Introduction by Croakey: In its final report in 2017, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse outlined recommendations for making institutions in Australia child safe.
Based on the ten standards the Commissioners put forward, the Council of Australian Governments last month endorsed a set of National Principles for Child Safe Organisations.
The Principles are detailed here, with the following 10-point summary:
- Child safety and wellbeing is embedded in organisational leadership, governance and culture.
- Children and young people are informed about their rights, participate in decisions affecting them and are taken seriously.
- Families and communities are informed and involved in promoting child safety and wellbeing.
- Equity is upheld and diverse needs respected in policy and practice.
- People working with children and young people are suitable and supported to reflect child safety and wellbeing values in practice.
- Processes to respond to complaints and concerns are child focused.
- Staff and volunteers are equipped with the knowledge, skills and awareness to keep children and young people safe through ongoing education and training.
- Physical and online environments promote safety and wellbeing while minimising the opportunity for children and young people to be harmed.
- Implementation of the national child safe principles is regularly reviewed and improved.
- Policies and procedures document how the organisation is safe for children and young people.
While the principles apply to the entire population, it is known that children with disability are at increased risk of experiencing abuse. The authors below understand this better than most, having reviewed the evidence in 2016, in an invited submission to the Royal Commission.
Here they outline the applicability of the National Principles’ child rights-based approach to children with disability, and call on the community to ensure that child safe organisations are safe for all children.
Sarah Wayland, Gabrielle Hindmarsh and Gwynnyth Llewellyn write:
Understanding the needs of children and young people with disability, and the likelihood of abuse they experience, is not a trivial problem. In Australia, there is now hard evidence that children and young people with disability are three times more likely to be maltreated than their non-disabled peers.
Abuse of children with disability
Although children and young people with disability make up only about 6% of the child population, they comprise 15% of children in out-of-home care. In our 2000 review of NSW Care and Protection Records we found 24% of all care matters were about children with disability or medical condition.
In 2016 the NSW Ombudsman found 29% of reportable conduct matters involved children with disability with 36% of closed notifications in care and protection involving children with disability – when children with disability were only 12% of this population.
The Ombudsman also found that 21% of the notifications they received from the education sector were about children and young people with disability – when these children only make up 12% of the school population.
A poorly acknowledged problem
Our 2016 report to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse emphasises the heightened risk of sexual abuse faced by these children and young people in everyday settings – at home, in school, out and about in the community. At the same time, we concluded that national disability and child protection legislation and policy frameworks failed to acknowledge this risk or to highlight ways to keep these children safe.
The lay assumption that the community would care for its most vulnerable was evidently not keeping children safe, and could not continue to be an excuse for policy neglect and service delivery inaction.
Understanding the causes
Why are children and young people with disability so vulnerable to all forms of abuse, including sexual abuse? In researching our report we identified several factors that exacerbate risk.
Children with disability spend much of their time in disability-specific environments that feature unsupervised one-on-one interactions with adults, for example in respite care and in school transport. Many children and young people with more severe disabilities require adult assistance with their daily personal hygiene and bodily functions. In addition, many in the community view children with disability as less competent than able bodied children. This increases their risk of abuse as they ‘are less likely to tell’.
We highlighted gaps in knowledge about how factors like age, gender, family involvement and socioeconomic circumstances, as well as where the children lived and played, as critical to understanding prevention efforts.
Formulating a response
High risk settings such as respite care, school transport and personal care services must be addressed – but what else and how?
How is the community responding, two years after the release of our report, to protect children and young people with disability as they go about their everyday lives?
The recently released National Principles for Child Safe Organisations, based on the ten child safe standards recommended by the Royal Commission, are grounded in a child rights approach, which recognises children and young people as active participants.
A recommendation made by researchers to the Royal Commissioners was that children with disability be embraced as active and engaged participants in developing protective behaviours that keep them safe.
All adults need to be accountable to these young Australians. They must understand the ways in which the children communicate, the assistive devices that they use, and be knowledgeable and aware of their vulnerability at the outset, to ensure the children and young people’s voices are heard throughout their journey of interacting with adults and receiving care.
The National principles focus on ways that organisations need to reflect on their current understanding of what ‘child safe; means for them and to address ways that incorporate the ten principles. Codes of conduct, that can be adapted by organisations with an expectation of staff behaviour when engaging with children and young people, allow children with disability to be seen as children first. Not just through the lens of their impairment or health condition.
The principles also extend to online safety as well as guidance for parents and carers. National principle four specifically focuses on diversity – organisations need reminding that this means that the needs of children and young people with disability are met by ensuring that equity is upheld and that diverse needs are respected in policy and practice.
Being child centred, the principles require that, from frontline service delivery to organisational culture, everything is focussed on creating widespread levelling of services to ensure equity for children irrespective of abilities. Ensuring children and young people have access to information, support and complaint mechanisms is enshrined in this principle.
From principles to practice
Understanding how to practically incorporate this is the next big challenge to ensure children and young people with disabilities are, and feel, safe no matter where they are in our communities. The goal of the principles is to create welcoming spaces for all children and young people, in a way that reduces the risk of discrimination, exclusion, bullying and abuse.
Timely and focused evaluation – hearing the voices of this most vulnerable group of Australian children and young people – is an essential component of exploring new ways to keep all children and young people safe.
To create meaningful change by enhancing the safety of organisations, their policies and frameworks, we provide scope to respond to the evidence surrounding the risk of abuse for children with disability. The community, and the organisations within it, are responsible for keeping children safe. Going backwards would mean requiring children themselves and their families to bear the responsibility for staying safe. That time is past.
Children with disability are not a special group that the majority of the community can choose to ignore. They are future citizens along with their non-disabled peers. It is dangerous to set them aside, as if they reside outside mainstream service provision or awareness about the needs of children and young people. Child safe organisations must be child safe for all children.
This means that in child safe organisations due diligence must be paid to ensuring all children with disability are understood and responded to, using evidence-informed strategies, practices and behaviours.
Developing a community of practice in Australia that is relevant to the particular needs and contexts of children and young people with disability, in both disability-specific and mainstream service settings, would be a major step forward.
Sarah Wayland is a Lecturer in the discipline of Behavioural and Social Sciences in Health, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Sydney. She has research interests in vulnerable and marginalised communities focussing on trauma, disability and psychosocial wellbeing. You can follow her @sarahlwayland
Gabrielle Hindmarsh, is a research affiliate in the Centre for Disability Research and Policy, The University of Sydney and a Postdoctoral research Fellow in the School of Psychiatry, UNSW. She has experience in the examination of the outcomes and wellbeing of children who experience disadvantage. More specifically, children who are born with low birthweight, with disabilities, or have parents with disabilities.
Gwynnyth Llewellyn, is Professor of Family and Disability Studies at the University of Sydney and Co-Director of the NHMRC CRE on Disability and Health. Her work addresses the inequities faced by families headed by parents with disabilities and families who have children with disabilities.