Australia: Deter and detect: pre-employment strategies in schools aimed at reducing child abuse

IN BRIEF

Child abuse and arrangements that allow it to occur can never be tolerated. Lessons from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse teach us that schools that operate without accountability when identifying and responding to child safety present significant risks to the children in their care.

ROYAL COMMISSION

An important observation from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is that careful screening by organisations during recruitment can help to detect perpetrators and deter registered or unregistered offenders from joining institutions that care for children.

While the case studies examined by the Royal Commission were historical in nature, people unsuitable to work with children still gain employment in schools today. To be child safe, it is essential for schools and other institutions caring for children to prioritise child protection and regularly review recruitment policies, procedures and practices.

CHILD SAFE STANDARDS FOR VICTORIAN SCHOOLS

Since 1 August 2016, by virtue of Ministerial Order No. 870, the creation of Child Safe Standards have required Victorian schools to create and maintain child safe organisations by implementing seven key standards. Standard 6 is of particular importance in the context of recruitment, focussing on "strategies to identify and reduce or remove risks of child abuse".

DETER AND DETECT PERPETRATORS DURING RECRUITMENT

It is likely that some perpetrators applying for child-related employment will not have been previously detected. Therefore, simply verifying that a new employee has a Working with Children Check will not be enough.

Pre-employment screening aims to make it as difficult as possible for perpetrators to work with children. It does this by trying to filter out, during the recruitment process, people who pose a risk to children. There is evidence that it also deters registered offenders from applying for positions that involve working with children if they know they will be detected (See Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Interim Report Volume I, p. 131).

BE ALERT TO CANDIDATES WITH "UNUSUAL ATTITUDES ABOUT CHILDREN"

It is accepted that most perpetrators applying for jobs working with children will not have criminal records. Accordingly, the Royal Commission advises that schools undertaking recruitment should watch out for signs of a perpetrator during the recruitment process. For example, being alert to candidates with "unusual attitudes about children", such as applicants saying they have "special relationships" with children, or where their desire to work with children seems focused on meeting their own psychological or emotional needs. (Ibid, p. 132)

CONDUCT DETAILED INTERVIEWS AND REFERENCE CHECKS

To detect individuals unsuitable to work with children, the Royal Commission heard evidence that employers should check references carefully and use structured interviews that focus on behaviour based questions.

Interviews may also serve a deterrent purpose because they allow schools to give clear information to applicants about its commitment to child safety, and about its policies and procedures to prevent child sexual abuse. They also allow close observation of prospective staff, including how they respond to child safe policies and practices. (Ibid, p. 132)

Candidates should be asked to provide referee contact details for all relevant previous employers, even when the candidate has not included them in their CV. Schools should telephone all referees, and ask detailed questions relating to the candidate's professional conduct and commitment to child safety. Advice should be sought if there are concerns about privacy.

USE VOLUNTARY SELF-DISCLOSURE DECLARATION FORMS

Schools are encouraged to ask job candidates to complete detailed written self-disclosure declarations, not dissimilar to pre-existing injury or illness forms many employers already use during recruitment. Such a declaration would require at minimum that the candidate volunteer if they have been previously investigated for professional conduct matters, been charged but not convicted of a criminal offence, or been dismissed and signed a release agreement in prior employment.

Provided that discriminatory decisions are avoided, schools could decide whether to progress a candidate's application for employment based on completion of the pre-employment disclosure questions.

REPORTABLE CONDUCT SCHEME MANDATORY IN VICTORIA

Victorian schools are reminded that a reportable conduct scheme commenced on 1 July 2017 overseen by the Commission for Children & Young People, requiring mandatory identification, investigation and reporting by schools (and other organisations providing services to children) of all allegations of "reportable conduct" towards children committed by employees, contractors and volunteers of the organisation. The scheme applies once an individual is employed or engaged. It is a criminal offence to fail, without reasonable excuse, to comply with the reportable conduct scheme.

OBTAIN INDEPENDENT ADVICE TO REDUCE LEGAL AND CORPORATE RISK

Schools that operate without accountability when identifying and responding to child safety present significant risks to the children in their care. Schools are strongly encouraged to seek advice about identifying children who might be at risk, managing the behaviour of employees who work with children, and controlling the situations or environments that pose a risk to children's safety and wellbeing.

Paul O'Halloran
Workplace relations
Colin Biggers & Paisley

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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