Child safety: Recruitment

A crucial part of establishing and maintaining a safe environment for children is ensuring that the most suitable people are recruited to work and volunteer with children, and that unsuitable people are screened out.

It is common for not-for-profit organisations, particularly smaller entities, to feel overwhelmed by the risks and responsibility of ensuring a child-safe environment. However, introducing simple child safety measures within your organisation can produce significant results.

For example, by simply adding a zero-tolerance message to your job descriptions and advertisements, you can reduce the risk of child abuse occurring within your organisation.

The following five steps will help ensure child safety through pre-employment screening.

1. Implement robust recruitment and selection procedures

Implementing robust recruitment and selection procedures will help you identify the most suitable people for any given role. This becomes crucial in roles that involve working with children, where strong procedures will also deter unsuitable people from applying for any paid or voluntary position.

Recruitment and selection policies and procedures should reflect the organisation’s understanding of and commitment to a child-safe environment. During the recruitment process, candidates should be provided with access to the organisation’s Child-Safe Policy and Code of Conduct. Clearly articulating acceptable behaviour from the very start of a person’s involvement with your organisation will communicate to candidates that the organisation is committed to child safety.

Importantly, organisations should have documented and structured recruitment procedures for all positions, including paid, volunteer, board and executive positions.

No employee, contractor or volunteer, however senior or junior, should be able to find a “back door” into your organisation. Appropriate procedures are discussed below.

2. Ensure your job descriptions and advertisements have a clear child-safe message

Your first step in preparing to recruit for a position that involves contact with children should be to undertake an analysis of the position. It is crucial to know and understand the exact skills required and the potential risk posed to children. This will allow you to develop a clear job description that defines the roles, tasks, and desirable skills and experience required.

Analysing the position will also help the organisation develop key selection criteria. These will form the measures against which you assess each applicant during the recruitment process. Interview questions should then be formulated based on the selection criteria and risk analysis.

An explicit statement of commitment to child safety should be included in all advertisements and job descriptions to discourage unsuitable people from applying; for example:

Our organisation is committed to child safety. We have zero tolerance of child abuse. Our robust human resources, recruitment and vetting practices are strictly adhered to during the application and interviewing process. Applicants should be aware that we carry out working with children, police records and reference checks (as we see fit) to ensure that we are recruiting the right people.

And here’s an example of what to use in your job descriptions:

As part of your role, you will be working with [children, people with a disability, people who are vulnerable etc.]. It is your obligation to always ensure their safety and report any concerns that you have, in line with our duty of care obligations. You will be required to regularly provide the necessary working with children, police records and reference checks. We have zero tolerance when it comes to abuse of any kind and will take disciplinary action, including and up to termination of employment, should we determine that abuse has taken place or there has been a failure to report any suspected or alleged abuse.

Another simple and effective way to convey your organisation’s commitment to child safety and to deter the wrong people from applying to work in your organisation is to display a message of zero tolerance on your website and even in your reception space. Something such as this can send a strong message: “Our organisation is committed to child safety. We have zero tolerance of child abuse.”

3. Carry out multiple selection and screening activities

Multiple selection and screening activities should be carried out during the recruitment phase of a child-related position, including:

  • structured interviews
  • reference checks, Google searches and other online searches
  • Working with Children Checks.

These aspects of the recruitment process are discussed in detail below.

Interviews

It is recommended that interviews be conducted by a panel of at least three suitably trained people, where possible, to provide for a diversity of viewpoints and opinions. We recommend that at least one interviewer have an understanding of the dynamics of child abuse and the typical behaviours of child offenders. This will help the panel to identify ‘red-flags’ or warnings.

The primary challenge of an interview is to gain an accurate sense of who the candidate is, their values and attitudes, and how they are likely to perform in the job. The interview should include a range of behavioural and values-based questions designed to elicit information that will help the panel determine the candidate’s suitability for the position and uncover any potential risks to children. Ensure each interview includes:

  • discussion of the candidate’s motivation for working with children
  • exploration of the candidate’s understanding of child abuse in institutional settings, including their understanding of how it occurs and what can be done to prevent it
  • exploration of the candidate’s work history, including prior positions held, their responsibilities, and their reasons for leaving (especially where the candidate’s previous roles involved working with children). Explore any gaps in work history or gaps in the candidate’s resume.

The panel should:

  • pay particular attention to any answers that suggest a lack of professional boundaries around working with children (for example, lax social media boundaries)
  • probe further if the candidate’s answers are incomplete or concerning, and cross-check any concerns with referees and LinkedIn contacts
  • consider whether there is an unusual context for this candidate’s seeking of employment with children.

Reference checks

Reference checks with a candidate’s recent employers can help the organisation make an informed decision about his or her suitability to work with children.

A minimum of two verbal reference checks should be conducted. Accepting letters of reference is not advised without follow-up conversations.

It is important to conduct reference checks with employers who have directly supervised the candidate and observed their interactions with children. Referees should be asked directly for information on the candidate’s character and whether the referee has any concerns regarding the candidate working with children.

It’s also recommended that Google searches be undertaken. While it’s not advisable to believe everything you read on the internet, web searches are very quick and can in some cases help you to uncover red flags about a candidate’s history.

Working with Children Check schemes

A person wishing to engage in child-related work must comply with the working with children laws operating in the relevant state or territory. These schemes are designed to help organisations assess the level of risk an applicant may pose to children if they were engaged in child-related work.

However, as was made abundantly clear by the federal Royal Commission, working with children checks should be only be one part of an organisation’s recruitment, selection and screening practices. Working with children checks will not make an organisation a safe place for children – they must be used alongside broader child-safe strategies.

There is no Commonwealth working with children scheme. Each state and territory in Australia has its own scheme. The core elements of each scheme are similar, but each scheme has distinct requirements and operates in a particular way. All jurisdictions consider a person’s criminal history, although the specific type of criminal history considered may vary.

Australia has three types of checks for child-related work:

a. Working with Children Checks (WWCC)

WWCCs involve checking a person’s criminal history and, in some jurisdictions, disciplinary information to determine their suitability to engage in child-related work. Successful applicants are granted a clearance, which they can use as evidence of their suitability to engage in child-related work for a specified period.

WWCCs are used in New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia.

b. Working with Vulnerable People (WWVP)

WWVPs are similar to WWCCs. WWVPs assess a person’s suitability to work with vulnerable people in regulated activities. Children and disadvantaged adults (such as adults with a disability and adults who cannot communicate in English) are considered vulnerable people.

The Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania have implemented WWVP schemes.

c. Criminal history assessments

Under this type of check, organisations must ensure criminal history assessments are conducted before engaging people to work in particular positions. The onus is on the organisation to ensure the assessments are undertaken, not the individual.

Criminal history checks are not monitored on an ongoing basis as they are in other jurisdictions; they are a point-in-time check only. Employers must ensure that assessments are conducted at least once every three years.

South Australia was the last jurisdiction to use criminal history assessments for child-related work; in 2020 it introduced Working with Children Check requirements instead.

4. Put in place a child-safe employment/volunteer contract

The employment contract signed by staff, and the engagement documentation for volunteers and contractors, must make it clear that proven breaches of the organisation’s policies and procedures, and breaches of the organisation’s Code of Conduct, will be regarded as serious matters attracting sanctions ranging from reprimand to dismissal.

Organisations should also build responsibility for embedding an organisational culture of child safety into performance arrangements and position descriptions for senior staff.

5. Include child safety issues in induction training

Organisations should provide induction training that covers how to recognise and respond to child abuse. This should be done for all personnel, including volunteers and staff at leadership levels.

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