisation identified by the Royal Commission. The research study aimed to assess the extent to which the proposed elements were relevant, reliable and achievable, and the comprehensiveness of the elements.
The research study defined these key terms as follows:
- Relevant: whether the element is a suitable indicator that an organisation is child safe;
- Reliable: whether the element is a consistent indicator of child safety across a range of organisations and over time; and
- Achievable: whether the element can be achieved by most organisations with the will to implement them.
More than 90% of respondents agreed that all of the final 10 elements were relevant, however only approximately 80% agreed the elements were reliable, and between 60% and 80% agreed that each of the elements was achievable.
Additionally, many respondents held concerns about achievability with respect to how the elements might be implemented, the associated costs (particularly for smaller, voluntary and community organisations) and the risks associated with implementation. Such risks included that implementing the elements could become a ‘tick-box’ compliance issue for some organisations and not lead to any genuine change or improvements in child safety. Also, there was a push for different terminology on the basis that entirely “child safe organisations” are unachievable and instead, for example, it should be phrased ‘child protective’.
There was a clear consensus with respect to the need for national, rather than State/Territory-based implementation of child safe elements and that the elements need to be mandatory standards for all child-related organisations (four-fifths of respondents agreed).
Unintended consequences of setting a high bar
An interesting aspect of the research study was the invitation for respondents to ponder unintended consequences of introducing these elements nationally. Five main unintended consequences were identified and rated by the respondents according to likelihood (likely, possible, unlikely) and severity (critical, moderate, negligible). They are as follows:
- The comprehensiveness of the elements may be overwhelming for some organisations and could undermine their compliance efforts;
- An inability to comply with all elements could dissuade organisations from implementing any of them;
- The burden of compliance could put the viability and/or services of some organisations at risk;
- Responsibility for child safety may fall to one individual rather than shared throughout the organisation; and
- Compliance could become a procedural ‘tick-box’ process, rather than creating genuine change.
The takeaway message: A call to action
The Royal Commission's announcement of the 10 key elements for creating a child safe institution is a significant event for schools across Australia. The Commission has stated that its final report, due at the end of next year, will include a more detailed explanation of the proposed child safe elements and the Royal Commission’s recommendations on how to implement them.
Non-government schools in Victoria, Queensland, WA and the ACT are currently required by legislation and/or regulation to implement some form of ‘child safe’ framework. However, other States and Territories should not sit back and wait for the Commission to submit its recommendations to their governments before taking action.
The Royal Commission has stated that it considered it timely to release the Report and research study to disseminate the proposed child safe elements so that institutions can continue to work to strengthen their child safe practices. Schools are being encouraged by the Royal Commission, state governments and regulators to be proactive about child protection in the school environment and, given the high bar set by the proposed 10 child safe elements, it would be wise for schools to start now.