Working with Children checks is not enough

Preventing child sexual abuse really is everyone's responsibility. It's not just a platitude - keeping children safe from sexual abuse really is everyone's responsibility. Relying only on Working with Children checks is wiping our hands clean of responsibility. A whole-of-organisational approach is needed to create a culture of child safety.

Working with Children checks of volunteers and employees screen out people with previous charges who are clearly unsuitable to work with children. But "suitability" checks have serious limitations: they focus on past behaviours and transgressions. They don't capture the sordid abuse and grooming of children that occurs in private and in secret, nor the many instances of suspected abuse that are typically not reported to external authorities.

These checks should not be the only step in protecting children. Further steps must be taken to strengthen a culture of safety.

Child-facing organisations need to actively build a child-safe environment. They need to offer staff written policies and a code of conduct that state very clearly what behaviour is acceptable and unacceptable. These documents need to encourage adults and children to report any breaches of those codes.

The workplace needs to be supported by frank conversations about how to talk about inappropriate behaviour including sexual, physical, psychological, and emotional abuse, and how to respond. Encouraging open discussions empowers all adults to play an active part in protecting children.

Leaders need to lead and take responsibility for this kind of change. They must drive a process for identifying activities that might be higher risk. These risks include low supervision of adult-child interactions, using adults as role models or mentors for young people, or opportunities for misusing social media.

Another step is to review any child-facing organisation through the lens of a situational crime prevention strategy. This strategy focuses on the factors that enable child sexual abuse to occur in organisations rather than just 'weeding out' potential offenders. It fosters an organisational culture where all adults take an active role in identifying and responding to risks to children's safety and counters the risk of child sexual abuse in the following ways:

  • increasing the level of difficulty for someone to offend, e.g. adults are visible at all times when tending to children, no phones/devices allowed in areas where children are most vulnerable
  • reducing the appeal of the crime, e.g. making it harder to connect with others to share inappropriate images online or to receive financial benefit from doing so
  • reducing the excuses, e.g., having clear code of conduct so that other adults can't excuse inappropriate behaviour as 'well-meaning but misguided.'
  • reducing the vulnerability of the child, e.g. teaching them how to say no, talking about consent, giving them opportunities to take an active role in developing policies and codes.

We need to work together to stop grooming behaviour going unchecked, and to call each other to account when we see breaches of an agreed code of conduct. The buck stops with all of us!

If you need to talk about issues raised by this article, try an Australian mental health help line that is right for you:

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