A new era in child protection

Beth Blackwood

20 December 2017

The release on 15 December 2017 of the final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is the culmination of an intense work agenda involving the forensic examination of historical cases of sexual abuse of children in Australian institutions, one to one sessions with abuse survivors, community consultations and a targeted research program that aimed to both explain that abuse and prevent it occurring again.

The Royal Commission is to be applauded for its work. Australia also owes a debt of gratitude to the survivors who came forward to reveal the impact of abuse on their lives and the lives of their family members. As a nation, our understanding of and attitudes to child safety have been dramatically changed as a result.

A sobering statistic to emerge from the Royal Commission is that over 31.8 per cent of the more than 8,000 survivors who attended private sessions with Commissioners were abused in schools.

 

Criminologist Michael Salter has commented that the Royal Commission’s final report presents a ‘a socially and historically contextualised understanding of child sexual abuse’. He points out that the work of the Royal Commission means we can no longer characterise child sexual abuse as ‘the problem of a deviant minority’, where the only available response is ‘to identify and incarcerate those responsible’. Salter notes that ‘the Commission has made the prevention and identification of child sex offending a collective responsibility’.

 

The Commission has also made explicit what is to be expected of schools – and school leaders – in shouldering that responsibility.

 

AHISA made five submissions to the Royal Commission on a range of key issues affecting child safety in schools. As AHISA’s CEO I also attended two roundtables on child protection and was called to witness at a public hearing on criminal justice provisions. What has been apparent in all our interactions with the Commission is that its focus has not been simply to lay blame, but to identify the practices schools must change or introduce to create safe schools and the support they need to help them do that.

 

Already we have seen in schools a wholesale revision of policies and procedures, with changed practices in relation to the education of permanent and temporary staff and volunteers on child protection and mandatory reporting, in the education of students and parents on child safety and in corporate record keeping. This work will be ongoing. One of the messages for schools driven home by the Commission is that child safety is not just about institutional policies and procedures; child safety must be embedded in a school’s culture. As all school leaders know, building and maintaining healthy school cultures demands long-term commitment and daily attention.

 

It is clear from its final report and recommendations that the Royal Commission expects effective protection of Australia’s children to be its legacy and a key measure of its success. The Commission’s examination of historical cases of abuse in schools has ensured that the safety of students will also be a measure of the success of Principals and a determinant of their legacy in the schools they lead.

 

A pdf of this article is available here .