Q&A with expert Deborah de Fina, Principal Consultant - Child Protection at CompliSpace

07 March 2019

DebPrior to joining CompliSpace, Deborah completed five years working with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse where she assisted the Royal Commission to establish and manage the legal aspects of the Private Sessions process.

Through Private Sessions, the Royal Commission spoke with more than 8000 survivors of child sexual abuse. Deborah managed and championed the process by which Private Sessions information was embedded throughout the Royal Commission’s work in determining and shaping public hearings, in informing the policies and recommendations of the Interim and Final Reports, and in providing examples and narratives for the Final Report.

Prior to working at 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.

Parisa Haider, a Legal Research Intern at CompliSpace, sat down with Deborah de Fina to ask her some questions about the current national landscape in relation to the child-safe standards that affect or are about to affect non-government schools and in particular Catholic non-government schools.  

Parisa: Deborah, what are the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations?

Deborah: The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission), which ended in 2017, made recommendations that there be some national standards developed for child safe organisations and that it be mandatory for child-related organisations to comply with these standards. The Royal Commission also recommended that the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) endorse the national standards. Every Australian government (i.e. all state and territory governments) agreed with these recommendations, with some limitations.

The Australian Government instructed the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) to come up with these standards, based on the Royal Commission’s very specific recommendations about what they should include. As a result, the AHRC developed the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations (National Principles). The National Principles go beyond the Royal Commission’s recommendations to address safety with respect to all forms of harm to children, as the Royal Commission’s recommendations resulted from its focus on preventing child sexual abuse. The National Principles were developed in consultation with relevant government bodies from all jurisdictions in Australia, relevant stakeholders, and Children’s Commissioners/Children’s Guardians.

The AHRC initially released a consultation version of the National Principles, on which it conducted its extensive consultations, and then a resulting final version for COAG endorsement. This endorsement process took a lot of time, primarily due to factors such as changes in Prime Minister and other governmental changes that affected COAG’s meeting times and agendas.

COAG finally endorsed the National Principles on 19 February 2019. As a result, all state and territory governments will now need to take those National Principles back to their own jurisdictions and consider how to implement them.

Parisa: What are the National Catholic Safeguarding Standards?

Deborah: The National Catholic Safeguarding Standards (NCSS) are the Catholic Church’s response to the Royal Commission’s recommendations for child safe standards. These were developed by Catholic Professional Standards Limited (CPSL). Catholic organisations were some of the many stakeholders that were consulted by the AHRC in the preparation of the National Principles.

CPSL initially produced a consultation draft of the NCSS which was incredibly detailed, with a large number of Criteria and Indicators (evidence that the NCSS were being met by the organisation) and obligations. The CPSL consulted widely on this draft; this resulted in the most recent version of the NCSS dated November 2018 and released in late February 2019.

The NCSS are based on the National Principles and apply them to the context of the Catholic Church and Catholic organisations. The NCSS set out 10 Child Safeguarding Standards which apply to all Catholic organisations. These Safeguarding Standards follow exactly the National Principles, with the occasional change in language to tailor them to Catholic settings.

The most recent version of the NCSS is a much a simpler document than the original. It sets out the Safeguarding Standards, together with specific Criteria for each Safeguarding Standard that CPSL considers are the critical elements within an organisation that contribute to the organisation meeting that Safeguarding Standard.

CPSL has also published additional resources providing advice on how organisations can demonstrate compliance with the Criteria for various Safeguarding Standards. Not all Indicators apply to all Catholic organisations. The NCSS classifies Catholic organisations into three categories:

1. Category one – Working with Children. These are organisations where the activities/ministries work (whether through paid or unpaid personnel) with children. These are organisations engaged in activities and/or ministries where contact with children would be reasonably expected as part of the activity (and not incidental). These include schools, parishes/churches which run children’s liturgies, playgroups, parent support groups, children’s clubs, camps and sporting activities, and youth ministries.

2. Category two – Contact with Children. These are organisations where the activities/ministries may come into contact with children that is incidental to the work. These include bodies that provide services to adults but where children may be present, such as home visiting services and aged care services. This category also applies to organisations that do not have responsibility for activities that work or have contact with children, but where there is a history of child sexual abuse complaints against them, or they are currently managing claims of historical child sexual abuse.

3. Category three – No Contact with Children. These are organisations that do not work with children at all. These include organisations such as Catholic Church Insurance. These organisations still need to meet some of the Indicators and need to be aware of, and apply, all the Safeguarding Standards.

The most recent version of the NCSS is still not the official version, having not yet been signed off by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. Around the same time that the AHRC principles were endorsed, CPSL released what they are calling their ‘final’ version of the NCSS. Although it is likely that this version will not change much at all once it is signed off, CPSL is discussing particular aspects with the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and with Catholic Religious Australia, two peak organisations for Catholics bodies. They are tweaking the details of a few of the Indicators in very specific circumstances.

Parisa: So, there won’t be any substantial changes to this ‘final version’ of the NCSS?

Deborah: It is unlikely that there would be further substantial changes to the NCSS, other than a couple of words here and there with respect to very specific circumstances. CPSL released this version of the NCSS because it knows that all the relevant organisations are going to need to start getting ready to comply with the NCSS sooner rather than later. CPSL wanted to release them now, along with a lot of guidance, to give everybody time to understand them and ascertain how they are going to meet them. The reason that this is very important is because CPSL will be auditing all Catholic organisations against the NCSS, their Criteria and the Indicators.

Parisa: What do these principles and standards mean for each Australian jurisdiction?

Deborah: Across Australia, there is really only one jurisdiction that already has mandatory child safe organisation principles that all child-related organisations within that jurisdiction have to comply with, and that is Victoria. Other jurisdictions vary, with some having no such principles, others having guiding principles that are not mandatory, and others incorporating similar principles into registration requirements for schools and other bodies.

For each jurisdiction, there is going to be a different level of activity to make it mandatory for child-related organisations within that jurisdiction to comply with the National Principles. The National Principles will, however, become the benchmark for child safe organisations within every jurisdiction.

Even though every jurisdiction in Australia agreed with the Royal Commission’s recommendations that its national child-safe standards (which have now effectively become the National Principles) would become mandatory, embedded within legislation and monitored within each jurisdiction, it will take time for the different jurisdictions to determine how to do this and for this to actually eventuate. While this essentially already happens in Victoria, even Victoria will be reviewing its mandatory child safe standards regime in light of the National Principles and its regime is likely to be amended somewhat in the future to accommodate the National Principles.

Parisa: Which jurisdictions do you think will require the most change to effectively implement the National Principles/NCSS?

Deborah: I think that New South Wales will require a lot of effort. This is because NSW does not currently have any mandatory requirements for child safe organisations akin to the National Principles. That said, NSW is still ahead of the game with respect to some of the other areas of the Royal Commission recommendations, such as reportable conduct and information sharing. Nonetheless, in relation to child safe organisation standards, certainly most schools in NSW would not have seen anything like this.

Parisa: Now that we know what these changes mean at a jurisdictional level, how do you think these changes will affect Catholic schools and other Catholic organisations?

Deborah: Catholic organisations will have to meet the NCSS including all of the Criteria and Indicators that are relevant to their organisation, as well as – eventually - the National Principles as implemented in the states and territories in which the organisation operates. How they will have to do that will depend on how the National Principles are implemented and monitored in their respective jurisdiction.

Even without the National Principles yet being mandatory in most jurisdictions, the NCSS will still need to be met sooner rather than later. Many of the Catholic organisations across all Australian jurisdictions, including churches, youth ministries, aged-care facilities, Church run camps and playgroups, and Catholic-run hospitals will not have seen anything like these principles and standards.

Parisa: So, it’s essentially an additional requirement for Catholic organisations?

Deborah: Yes-it is another requirement for them, over and above what they currently have to do to meet any jurisdictional requirements and what they will eventually have to do to meet jurisdictional implementation of the National Principles.

CPSL was very mindful to ensure that the 10 Safeguarding Standards were essentially the same as the 10 National Principles. CPSL has taken as much as it can from the National Principles, such as the language used in the National Principles themselves. This means there will be a lot of overlap between the two in relation to how compliance is demonstrated.

If organisations can demonstrate compliance with the Safeguarding Standards, they can probably demonstrate compliance with the National Principles. Nonetheless, this will depend on how each jurisdiction decides to implement the National Principles.

To assist Catholic organisations, CPSL has very helpfully created two tables, which can be found on its website, that map the NCSS against the National Principles and against current child safe organisation requirements/recommendations for each state and territory.

Parisa: It seems like a lot will be changing in the near future. Is there anything else that you think is important to note?

Deborah: An important thing to note is the auditing process I mentioned earlier. CPSL is setting a three-year audit plan to audit those Catholic organisations that are members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Catholic Religious Australia and the Association of Ministerial PJPs– the member organisations of these bodies are all considered “Catholic Authorities”.

Every Catholic Authority in Australia, such as the heads of the dioceses and Religious Orders, will need to sign a Service Agreement with CPSL to commence the audit process for that Catholic Authority.

While it is the Catholic Authority as a whole that will be audited, each underlying entity within the Catholic Authority (for example the parishes, the Catholic Education Office, Youth Ministry, CatholicCare and other entities that operate under the governance of a diocese) will need to conduct a self-assessment of their compliance with the NCSS and provide this information to the head of their Authority, so that it can be provided to CPSL for the audit. A subset (25 per cent) of all the ‘sites’ within the Catholic Authority as a whole will then be visited by CPSL as part of the audit process.

Signing the Service Agreement does not mean that the organisation will be audited immediately. Rather, when the agreement is signed, CPSL will formulate a plan with the Authority as to when the audit will happen. This will give organisations a date to work towards. Some Catholic Authorities have already signed Service Agreements and have volunteered to be audited in the next few months.

It is very important to note that the results of the audits of each Catholic Authority will be made public. To ensure that these do not result in a public relations nightmare for both individual organisations and for the Catholic Church as a whole, it is very important for Catholic organisations to start work now to bring their policies, procedures and practices into line with the requirements of the NCSS.

Parisa: In light of all these vast changes, how do you think that schools should take action?

Deborah: Catholic schools, and indeed other Catholic organisations, will have to meet the NCSS as soon as possible. Moreover, all child-related organisations in each jurisdiction will have to eventually meet similar standards that are introduced in their respective jurisdictions under the National Principles.

The key is cultural change. In order to attain that cultural change, there are several things that non-government schools should do:

1. All schools should have child safe policies and procedures in place that will meet the requirements of the NCSS and/or the National Principles, to demonstrate how the school is expected to operate in way that is child-safe.

2. Training is also a huge aspect of how to address this change. Schools should get everyone up-to-date in relation to what they have to do to meet the child safe policies and procedures which in turn will create cultural change within the school to enable it to operate in a child safe manner.

3. Schools should also focus on assurance: ensuring that their staff are in fact doing what the child safe policies and procedures say and what they have been trained to do. The NCSS , and I’m sure eventually the jurisdictional versions of the National Principles, require a system of reporting up within organisations, to allow the organisation to report to the relevant regulatory body, such as the CPSL for Catholic organisations, and demonstrate that they have done what they said they would do.

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CompliSpace is an Australian company that helps over 600 non-government schools across Australia with their governance, risk, compliance and policy management. What makes us different is that we monitor over 200 sources of legal and regulatory change to ensure our clients have the updated policies and tools they need to meet new requirements. We share that knowledge with the broader Education community via School Governance.