Recently in Australia there has been a Royal Commission which has investigated Child Abuse. This Royal Commission has been a catalyst for much needed reforms. The atrocities being revealed in the testimonies of past abuses have been nothing short of heart breaking. It is imperative for the Church, now more than ever, to rise up and display a model of professional standards in protecting all kids and youth. This article makes some specific references to Victorian legislation but is still a great point of reference no matter where your ministry is based. We hope this encourages you to think seriously about how you can establish a child safe environment for all kids and youth in whatever context you are ministering in.
Know the laws: Ignorance is not a defence
In legal terms, ignorance is not an applicable defence, so it is important you keep up with the rapidly changing laws surrounding child safety.
The recent changes: 3 new criminal offenses
In 2012 the Victorian Government launched an enquiry into the handling of child abuse cases within organisations, resulting in the, ‘Betrayal of Trust’ report (which we highly recommend skimming through). As outlined in this summary page from the Vic Government, multiple recommendations from the inquiry have already been implemented. The most significant developments to be aware of are three new laws that have been introduced as recent as October 2014.
1. A grooming offence
Grooming is the term used to describe the conditioning of a potential sexual abuse victim by an offender. This offense is designed to target ALL forms of communications with a child or their parents with the intent of committing child sexual abuse (yes that includes social media).
Things to consider
In light of this legislation it is important to establish clear boundaries and standards for youth leaders and volunteers in how they communicate to youth and parents, particularly through social media. Any form of private communication should be used in an appropriate way and in moderation. It may be beneficial to keep a record of one on one meetings between youth and leaders regardless of gender, to provide accountability for your leaders and to show you are actively monitoring to reduce the risk of potential abuses.
2. A failure to disclose offence
It is now a requirement for ANY Victorian over 18 years of age to report to police if they have a reasonable belief that a sexual offence has been committed against a child.
Things to consider
If ANY adult has a person under 18 disclose a past abuse, or they have a reasonable belief that a sexual abuse has occurred, they are legally required to file a report to the police or the DHHS (Department of Health & Human Services). An organisation cannot report on their behalf, but you can assist in their report. It is important to go through with your leaders the process of what to do, according to your church’s policy, so they are aware of their obligation.
One basic process
After receiving a disclosure of abuse a leader should ask enough questions to establish reasonable grounds to suspect, it is not their responsibility to do their own investigation. Directly after this they should write down the conversation, word for word without any extra opinions. They should then let a senior leader know and report to DHS. Even explaining these steps at the most basic level will assist your team to understand what is legally required of them.
3. A failure to protect offence
This charge applies to people within organisations who knew of a risk of child sexual abuse by someone in the organisation and had the authority to reduce or remove the risk, but negligently failed to do so.
Things to consider
Among the three legislations, this is rather straightforward. Each organisation is required to preform due diligence to protect each child and has a responsibility to reduce and remove any chance of harm through vetting of volunteers, having clear policies and expectations that volunteers understand and follow.
Know your church policies:
The best place to start, and one that is imperative to know
It takes a special person to be excited about the thought of policies. The reality is though, it is important to know your church’s policies, especially around child protection. If your church community does not have a child protection policy there are fantastic organisations like ChildSafe that may be able to help you out. From your policies you need to work with your leaders so they are fully aware of what procedures and practices are required of them.
Action points: Reducing and Removing the risk
Here are some important action points to begin thinking about and establishing with your leaders if you haven’t already…
- If transporting youth, don’t have a leader and a youth of the opposite gender alone in one car
- Regardless of gender, keep accountable by having leaders text a superior leader when they pick up and after they drop of a youth
- Try and have female leaders ministering to female youth and male leaders ministering to male youth
- Avoid private messages online and via text to the opposite gender if those messages are not directly related to the youth program. However, even between youth and leaders of the same gender it important to have boundaries around the quantity and content of messages
- Never be alone, in a closed off room or out of sight of other leaders with a youth of the opposite gender
- Have your youth and leaders sign in before youth so you have a record of who was at each program or event
- WWCCs (Working with Children Checks) are not optional! Have a photo copy of all your leader’s and volunteer’s cards easily accessible and on file, at all times
- Have a child protection policy written and easily accessible
- Go through with your leader semi regularly what to do if they hear about or suspect an abuse
- Be open with your leaders and volunteers of the importance of these things so they understand and carry out the processes
Child safety is something we need to commit to in practice, not just sentiment. As a pastor or leader of volunteers who are also working with young people, it is imperative that we take those volunteers on a journey to understand the importance of this and how to create a safe environment for all children and youth. We encourage you to look deeper into the details so as the Church we can be united in our desire to see all kids and youth protected.
Useful links to look through
A step-by-step guide to making a report to Child Protection or Child FIRST: http://www.dhs.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/582591/flowchart-mandatory-reporting-27-5-10.pdf
Reading the signs of abuse: http://www.dhs.vic.gov.au/for-individuals/children,-families-and-young-people/child-protection/about-child-abuse/what-is-child-abuse/how-can-abuse-and-neglect-be-recognised
Quality training: http://www.safeguardingchildren.com.au/
National Council of Australian Churches Standards: http://www.ncca.org.au/index.php/safe-church-training-agreement/201-scta-framework-and-standards
DHS about Child protection: http://www.dhs.vic.gov.au/for-service-providers/children,-youth-and-families/child-protection
Article Written by: Nathan McMillan – Nathan is the Youth Pastor at Bayside Church in Melbourne Australia.