A review of the Royal Commission into

Institutional Responses to Child Abuse report

Your responsibilities are personal to you, and you are personally accountable.

Andrew Knott of Holding Redlich examines the impact of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse and its report - providing a ready user guide to the essence of its recommendations.

Of brevity the bard did wisely speak, but never did a patron charge he seek of volumes legal, seventeen, and dense in just fifteen hundred words to make good sense.

A modest objective

Notwithstanding the above, there is value in such reflections, even though they can only be an indication (or ‘consciousness raiser’) to school staff (especially school leaders) of the critical issues requiring fuller consideration, and a guide to the critical pages which even the busiest should make time to read. This article focuses (necessarily) on material directly relevant to schools (and so does not deal with the question of redress).

A massive investment

Billions of dollars, and enormous organisational energy and personal emotion, have been invested. As the Commission notes at page 8 of the Executive Summary of the report:

“We conducted our inquiry through three ‘pillars’: personal accounts (provided in a private session or in writing); public hearings; and our research and policy work. By the time our work is completed we expect to have heard from more than 16,000 people within our Terms of Reference. We expect to have spoken with over 8,000 people in private sessions and received 1,000 written accounts. We have held 57 public hearings and have published 59 research reports. We also conducted 35 policy roundtables. We have reviewed allegations of sexual abuse in more than 4000 institutions. This Final Report has 17 volumes. Each volume has been prepared so that it can be read as a self-contained report on the topic or institution to which it relates – as a consequence, there is some repetition between volumes. When considering recommendations designed to improve the safety of children in institutions we utilised a number of approaches. In addition to defining 10 Child Safe Standards that every institution should adopt, we considered the role that institutional management, education, community awareness, civil litigation and criminal justice each can play. No single recommendation or group of recommendations can be expected to achieve the required objective. They must all be considered and, depending on the institution, the relevant recommendations must be taken up to bring an improvement in the safety of children. During the course of the Royal Commission we have already provided government with three final reports — Working With Children Checks, Redress and Civil Litigation and Criminal justice. We also provided 45 case study reports.”

A massive impact

In addition to the formal recommendations on matters such as changing law or practice, Royal Commissions usually, as here, impact on knowledge, culture and attitudes, from the announcement onwards. It has been clear from that moment that, in the interest of protecting students, the expectations of school staff and systemic administrators, have been rising, and significantly. This relates, for example, both to systemic school staff responsibilities in relation to planning and reporting, and to their own conduct (such as maintaining appropriate professional boundaries). That continues, and will increasingly raise standards expected. As in all professions, teachers and school administrators must adapt to change.

A massive resource

The final Report is 17 volumes, each of hundreds of pages. It can be found in full at www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au The Table of Contents preceding the Preface and Executive Summary, is a helpful overview. In addition, however, there are 59 reports and 57 public hearings. For teachers and school administrators, recommended Research Reports (easily found from the home page) are:

the role of organisational culture in child sexual abuse in institutional contexts

creating child safe institutions

grooming and child sexual abuse in institutional contexts

audit of primary school-based sexual abuse prevention policy and curriculum, and

hear no evil, see no evil: understanding failure to identify and report child sexual abuse in institutional contexts.

School recommendations

The school recommendations are found in Volume 13. This is 315 pages in length. Recommended minimal reading is the Summary at pages 9 – 27, and the formal recommendations at pages 28 – 29, which are set out below, and recommendations in earlier reports of relevance to schools, set out in Appendix A at pages 268 – 291, and Appendix B at pages 292-315. There are eight school recommendations, categorised under five topics:

1. Child Safe Standards

All schools should implement the Child Safe Standards identified by the Royal Commission on page 219 of Volume 13.

State and territory independent oversight authorities responsible for implementing the Child Safe Standards (see Recommendation 6.10) should delegate to school registration authorities the responsibility for monitoring and enforcing the Child Safe Standards in government and nongovernment schools.

School registration authorities should place particular emphasis on monitoring government and non-government boarding schools to ensure they meet the Child Safe Standards. Policy guidance and practical support should be provided to all boarding schools to meet these standards, including advice on complaint handling.

2. Supporting boarding schools

The Australian government and state and territory governments should ensure that needs-based funding arrangements for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boarding students are sufficient for schools and hostels to create child safe environments.

Boarding hostels for children and young people should implement the Child Safe Standards identified by the Royal Commission. State and territory independent oversight authorities should monitor and enforce the Child Safe Standards in these institutions.

3. Children with harmful sexual behaviours

Consistent with the Child Safe Standards, compliant handling policies for schools (see Recommendation 7.7) should include effective policies and procedures for managing complaints about children with harmful sexual behaviours.

4. Guidance for teachers and principals

State and territory governments should provide nationally consistent and easily accessible guidance to teachers and principals on preventing and responding to child sexual abuse in all government and non government schools.

5. Teacher registration

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) should consider strengthening teacher registration requirements to better protect children from sexual abuse in schools. In particular, COAG should review minimum national requirements for assessing the suitability of teachers and conducting disciplinary investigations.

Legal implications: criminal liability

Pages (268-291) of Volume 13 Appendix A – Recommendations relevant to schools from other volumes and reports are also important, in relation to culture, rising expectations, and possible new legal implications.

Topics include prevention, making institutions safer, improving child safety approaches, online abuse in institutions, responding, reporting and complaint handling including oversight, record keeping and information sharing, and recommended new ‘failure to report’ offences. On this last topic, pages 280-291 are a window into the new world of potential criminal liability staff may enter. To take two examples:

Recommendation 32

Any person associated with an institution who knows or suspects that a child is being or has been sexually abused in an institutional context should report the abuse to police (and, if relevant, in accordance with any guidelines the institution adopts in relation to blind reporting under Recommendation 16).

Recommendation 36

State and territory governments should introduce legislation to create a criminal offence of failure to protect a child within a relevant institution from a substantial risk of sexual abuse by an adult associated with the institution as follows:

(a) The offence should apply where:

i. an adult person knows that there is a substantial risk that another adult person associated with the institution will commit a sexual offence against:

a child under 16, and

a child of 16 or 17 years of age, if the person associated with the institution is in a position of authority in relation to the child.

ii. the person has the power of responsibility to reduce or remove the risk.

iii. the person negligently fails to reduce or remove the risk.

(b) The offence should not be able to be committed by individual foster carers or kinship carers.

(c) Relevant institutions should be defined to include institutions that operate facilities or provide services to children in circumstances where the children are in the care, supervision or control of the institution. Foster care and kinship care services should be included, but individual foster carers and kinship carers should not be included. Facilities and services provided by religious institutions, and any service of functions performed by persons in religious ministry should be included.

(d) State and territory governments should consider the Victorian offence in section 49C of the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic) as a useful precedent, with an extension to include children of 16 or 17 years of age, if the person associated with the institution is in a position of authority in relation to the child.

Recommended reading

It is recommended that all those working in schools should read the Preface, Executive Summary, and pages 9-27, 28-29, 268-291 and 292-315 of Volume 13 of the report; and that those with leadership responsibilities should read further, for example, Research Reports, in accordance with their particular circumstances and responsibilities. Keep in mind: ‘culture, culture, culture, be ‘across the detail and if in doubt, promptly seek informed, formal advice; and note your responsibilities are personal to you, and you are personally accountable. The final report can be found at www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au

This article was originally published by the Independent Education Union – Queensland and Northern Territory Branch in Issue 3 (Volume 7) 2018 of Independent Voice.