Child safety: Mandatory and voluntary reporting obligations

Every Australian state and territory has enacted legislation prescribing both mandatory and voluntary reporting obligations. It’s essential that all senior managers are on top of all applicable laws to ensure that all employees (and volunteers) are aware of their obligations.

For the legislative obligations that are relevant in your state or territory, see this resource sheet published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

It is best practice for all Australian organisations that work with children to also develop procedures for responding to any report of suspected or actual child abuse. These procedures should comply with set reporting laws operating in your state and should also include provisions regarding voluntary reporting.

Responding to a report

Historically, allegations of child sexual abuse were often handled with denial and concealment, resulting in a tendency to avoid properly investigating the problem. Despite senior leaders of organisations knowing about allegations of child sexual abuse, the allegations were often ignored. Children were in some cases not believed or even punished for reporting the allegations. Some organisations treated the perpetrators leniently and helped to shield them from being held accountable. The reputation of the organisation and the interests of the perpetrator were often prioritised over those of the victims and their families.

With the spotlight now firmly on child abuse, it is imperative that your organisation properly responds to any allegations of child abuse (or any misconduct) in order to protect the safety of children in your care and minimise the risk of a legal claim being made against your organisation.

Different responses will be appropriate depending on the applicable legislation, your organisation’s policies and procedures, the circumstances of the person making the report, and the level of risk or danger that is suspected. A reporter may be:

  • a child reporting a concern about a staff member or volunteer
  • an adult (e.g. a worker or volunteer) reporting a concern about another staff member or volunteer
  • a child or adult reporting a problem with a parent or carer, or someone else external to the organisation.

Reputational risk

Many organisations over the years have opted to conceal and ignore child abuse suspicions or allegations for fear of reputational damage.

We now know that this approach facilitated more incidents of abuse, contributed to the psychological injuries suffered by survivors of abuse, and discouraged the reporting of child abuse allegations.

Many organisations are now faced with the harrowing task of responding to allegations of child abuse that occurred more than 20 years ago, with survivors only now mustering the courage to come forward and tell their story. Historical claims are inherently challenging to respond to. The cost of concealment turned out to be significantly greater than any perceived risk of reputational damage.

It is our strong view (and we believe it should go without saying) that any risk to a child, no matter how remote, should always trump any risks to an organisation’s reputation, no matter how big or important the organisation may consider itself, or its work, or any particular individual, to be.

Stakeholders now expect organisations to exercise transparency. Legislation, such as the reportable conduct scheme in Victoria, is requiring organisations to notify relevant agencies in circumstances where allegations of child abuse are raised. Failing to properly respond to child abuse allegations can therefore be much more damaging to your organisation’s reputation than it was in the past, and could even be in breach of the law.

The long-term reputational risks of not responding appropriately to such issues are almost certainly greater than those posed by public disclosure of a one-off offence or accusations of an overreaction.

First steps

There are many circumstances under which any suspicions about child abuse must be reported to an external authority. It’s best practice to default to this action even where it is not required by law – to act otherwise may put a child in danger and may leave you open to accusations of a cover-up.

Whether you have engaged with an external body or not, you should act quickly to minimise any ongoing risks to the child in your care, and to your personnel or organisation as a whole. Such actions could include:

  • referring to your organisation’s child-safe policy to ensure any relevant procedures are complied with
  • standing the accused staff member or volunteer down, or transferring them to a position that does not involve contact with children, until an investigation has been concluded
  • providing appropriate support to the child or children involved (this may involve counselling, special consideration for assessment, or other pastoral care)
  • commencing an internal investigation (as outlined below)
  • reviewing your child protection procedures to determine whether any changes are needed to better protect the children under your care.

Child abuse is an extremely sensitive, risky and legally complex arena. As such, we strongly suggest that you seek urgent expert legal advice before taking any of the actions outlined above.

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