At the February 2018 meeting of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), all states and territories committed to publicly respond to the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) in June 2018. Many of the recommendations aim to promote national consistency and cooperation in responses.
All jurisdictions provided a clear response to the Royal Commission within this timeframe, except for one prominent omission: Victoria. Uncharacteristically for Victoria, which has thus far been a frontrunner for the work of the Royal Commission and responsive to child safety issues, the official response was released nearly two weeks’ after the June deadline.
Victoria has been widely considered to have led the way in proactively implementing the Royal Commission’s recommendations - refer to our previous School Governance articles which have covered Victoria’s legal and regulatory reform.
Victoria’s Official Response
In a media release on 11 July 2018, the Victorian Government stated it had accepted in full or in principle the majority of the Royal Commission’s recommendations, and committed to reporting annually on its implementation progress for the next five years. The Department of Justice and Regulation’s website also states that the Victorian Government has responsibility for ensuring that the failures to protect children, resulting from Royal Commission findings of historical abuse within Victorian Government institutions, never happen again. It will also continuously improve Victoria's child protection systems, with the Royal Commission’s recommendations being instrumental in guiding its laws and practices for child protection and safety.
The Victorian Government also committed to working with other jurisdictions to implement over 50 recommendations that have been identified as requiring intergovernmental collaboration.
One Victorian initiative highlighted was establishing cultures across the community to give a voice to children and young people, empowering them to raise concerns while also ensuring an appropriate and effective response to any concerns raised.
Media reporting on the Victorian response has focused heavily on mandatory reporting obligations in the context of the seal of the confessional, which has been identified as requiring further consideration. As discussed in our previous School Governance article, the seal of the confessional is upheld under Victorian criminal laws through evidentiary exemptions. Victorian Attorney-General Martin Pakula stated that because of the privilege being upheld under Victorian law, a nationally consistent approach on the issue was desirable. This was despite other jurisdictions, such as South Australia and ACT, already taking action to restrict religious reporting privileges.
Victoria’s Previous Reform Areas
The delay in the release of the Victorian response to the Royal Commission's Final Report may be due to the ongoing development of its current child safety framework, with significant reform starting after the Betrayal of Trust Inquiry concluded in 13 November 2013. Victoria is also implementing the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Family Violence which delivered its report in 2016.
Victoria is still finalising its implementation of the recommendations of the Betrayal of Trust Inquiry, with previous activities including:
- three new criminal offences, for grooming that targets communication, failure to disclose sexual offences against a child, and failure to protect against risks of organisational child sexual abuse
- the introduction of the Victorian Child Safe Standards which are compulsory for all child service organisations, including schools.
Many of these responses by Victoria, in particular the introduction of the Child Safe Standards, were used as regulatory benchmarks by the Royal Commission. Future reforms by Victoria targeted at responding to the Royal Commission’s recommendations are hence likely to form an essential component of child protection reform nationally as jurisdictions look for guidance on the development of their child protection frameworks.
Victoria’s Perspective on the Child Safe Standards
Victoria has defined the response category ‘accepted in principle’ as where the Victorian Government supports the intent or merit of the recommendation, but does not necessarily support the method recommended for achieving the policy. A similar definition for this category has been used in other jurisdictions such as WA.
The Victorian Government accepted in principle the Royal Commission’s recommendation that all institutions meet its ten Child Safe Standards, but stated that Victoria already has its own mandatory Child Safe Standards in place. The Victorian Government stated that, to ensure its existing Standards remain strong, they will be reviewed in 2018–19. Adjustments to better align with the Royal Commission’s recommendations will be considered as part of that review.
A comparison of the Royal Commission and equivalent Victorian Child Safe Standards is given below. It is unclear how these similarities and differences will be accounted for in the Victorian review of its Child Standards.
Royal Commission Standard
|Standard 1: Child safety is embedded in institutional leadership, governance and culture||Standard 1: Strategies to embed an organisational culture of child safety||The Royal Commission Standard is broader and focuses on shared responsibility and understanding, while the Victorian approach centres on the importance of a child safe culture.|
|Standard 2: Children participate in decisions affecting them and are taken seriously||Standard 7: Strategies to promote child participation and empowerment|
|Standard 3: Families and communities are informed and involved||-||The importance of parental and community involvement is integrated across the Victorian Standards but is not a specific Standard.|
|Standard 4: Equity is upheld and diverse needs are taken into account||-||Cultural safety and diverse student needs are taken into account under Victorian Standard 2 but is not a specific Standard.|
|Standard 5: People working with children are suitable and supported||Standard 4: Screening, supervision, training and other human resource practices that reduce the risk of child abuse||The Royal Commission’s approach separates screening and suitability requirements from ongoing training and education.|
|Standard 6: Processes to respond to complaints of child sexual abuse are child focused||Standard 5: Procedures for responding to and reporting suspected child abuse||The Royal Commission’s approach takes a child-centric approach and focuses on integrating child safety into a complaints handling system rather than specifically focusing on reporting.|
|Standard 7: Staff are equipped with the knowledge, skills and awareness to keep children safe through continual education and training||Standard 4: Screening, supervision, training and other human resource practices that reduce the risk of child abuse||The Royal Commission’s approach separates screening and suitability requirements from ongoing training and education.|
|Standard 8: Physical and online environments minimise the opportunity for abuse to occur||Standard 6: Strategies to Identify and Reduce or Remove Risks of Child Abuse||The Royal Commission’s approach specifically focuses on the privacy and healthy development of children and draws particular attention to the risks of online environments.|
|Standard 9: Implementation of the Child Safe Standards is continuously reviewed and improved||-||Strategies under Victorian Standard 6 need to be periodically reviewed, and it is good practice to consider continuous improvement opportunities. The Royal Commission approach places greater focus on continuous improvement across all implementation.|
|Standard 10: Policies and procedures document how the institution is child safe.||Standard 2: A child safety policy or a statement of commitment to child safety
Standard 3: Developing a Child Safety Code of Conduct
How Should Schools Respond?
Of the eight recommendations which are specifically targeted at the school sector, the Victorian Government accepted seven in principle and noted that one is a matter for the Victorian Government. Victoria has previously supported schools through its PROTECT guidance developed in consultation with the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority (VRQA), and schools should anticipate further actions by the VRQA as part of the reform process, in particular with respect to registration requirements.
Now that all jurisdictions have officially responded to the Royal Commission, schools can expect ongoing interjurisdictional consultation on child protection reforms.
A core best practice step for a school in understanding the extent of their potential future child protection obligations is undertaking a gap analysis of their policies and procedures against the wording of the Royal Commission’s recommendations, using the official responses to forecast how their child safety frameworks may need to progressively change.