Emil Ford Lawyers

How does your institution respond to Child Sexual Abuse?


The sexual abuse of a child is a terrible crime. It is the greatest of personal violations. It is perpetrated against the most vulnerable in our community. It is a fundamental breach of the trust that children are entitled to place in adults. It is one of the most traumatic and potentially damaging experiences and can have lifelong adverse consequences.

So begins the Executive Summary of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The Commissioners presented their Report to the Federal Government on 15 December 2017. Apart from the Executive Summary (which, including the recommendations, is well over 200 pages), the Report comprises 17 volumes. They are all worth reading. Of particular interest to schools are Volume 6 Making institutions child safe, Volume 7 Improving institutional responding and reporting, Volume 8 Recordkeeping and information sharing, Volume 10 Children with harmful sexual behaviours, Volume 13 Schools and Volume 16 Religious institutions.

We cannot underestimate the importance of absorbing what was learnt by the Royal Commission over its five year life. It is not only governments but also all those who work with children who must learn from the Royal Commission’s findings and take steps to implement the many practical measures recommended by the Commissioners.

It is important not to dismiss the work of the Commission on the basis that it was looking at things that happened many decades ago. While it certainly did that, it also examined much more recent practices. Indeed, in some public hearings, the identity of children was protected because they were still at school. As the Commissioners said, “it is a mistake to assume that sexual abuse in institutions will not continue to occur in the future”. All those involved in school governance and leadership must face up to the responsibilities that, very sadly, many up to this point have ignored.

We believe that the starting point is to examine the school’s culture. An incontrovertible conclusion from the Commission’s private and public hearings is that many schools have not had a culture where the best interests of those children were the priority. Some who governed and led those institutions refused to take responsibility for their school’s failure to protect children. Some felt that it was more important to protect the school’s reputation and the accused person. These failures typically flowed from the school’s culture which prioritised reputation and excused perpetrators.

The challenge that lies before us is to work out how to change that culture. A failure to do this will inevitably lead to the ongoing sexual abuse of children with consequent lifelong harm to them.

Changing an institution’s culture must begin at the top. Governors and leaders determine, create and sustain culture. They enunciate the institution’s values and beliefs. To create a culture based on those values and beliefs, those who govern and lead the institution must model those values and beliefs in all that they do. To create a child safe school where children’s well-being and safety are prioritised, the leadership must make it clear in word and deed that the safety of children comes before the school’s reputation. Children must be listened to. Child safe policies must not only exist but must also be implemented, particularly in the recruitment and training of staff and volunteers. The environments, physical and online, in which children and adults interact must be examined to minimise the risk of children being exposed to harmful sexual behaviours.

With the well-being and safety of children a priority, schools will focus on providing an environment that reduces the likelihood of a child being sexually abused. The Commission found that the following factors are important in ensuring that this happens:

  • supportive and trustworthy adults
  • supportive peers
  • a child’s understanding of appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviour, including sexual abuse, and personal safety
  • a child’s ability to assert themselves verbally or physically resist the abuse
  • a strong community or cultural connections.

Child safe schools have a culture of safety that allows children to disclose sexual abuse with minimal shame and embarrassment. To achieve this, adults need to be educated about the dynamics of sexual abuse. They need to recognise grooming tactics and to notice emotional and behavioural changes in children. They need to notice when a child is attempting to disclose. They need help to know how to respond when disclosure occurs.

Those working face-to-face with children need to know that those governing and leading their school understand the obligation to keep children safe. There is a heavy onus on those serving, often as volunteers, on governing boards to appreciate the priority that must be given to the well-being and safety of children. Those people need to understand that they will be held accountable for failures in this area. Schools need to examine carefully their governance structures and practices. One of the things that the Commission found was that boards populated by those with long-standing connections to the school were often more inclined to focus on preserving the school’s reputation than caring for the children with whom it worked. For this reason, it may be necessary to reconsider the make-up of the board.

Schools with a strong culture of obedience to authority may need to examine and reshape that culture. School principals and teachers have considerable authority. This allows them to provide privileges or impose discipline. It is only a small step in such an environment to allow undetected abuse to occur. Those abused in authoritarian environments are likely to fear the adverse consequences of telling others about what has happened to them.

The Commission identified 10 Child Safe Standards that are essential for a child safe institution. These standards can guide schools by setting best practice to drive cultural change and guide performance.

These 10 Child Safe Standards are:

  • Standard 1: Child safety is embedded in institutional leadership, governance and culture
  • Standard 2: Children participate in decisions affecting them and are taken seriously
  • Standard 3: Families and communities are informed and involved
  • Standard 4: Equity is upheld and diverse needs are taken into account
  • Standard 5: People working with children are suitable and supported
  • Standard 6: Processes to respond to complaints of child sexual abuse are child focused
  • Standard 7: Staff are equipped with the knowledge, skills and awareness to keep children safe through continual education and training
  • Standard 8: Physical and online environments minimise the opportunity for abuse to occur
  • Standard 9: Implementation of the Child Safe Standards is continuously reviewed and improved
  • Standard 10: Policies and procedures document how the institution is child safe.

Please contact , or if you have any questions about issues raised by the Royal Commission or if you need help with child protection policy development or education of your board and staff.

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