As the Royal Commission has conducted its hearings across the country, it has become clear that many many institutions and organisations have failed to take the protection of children seriously in years gone by. It is heartbreaking to contemplate the lives that have been so deeply fractured by the betrayal of trust at a young age.
Thankfully, matters have changed on many levels. Legislation has been enacted that provides greater safeguards for children. Organisations, including schools, are much more conscious of their responsibilities. Society as a whole is more aware of predatory behaviours and we are less likely to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing in these matters.
In NSW there are three major pieces of legislation that speak specifically to the issue of child protection. These are the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998, the Child Protection (Working with Children) Act 2012, and the Ombudsman Act 1974.
The Care and Protection Act provides for mandatory reporting. It is this Act that requires teachers, among others, to report to Community Services if there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a child is at risk of significant harm. In the context of our school, this report is usually made to Community Services through the Principal.
The Working with Children Act has to do with screening individuals for child-related employment. By ensuring that previous offenders are barred from child-related roles, this Act attempts to prevent predators from simply relocating and continuing to prey upon children. It is a condition of employment at Inaburra that every person have a valid Working with Children Check.
The Ombudsman Act requires the heads of agencies, such as the principals of independent schools, to notify the Ombudsman of all allegations of reportable conduct by employees and the outcomes of the School’s investigation into those allegations. Reportable conduct is defined as: a) any sexual offence or sexual misconduct committed against, with or in the presence of a child (including a child pornography offence or an offence involving child abuse material); b) any assault, ill-treatment or neglect of a child; and c) any behaviour that causes psychological harm to a child whether or not, in any case, with the consent of the child.
As the head of agency, it is my responsibility to ensure that there are systems and policies in the school to ensure that allegations of reportable conduct are reported to me, that they are investigated, that the police are notified if the matter may be criminal and that a full report, including any internal disciplinary action taken, is made to the Ombudsman. All allegations of potentially reportable conduct by employees of the school are to be brought to me; they will be taken seriously. Of all my responsibilities, this one weighs very heavily upon me.
The Child Protection Policy at Inaburra was written by a prominent legal firm and provided to us (and the other NSW independent schools) by the Association of Independent Schools (AIS). It was updated in 2013 to reflect legislative change and it is reviewed biennially by the Board of Directors of Inaburra Communications Limited (ICL). All employees are provided with and required to read the policy upon commencing employment. In addition, the staff receive child protection training with reference to the Policy each year.
I have outlined all these details because I want to reassure the parent community that Inaburra is not just aware of its child protection obligations, but that we are active and vigilant in ensuring that those obligations are fulfilled.
The fact that these Acts and policies are required is yet another reminder that we live in a broken world. The Christian doctrine of sin teaches us not to place too much faith in human nature; people are capable of distressing evil and of wilful denial. The Scriptures also remind us of the priority that Jesus placed upon children; it is horrific to contemplate that so much of the damage that is now being brought to light has been perpetrated by people who have claimed to be his followers.
The school that is presently in the news has come a very long way since the days that are under scrutiny. It is led by a Christian man who has been exemplary in his willingness to take responsibility for the actions and inactions of his school over time, his courage in bringing about cultural change, and his compassion in responding to those who have been hurt. If you are a praying person, please pray for him and his school community, as well as for those who have been grievously wronged.
It saddens me that these matters are ones that warrant extended commentary in this form, but it is unarguable that light is the best disinfectant and that more harm has been done through silence than might have been the case. If you find yourself in the situation of trying to explain the snippets heard on the news to your children, please try to make the conversation a learning moment for them in an age-appropriate way. As always, there are resources online that can be of assistance to you.