National Child Protection Week (6-12 September) is celebrating 30 years, with the theme “Putting children first”. The main coordinator of the event, NAPCAN, is encouraging organisations to reflect on how the theme best resonates with them, which may mean promoting what organisations are doing right now to put children’s safety and wellbeing first, or thinking about where organisations need to focus their attention in the future.
The Victorian Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations (‘Betrayal of Trust’ Inquiry) and the Royal Commission into Institutional Reponses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) have largely contributed to shifting the focus from “compliance” to “cultural change” and with it, deepening the challenge for Australian schools to look beyond their documented policies in order to embed child safety into the everyday thinking of leaders, staff and volunteers.
In February 2019, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) endorsed the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations (National Principles) (based on the Royal Commission’s Child Safe Standards) as the national benchmark for child safe organisation standards. The National Principles are a set of standards aimed at implementing a child safe culture across all sectors providing services to children and young people to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children and young people across Australia. All states and territories have committed to making the National Principles mandatory for all child related organisations.
The National Principles are:
- Child safety and wellbeing is embedded in organisational leadership, governance and culture.
- Children and young people are informed about their rights, participate in decisions affecting them and are taken seriously.
- Families and communities are informed and involved in promoting child safety and wellbeing.
- Equity is upheld and diverse needs respected in policy and practice.
- People working with children and young people are suitable and supported to reflect child safety and wellbeing values in practice.
- Processes for complaints and concerns are child focused.
- Staff and volunteers are equipped with the knowledge, skills and awareness to keep children and young people safe through ongoing education and training.
- Physical and online environments promote safety and wellbeing while minimising the opportunity for children and young people to be harmed.
- Implementation of the national child safe principles is regularly reviewed and improved.
- Policies and procedures document how the organisation is safe for children and young people.
Update on the Implementation of the National Principles
Victoria introduced its own child safe standards regime as a direct result of a recommendation from the ‘Betrayal of Trust’ Inquiry. The Inquiry’s final report was tabled at the end of 2013, the Victorian Government responded in mid-2014 and in November 2015 and the Victorian Parliament passed the Child Wellbeing and Safety Amendment (Child Safe Standards) Bill 2015 (Vic) to introduce Child Safe Standards (Victorian Standards) into the Child Safety and Wellbeing Act 2005 (Vic).
This legislation outlines the minimum standards that child-related organisations must uphold in order to create child safe environments. By the end of 2015, the Education Minister issued Ministerial Order 870, making compliance with the seven Victorian 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.
Although the National Principles are not currently mandated under legislation in Victoria, a 2019 review by the Department of Health and Human Services recommended that the Victorian Standards be amended to directly align with the National Principles. The Victorian Government has endorsed this recommendation, and plans are underway to amend the Victorian Standards and the Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2005 (Vic). It is likely that Ministerial Order 870 will then also be amended to reflect the updated Victorian Standards.
The review recommended that organisations be given at least 12 months to transition to the updated Victorian Standards, and the Victorian Government endorsed this recommendation.
New South Wales
In response to the New South Wales Government’s commitment to implement the National Principles, in December 2018 the Office of the Children’s Guardian (NSW) commenced a public consultation process and released the Consultation Report in mid-2019. The proposal was to incorporate child safe standards that align with the National Principles into a regulatory framework for all child-related organisations, using existing regulators to enforce the Standards.
The Consultation Report stated that “it is likely that a Bill will be introduced into Parliament in late 2019 or early 2020 to establish the legislative framework for the new child safe scheme”. While the legislative framework for a child safe scheme in New South Wales has not occurred as planned, the NSW Child Safe Standards (NSW Standards) have themselves been released, and these align directly with the National Principles. On 25 June 2020 the Office of the Children’s Guardian released “A guide to the Child Safe Standards” to provide child-related organisation with a practical resource for implementing the NSW Standards.
This means that, for non-government schools, a requirement to comply with the NSW Standards is likely to become part of registration/re-registration in the near future. The timeframe for this, however, is unclear. The Consultation Report proposed that there would be an implementation timeframe that would be long enough to give organisations the opportunity and support to build organisational capacity, but not so long that there is no urgency or that momentum is lost.
In Queensland, under the Working with Children (Risk Management and Screening) Act 2000 (Qld), organisations regulated by the blue card system are legislatively required to develop, implement and maintain a child and youth risk management strategy. This strategy needs to address eight mandatory requirements and is designed to help to create a safe and supportive environment for children (and incorporate many of the same requirements as the National Principles) including:
- a statement of commitment to the safety and wellbeing of children and the protection of children from harm
- a code of conduct for interacting with children
- written procedures for recruiting, selecting, training and managing staff and volunteers
- policies and procedures for handling disclosures or suspicions of harm, including reporting guidelines
- a plan for managing breaches of the risk management strategy
- risk management plans for high risk activities and special events
- policies and procedures for managing compliance with the blue card system
- strategies for communication and support.
Blue Card Services has published the Child and Youth Risk Management Strategy Toolkit that contains detailed guidance that schools, and other ‘Blue Card organisations’, must consider when complying with the Child and Youth Risk Management Strategy requirements.
Queensland advised in its 2018 Annual Progress Report on implementing the Royal Commission’s recommendations that a model for implementing the Royal Commission’s Child Safe Standards across government and non-government institutions across Queensland was being developed. Queensland has also endorsed the National Principles, through COAG, so has accepted that the National Principles are the child safe standards which would underpin this work. Unfortunately, the 2019 Annual Progress Report has not yet been released, so it is unclear where this progress is up to.
In South Australia, under Chapter 8 of the Children and Young People (Safety) Act 2017 (SA) (Safety Act), state authorities and prescribed organisations that provide services or undertake activities that are child-related work (including non-government schools) are required to have in place appropriate policies and procedures to ensure child safe environments. These policies and procedures must comply with standards and principles issued from time to time by the Chief Executive in accordance with section 145. Organisations must also lodge a child safe environments compliance statement with the Department of Human Services that demonstrates that they meet the requirements to ensure child safe environments.
Pursuant to section 145(a) of the Safety Act, the Chief Executive, Department for Education and Child Development issued the “Child safe environments Principles of Good Practice” guidelines (Principles of Good Practice) which sets out seven principles designed to establish and maintain child safe environments, and largely reflect the National Principles.
In its 2019 Annual Progress Report on implementing the Royal Commission’s recommendations, South Australia advised that work was underway to amend the Principles of Good Practice to reflect the National Principles and to integrate the National Principles into South Australia’s existing regulatory and policy framework for implementation. It advised that work was underway to develop resources to support organisations who meet the Principles of Good Practice to transition to the National Principles.
In the Non-government Schools Registration Board Guidelines (Guidelines for re-registration of a non-government school) guidance for “Standard Five – Student Welfare”, it states that evidence of compliance with this Standard “will be demonstrated through the comprehensive implementation of a relevant child safe organisation framework benchmarked as best practice by a peak body”. The National Principles would certainly meet that definition.
In its Second Annual Progress Report and Action Plan 2020 for implementing the Royal Commission’s recommendations, Tasmania advised that it expected to finalise, by the end of 2020, a legislative framework for Child Safe Organisations that supported the intent of the National Principles and their implementation across government and non-government organisations.
In Western Australia all non-government schools are required to meet the Standards set out in the 15 WA Registration Standards and Requirements (WA Registration Standards) on a continuous basis. The WA Registration Standards are prescribed by section 159(1) of the School Education Act 1999 (WA). Standard 10 is about preventing and responding to child abuse and Standard 10.1 specifically requires that a school implements the National Principles.
The Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory
In October 2019, the ACT Government decided to regulate Child Safe Standards and conducted a public consultation process which closed in February 2020. In an August 2020 email update to subscribers, the ACT’s Chief Minister, Treasury and Economic Development made clear that the ACT’s Child Safe Standards would align directly with the National Principles and that the ACT Human Rights Commission would be appointed to oversee the ACT Child Safe Standards Scheme.
Although a Bill to introduce the Child Safe Standards Scheme, originally expected for late 2020, has been delayed (due to the COVID-19 pandemic), given that the ACT Government has committed to implementing the scheme, schools should start preparing for the change.
In the Northern Territory Government Initial Response to the Royal Commission, the NT Government accepted the Child Safe Standards recommendation and stated that “Community Services Ministers have agreed to adopt the National Child Safe Principles. Jurisdictions recognise flexibility in implementation will be required. Further legislative reform in this area is currently being considered in the Northern Territory as part of the development of a single Act to replace the Youth Justice Act and the Care and Protection of Children Act.” In its First Annual Progress Report on implementing the Royal Commission’s recommendations, the NT did not indicate what, if any, progress had been made in creating a child safe organisations regulatory framework that covers all child-related organisations in the NT. Further, while there has been some reform of the relevant Acts since the release of these reports, those reforms have not yet addressed implementing the National Principles. Unfortunately, the 2019 Annual Progress Report has not yet been released, so it remains unclear where this progress is up to.
What Should Schools Do?
While the process of implementing nationally-consistent child safe standards in each state and territory’s regulatory regimes is at different stages across the jurisdictions, 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 National Principles and identifying where there may be gaps.
In Part 2 of this series we look in more detail at National Principle 1 and what school leaders can do to create a child safe culture.
About the Authors
Deborah De Fina
Deborah recently completed five years working with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse where she assisted the Royal Commission to establish the Private Session process and subsequently managed its legal aspects. Prior to working with the Royal Commission, Deborah had her own successful consulting practice where she specialised in the statutory child protection system, legal issues facing children and vulnerable people, and legal aid. She also spent more than nine years at Legal Aid NSW, as a child protection solicitor, Senior Solicitor and then Solicitor in Charge, Child Protection. Deborah holds a Juris Doctorate from the Columbia University School of Law, a Master of International Affairs from the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and a Diploma in Law from Sydney University.
Karen is a Legal Research Consultant at CompliSpace. Karen recently completed three years working at the NSW Ombudsman and the Office of the Children’s Guardian as a Senior Investigator in employment related child protection. Karen also spent three years at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse as a Senior Legal and Policy Officer and was a key contributor to the “Redress and Civil Litigation” and “Criminal Justice” reports. Karen has worked as a commercial litigation lawyer both in the private and public sector and holds a bachelor’s degree in Arts/Law (Hons).