Child Wellbeing and Safety Amendment (Child Safe Standards) Bill 2015
Written on the 9 December 2015
GEORGIE CROZIER (LIB - Southern Metropolitan)
I am very pleased to be able to speak on behalf of the coalition as the lead speaker on the Child Wellbeing and Safety Amendment (Child Safe Standards) Bill 2015. As members are well aware, this bill follows on from the coalition government's work in providing better child safe standards and an inquiry that I had the privilege to chair in the last Parliament. For that reason the coalition will be supporting the bill. With that in mind I would like to speak on a number of areas in relation to the bill before I go to various elements of it.
As I said, the coalition worked very hard on ensuring greater accountability and education about and awareness of child abuse following a number of inquiries that were undertaken. This bill goes to that point. It makes a series of amendments that relate to entities that will be required to comply with the new child safe standards and it gives the minister the power to apply those child safe standards. The bill updates the child abuse definition in the Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2006 and the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 so that there is consistency across the various pieces of legislation where children are concerned and where child safe standards need to apply.The bill also gives certain flexibility to deal with what is happening at a national level with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse should new entities be identified through that process. Once that royal commission concludes obviously we do not know when it will formally conclude it could identify a number of entities that should be included in this legislation for children to have further protection.
Members will recall that when the coalition came to government in 2010 the then Minister for Community Services, Ms Wooldridge, instigated an inquiry into Victoria's child protection system. This was after damning findings in two reports that highlighted the failings of the previous Labor administration in the area of child protection. Although it is a very difficult area, and we cannot always exclude the ability for individuals and organisations to not comply, the findings of these reports are certainly scathing in relation to a series of events that showed a child protection system in crisis.The minister at the time commissioned the Cummins report, which is an excellent, detailed and thorough report. It was probably the biggest review of the child protection system the state has undertaken in relation to having a look at the child protection system as a whole. The report makes 98 recommendations, one of which I am particularly familiar with and that is recommendation 48, which is:
A formal investigation should be conducted into the processes by which religious organisations respond to the criminal abuse of children by religious personnelAt that time, the Family and Community Development Committee, which I chaired, had the privilege to undertake that inquiry; the committee subsequently made 15 recommendations. Almost two years ago I tabled the Betrayal of Trust report in this chamber, and within a month the government had acted on some of the recommendations and introduced legislation on grooming to the Parliament. The coalition government did not stop there. It worked on various other recommendations and was working toward implementing all of the recommendations made in that report.
As members will recall, the committee undertook a very thorough and extensive inquiry. I also acknowledge the tremendous amount of support and work undertaken by so many people within this Parliament to assist in that process, which enabled that inquiry to take place. It was the very first time that those people who were victims of child abuse could have a voice. I am saying this in the context of what is happening at a national level in relation to the royal commission, because it was important that we enabled victims to come before an inquiry so that they could tell their stories. Whilst we also heard from academics and organisations and specialists in the area of child abuse, it was very important to hear from the victims and to understand exactly what had happened to them. I believe it also gave the committee members a far greater understanding of the effects of child abuse and its far-reaching and long-lasting implications.Last night I received a number of text messages from people asking if I was watching 7.30. I was not, but I later watched the program on iView and saw a report relating to various elements in Doveton that our inquiry heard about. In fact the report referred to one of the very brave witnesses who we heard from, Graeme Sleeman, who was a teacher at the time. It made me think of why we are debating this bill today. As I said, Graeme Sleeman and another teacher, Carmel Rafferty, appeared before us during our inquiry and very bravely spoke of their experiences and the issues at hand in relation to what they were trying to do and how they were hampered by the terrible events that occurred in that area of Doveton. This bill and the recommendations made in the Betrayal of Trust report reflect the experiences of people like Graeme Sleeman and Carmel Rafferty and give organisations guidelines and tools to understand what is expected, what is acceptable and the need to put child safe standards in place.
It is certainly true that as our inquiry progressed and as the royal commission is now being undertaken, the community has gained a far greater understanding of child abuse, of what is occurring and the terrible effects it has had. The community rightly expects greater accountability, and families want their children to be safe. Community attitudes towards child abuse have changed. Organisations and governments are doing more to put in place protections around our most vulnerable members of the community. In this instance I am talking about providing what is necessary and what is correct for children.We know that child abuse comes in various forms. It can be sexual, physical, psychological or emotional, or it can be neglect. Whilst many organisations might try to respond by developing policies and procedures, what we found in our inquiry was that many of those policies and procedures were indeed quite basic and quite fragmented.
I will refer to the Betrayal of Trust report. Chapter 12, on page 267, which goes to this very point about protecting children from criminal child abuse and policies, states:A written child safe policy demonstrates an organisation's commitment to its duty to reasonably protect children from criminal child abuse while in their care.
What we found was that many non-government organisations had given consideration to the need to develop policies to protect children from criminal child abuse, but they were often fragmented and included other policies. The level of knowledge and the degree of action in establishing and improving child safe policies varied greatly, ranging from some organisations that were very proactive in their approach to others that were inactive. In relation to organisations that had funding from government, particularly those that employed registered professionals, there was probably a greater expectation for them to be able to meet standards for child-related safe practices. Again, there was a huge degree of inconsistency and variation amongst organisations.That is why the committee looked at these various areas. We wanted to provide some guidance to the community, and indeed to organisations that deal with looking after children and young people, to ensure that they had a minimum standard in relation to how they should proceed. That was one of the recommendations that came from this inquiry. We identified a number of guidelines that were designed to assist that aim. The committee identified five components of a child safe policy, including a commitment to principles to guide decisions, employment of new personnel, a risk management approach, a process for reports and allegations of criminal child abuse and a review process.
At the time in Victoria there was no legislative requirement for non-government organisations to comply with their duty of care to protect children by establishing preventive policies. It was a fairly significant finding, if you like, and throughout the course of the inquiry we heard from many organisations and many individuals who told us about their experience, and really highlighted, as I said, the variance and the different practices that were undertaken throughout many organisations within the state.Finding 12.4 of the report, which can be found on page 286, is that:
Funded organisations and registered professionals are expected to meet standards relating to child safe practices that vary considerably across sectors such as early education, teaching and community services.Arising from that finding, recommendation 12.1, which essentially this legislation is about, states:
That the Victorian government review its contractual and funding arrangements with education and community service organisations that work with children and young people to ensure they have a minimum standard for ensuring a child safe environment, including the following principles:
That the Victorian government consider the potential for extending a standard for child safe environments to other organisations or sectors that have direct and regular contact with children.That is where we start in relation to this particular piece of legislation. The previous government was working towards implementing that recommendation, and indeed the consultation process started under the coalition government. There are a number of organisations that have been involved in the consultation process; I am led to believe somewhere in the vicinity of 150 or 160 stakeholders have been involved. It involved the various government departments coming together and working with the Commission for Children and Young People to run these consultation sessions on looking at ways to further explore the issues in this report I have referred to, the findings in that report, the recommendations that the committee made and ways to look at how legislation could improve those child safe standards.
There was feedback on the proposed standards that were developed, and I know that there were a number of organisations that provided significant assistance in relation to developing the legislation. In saying that, we need to be monitoring this. We need to ensure that there is ongoing review of what is proposed in this bill and ensure that we do everything we can to give support to organisations so that they can comply with what we are speaking on today.To return to the bill, in relation to what is proposed there are a number of organisations, and I know that the government has highlighted that in relation to identifying what a category 1 entity is. The bill relates to category 1 and category 2 entities. To give an example of what a category 1 entity might look like, if the bill says that it is an applicable entity that is referred to in new schedule 1, inserted by clause 8, then under new section 19 of the Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2005, inserted by clause 6, these entities will be required to comply with child safe standards a year earlier than the category 2 entities. The reason I believe that is so is because they have been working towards new standards and policies and procedures for quite some time, so they have an understanding. However, in the committee stage I will ask the minister to ensure that those organisations that may be captured in category 1 areas get the necessary support provided to them because, as it is now November, or nearly December, they have less than six weeks until when they must comply, because this will commence from 1 January 2016.
Those category 1 entities I am referring to include entities such as organisations that are involved with disability services and providing direct care to children; the out-of-home care system; youth justice services; and schools, both government and non-government. Certainly the child abuse inquiry found that there were significant differences between government and non-government schools. Category 1 entities also refer to education and care services; licensed children's services; residential child and youth mental health and drug and alcohol services; child protection services; organisations that provide homelessness services for children and young people; organisations providing counselling and support services to children and young people; family and parenting services; and religious organisations, including pastoral and spiritual care services.There are many other organisations that are involved in the area of child care. They are unfunded and fall under category 2 entities, including nanny services, tutoring services, homestays and anything where a child has contact with some sort of service that is providing care to them. In this area there are a lot of voluntary organisations that also need to comply. I think that is a really important point to make, because the last thing the inquiry wanted to do was to have those volunteer organisations that might be dealing with children overburdened by regulatory components. In this state we have huge numbers of volunteer organisations that deal with children, including sporting organisations like Auskick, Life Saving Victoria, scouts and girl guides, and informal groups that collectively get together and provide some sort of childcare service. We must ensure that those volunteer services are supported. I think they will need considerable support to ensure that they comply with the child safe standards that are proposed.
As I said, we do not want to make it overburdensome for those organisations because often they are parents who are taking on voluntary roles. They are giving up their time. They provide a great service to our community in so many ways by being role models and providing their expertise to organisations. They might need information and experience in relation to their ability to continue to support an organisation. As we know, volunteers in this state provide enormous untold benefits that one could never calculate.Of course around children we must be very diligent in relation to predators or paedophiles, who have in the past gotten involved in these organisations in order to take advantage of not only children, who they abuse in the most horrendous fashion and horrendous ways, but also of parents, many of whom have been betrayed because in their minds they thought their children were being looked after by trusted figures.
The PRESIDENT Order! As the bells are ringing in the other chamber, this is an appropriate time to break so that those members who wish to sit in on the address in the Assembly to which Council members have been invited can do so. The chair will be resumed at the ringing of the bells.
Sitting suspended 10.33 a.m. until 11.17 a.m.
Before returning to my contribution to the debate on the Child Wellbeing and Safety Amendment (Child Safe Standards) Bill 2015, I must say we have all just attended a special sitting of the Legislative Assembly to hear three excellent speeches about the important issue of family violence. As we are talking about child abuse in relation to this bill this morning, there is a commitment, as I was saying previously, to ensure that we provide child safe standards in organisations that are looking after our children. We have just heard about the vulnerability of the situation with the tragic circumstances surrounding Luke Batty's death.To return to the bill, I was referring to the category 1 entities and had highlighted what they were in relation to the proposal that these entities will need to comply with the standards on 1 January, which is just a few weeks away. Such an entity must comply with the child safe standards on and after the specified day unless the entity is exempt under section 22 of the principal act or if the regulations provide that the entity is exempt from this requirement or if the entity is prescribed under section 20 or belongs to a class prescribed under section 21, all inserted by clause 6 of the bill.
To look at those areas, section 21, which is headed 'Applicable entity belonging to a prescribed class must comply with Child Safe Standards', says:An applicable entity that belongs to a prescribed class must comply with the Child Safe Standards on and after the day prescribed
In relation to section 22, those exemptions from the need to comply with requirements, which I referred to previously, include those entities that do not provide any services specifically for children, provide any facilities specifically for use by children who are under the entity's supervision or engage a child as a contractor, employee or volunteer to assist the entity in providing services or facilities.We received a briefing on some of the children who might be engaged in working with the likes of McDonald's, for instance and there are many children that undertake such a role as they are learning and gaining good skills from being employed with various organisations. Those organisations, I am led to believe, would fall under category 2.
There are a number of organisations that will be captured in the bill. As we see children working, playing, being involved in sporting activities and in various other activities that children are engaged in, it is hoped the entities that it prescribes will be captured within this bill.I was also stating before the sitting was suspended to allow members to join the Legislative Assembly for the special sitting that one of the things the inquiry found was that we should not over-regulate or overburden those entities to comply with the standards. I note that the Greens have indicated they propose to move an amendment to provide for accreditation purposes, and looking at that amendment
Ms Mikakos No, they are not going ahead with that.Ms CROZIER Thank you, Minister; I missed that. I am pleased that the proposed amendment will not be going ahead, because the last thing we want to do is, as I said, make this a burden on organisations.
Clause 6 of the bill deals with child safe standards and the inquiry looked at those child safe standards, which I went through previously in my contribution by inserting new sections into the bill regarding compliance. New section 22 provides an exemption, which I have just gone through, in relation to various organisations that will not be captured under this regime. The child safe standards and entities that will be exempt are outlined in the bill.In relation to clause 11 of the bill, I note that there are a number of minor changes that will enable acts with references to children such as the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 and the Mental Health Act 2014, both of which involve children to be consistent with each other and enable the relevant entities to be included in this bill. This clause will create consistent definitions across the various pieces of legislation.
As I said at the outset, this is work that was undertaken by the former government. To my mind a good piece of legislation has come to the house today. It is right to be looking at child safe standards to enable consistency across organisations by giving them the tools and the guidelines to ensure that they can provide child safe standards. We must be doing as much as we can to protect children.As I have said, there is a lot of news and there are lots of issues coming from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The Victorian community has seen the impacts of the Victorian inquiry and rightly expects the government to get on with putting in place what is needed, because that inquiry highlighted the issues and made recommendations. The work has started and is continuing and it needs to continue, because we need to do as much as we can to ensure that the protection of children in the most vulnerable of circumstances, meaning in the care of others, can be allowed to happen.
This legislation, which has come from the recommendations of the Victorian inquiry along with other recommendations from the report, will ensure that organisations involved with children will rightly need to comply with the child safe standards, and the community has an expectation that they will do so. I have a number of questions regarding entities that will require support to ensure that they comply, and I will be asking the minister about that during the committee stage. This legislation will go towards ensuring that we protect our most vulnerable.
The coalition will be supporting the bill.