Working with Children Amendment Bill 2016

Written on the 25 November 2016

24 November 2016

COUNCIL 

Second reading 

GEORGIE CROZIER (LIB - Southern Metropolitan)

 

I am pleased to be able to rise and make a contribution to the Working with Children Amendment Bill 2016. As others have commented this is an important piece of legislation that we are debating to further enhance the protections for some of the most vulnerable members of our community, being children. The Working with Children Act 2005 assists in protecting children from sexual or physical harm by ensuring that people who work with or care for children are subject to a screening process. The Working with Children Act 2005 establishes a mandatory minimum requirement for people engaged in child-related work to apply for and obtain a working with children check.

The amendments in this bill implement a number of the recommendations made by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and I will go through those in a moment.

Can I make some comments in relation to that royal commission. The previous Victorian Parliament undertook work that I was privileged to be a part of. I was a member of the Family and Community Development Committee, which handed down the Betrayal of Trust report. I think it was an enormous effort by the Victorian Parliament, the members of that committee and all of the people who were involved in the committee process who did so much work to support the committee throughout the 18 months that we did such significant work. I was very pleased to be a part of that, but I again want to put on record that there were many people who supported the committee in delivering that very substantial report.

I believe that we were the starting point for the royal commission. In fact I strongly believe that we had a very large impact on the creation of that royal commission at a national level. If I reflect on the work we did as a committee looking at the issues surrounding working with children checks, we did a lot of investigation on this topic. We actually have a chapter in our report that is devoted to the effective selection of suitable personnel by organisations and how organisations might have managed their processes and procedures better. We delved into this and looked at many, many elements surrounding the organisations that came before the committee. Of course that not only included religious organisations but extended to educational organisations and also sporting clubs and the like.

We found there was a view that organisations wanted to prevent criminal child abuse occurring. Of course we were looking at a lot of historical child abuse, so we concluded that a lot of procedures and checks were not followed to the level that they should have been. We found that the approaches taken here in Victoria varied in relation to this issue, as perhaps did the approaches in other jurisdictions. In the conclusion to its report the committee made some recommendations that looked at specifics. One of the major findings was that:

the majority of organisations have WWCC processes in place, but can unknowingly over-rely on them as a tool for preventing the appointment of unsuitable personnel.

That was a very significant finding, because the recommendations went on to try and strengthen that area. Organisations will now have a responsibility to check the personnel who work for them so that they are not overly reliant on the working with children check. One of the points in the recommendations was that we wanted to:

raise the awareness of organisations about the importance of regularly reviewing the status of WWCC by personnel, the need to adopt a range of screening tools, and to not over rely on the WWCC.

I will not go through the other elements of the recommendations or what we found, but I do want put on record the significant work that the inquiry did on this very important area. Even though this bill is referring to the royal commission, I think there has to be some recognition of the work that the committee did in relation to that and the reasons why the royal commission is still going at a national level.

On its website the Commission for Children and Young People gives some information to the Victorian community about the working with children check. It states that the working with children check:

helps protect children from physical and sexual harm. It does this by screening people's criminal records and professional conduct, and by preventing those who pose an unjustifiable risk to children from working with or caring for them.

The check is valid for five years and can be transferable between employers or volunteer organisations.

 

I think that is important to understand in the context of what we are talking about here in terms of how this bill will apply in reality, but also there is more information on the commission's website, very good information, that gives people an understanding about the offences that are relevant to the check, whether they are serious sexual, violent or drug offences, any offence that presents an unjustifiable risk to the safety of children and offences against the Working with Children Act 2005, and there are other offences too. The website gives, as I said, a very competitive overview of who needs a check, the obligations organisations have and what they need to do to keep children safe from harm, and it provides, as I said, the legal obligations of those organisations.

Returning to this bill, as I said at the outset, it implements a number of recommendations made by the royal commission. It amends the definition of direct contact to include other forms of contact, and I did want to make note of clause 4 of this bill. It speaks about not only face-to-face contact but contact by post or other written communication, contact by telephone or other oral communication and contact by email or other electronic communication. I acknowledge that because I think that with the technology that we use on a daily basis, and which is in every part of our daily lives, it can be used to groom and to cause great distress and indeed crimes can be committed in this regard. It is important that that is acknowledged, and I think that the bill does reflect exactly what the community is using in relation to technology, and I think that is an important element of this bill.

The bill also removes the element of supervision to establish that, for the purposes of the working with children check, whether or not a person's contact with a child is supervised is irrelevant. It includes charges for serious offences that have been finally dealt with other than by way of conviction or finding of guilt as charges that can be considered. It also goes on and makes some other minor alterations too.

I wanted to just take note of the government's media release. The bill also, I have to acknowledge, does bring Victoria into line with other states and territories. Certainly, as I alluded to earlier in my contribution, we did highlight that in our inquiry about the differences across the states and territories. There is one element that I am just wanting to raise; it is regarding kinship carers. As the government's media release states:

Kinship carers a family member or other person of significance to a child who has been placed in out-of-home care will now be required to obtain a working with children check.

I just want to say that we want to at all times protect and ensure the safety of children. It is absolutely paramount, and I think we have to, and that is clearly what we have found and what we know from what is being said at a royal commission, but I know that the government is looking at more and more children being removed from out-of-home care or residential care and put into kinship care placement. I do agree that children do need the support of their families and kinship carers have a huge role to play, and there are so many wonderful family members who do take on that role when the immediate family breaks down for whatever reason, whether it is family violence, mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse or other circumstances. The kinship carers do come into play, but as the bill is extending the requirement to them, for those kinship carers who may have a conviction or other criminal activity, then perhaps that will have an impact on those kinship carers, especially within some communities.

I am hoping that will not be the case.

One must always have the children's best interests as the foremost consideration. It is important that that is undertaken.

As I said, this bill is important. There are elements from the work of the royal commission that are still being addressed. This is one of them. We started that work here, and I commend those who were part of that work. I also commend those who have been caring for children in circumstances that are not as close to ideal as perhaps the those of a child in a loving and caring relationship with their parents or close family members.

With those few words I, like my colleague Mr Rich-Phillips, will not be opposing this bill, but I do hope that some of my concerns in relation to kinship carers are taken into consideration and monitored on an ongoing basis.

 

 


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