It is now apparent that across many decades, many of society’s institutions failed our children. Our child protection and criminal and civil justice systems let them down. Although the primary responsibility for the sexual abuse of a child lies with the abuser and the institution of which they were part, we cannot avoid the conclusion that the problems faced by many people who have been abused are the responsibility of our entire society. Society’s values and mechanisms which were available to regulate and control aberrant behaviour failed.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (the Royal Commission) was appointed on 11th January 2013 to investigate and report on child sexual abuse within institutional contexts in Australia. The Commission concluded its work and released a Final Report on 15th December 2017. Comprising of 17 stand-alone but inter-related volumes, the report contains 189 recommendations in addition to those released in earlier reports relating to working with children checks, redress and civil litigation, and criminal justice reform.
The Royal Commission was established by the Gillard government in response to continuing allegations and calls for action by those in power for redress and to stop child sexual abuse in institutional contexts. As the final report acknowledges, numerous public inquiries had already been undertaken by the Commonwealth, state and territory governments and heard about extensive child abuse and neglect with some recommendations only partially or not at all properly acted upon. Notably, this includes the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families 20 years ago, and the national inquiries into Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants early in the 21st century.
The Royal Commission’s approach
The Royal Commission is to be commended for the varied means by which they investigated institutional responses to child sexual abuse in the past, the impacts on children and adults who as children were abused in the institutions charged with their care, and contemporary activity to prevent child sexual abuse: public hearings; a research and policy development program; case studies highlighting institutions where there were the most allegations or particular systemic failings; roundtable meetings with stakeholders; requests for information to government and non-government agencies; and private hearings with and submissions from victims, survivors and family members.
The quote above is indicative of the comprehensive way in which the range of evidence sources informed the Royal Commission’s understanding of institutional child sexual abuse and shaped the recommendations, which are directed at an overarching framework to ensure child safe institutions across Australia; the nature and causes of child sexual abuse, and responding to children with harmful sexual behaviours; particular religious institutions and environments within scope for the inquiry (eg. schools, sporting groups, contemporary out-of-home care, youth detention); improved recordkeeping and information sharing, and responses to and reporting of abuse; and advocacy and services for victims and survivors. Importantly, a volume is devoted to ‘Beyond the Royal Commission’ and contains recommendations about monitoring and reporting on the implementation of responses to recommendations, preserving the records of the Royal Commission, and a national memorial to victims and survivors of child sexual abuse.
The Royal Commission had to deal with the entanglement of sexual abuse and other forms of child abuse and neglect and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, the trauma of removal from family and culture. Amongst other things, this positively impacted the content of recommendations about recordkeeping requirements and contemporary out-of-home care. The different and inconsistent approaches across Australian jurisdictions informed recommendations for national Child Safe Standards to protect children and young people and nationally consistent approaches to systemic legislative and policy issues.
PeakCare’s engagement over the five years
PeakCare engaged with the Royal Commission from the very beginning when the Commonwealth Government sought submissions on the proposed terms of reference and reporting schedule. Once started, PeakCare made six submissions in response to issues papers about working with children checks, child safe institutions, preventing child sexual abuse in out-of-home care, responding to complaints, recordkeeping and records management; and redress and civil litigation. PeakCare and Micah Projects jointly hosted an address by Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald in 2014 to hear about the Royal Commission’s work plan and progress.
Messages from the report
The report contains clear and critical messages for moving forward. The recommendations seek to address poor organisational culture and practices, and are underpinned by the thinking that “Valuing children and their rights is the foundation of all child safe institutions.” Listening to and hearing the stories of victims and survivors helped the Royal Commission identify what should be done to make institutions safer for children in the future.
In residential settings, the lack of oversight, isolating children from protective adults, adults’ unfettered access to children, and poor matching of children’s different needs were identified as characterising the poor and unsafe standard of children’s care. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, children with disability, children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (particularly refugees), vulnerabilities are compounded in institutional settings.
Within religious institutions, the Royal Commission identified a combination of cultural, governance and theological factors that contributed to child sexual abuse occurring and to inadequate institutional responses.
The report states “No single recommendation or group of recommendations can be expected to achieve the required objective. They must all be considered and, depending on the institution, the relevant recommendations must be taken up to bring an improvement in the safety of children.”
While advancing the state of research knowledge, areas of outstanding research and data collection were identified: women who sexually abuse children; data about the number of children with disability, from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and children of care leavers in care living in out-of-home care; the number of children who are sexually abused in different out-of-home care settings and by whom; and data about child sexual abuse in immigration detention environments. Research and evaluation is recommended to build the evidence base for using best practices to prevent child sexual abuse and harmful sexual behaviours in children, and guide the development and refinement of interventions, including piloting and testing initiatives before they are implemented.
The recommendation to establish a national centre for children and adults who as children experienced sexual abuse to raise awareness and understanding about child sexual abuse refers to the centre partnering with child sexual abuse survivors in all of its work. Recommended functions include identifying, translating and promoting research in easily available and accessible formats for advocacy and support and therapeutic treatment practitioners, and leading the development of better service models and interventions through coordinating a national research agenda and conducting high-quality program evaluation.
Some of the recommendations of relevance to Queensland’s out-of-home care system
The following content is limited to intersections with contemporary out-of-home care and children, young people and their families subject to or at risk of statutory child protection interventions and some information about the recommendations relating to youth justice environments. As in other jurisdictions, there is already a very active reform agenda across Queensland’s child and family sector, much of which relates to implementing responses to recommendations from the 2013 Queensland Child Protection Commission of Inquiry, and in the youth justice and domestic and family violence systems. The government has also invested in a generational strategy and action plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families, and the Queensland Family and Child Commission (QFCC) recently released reports into the foster care and blue card systems. Reconciling any tensions and differences in those directions that may undermine the Royal Commission’s preference for national consistency will need careful consideration of contextual differences that may apply in Queensland.
In terms of the central recommendations around national Child Safe Standards, Queensland’s ‘child safe organisations’ framework is both different and similar and is an issue that was considered in the QFCC’s reviews. Queensland’s existing framework is legislatively embedded and the focus has been more on an educative approach than monitoring adherence and taking action where non-compliance is identified. The recommendation for an independent oversight body responsible for monitoring and enforcing the Child Safe Standards for Queensland organisations, preferably by the existing children’s commissioner or guardian, has greater implications as different parts of this puzzle are currently undertaken by different government agencies.
A recommendation proposes a nationally-governed National Framework for Child Safety on the expiry of the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children in 2020. Although the sentiment is understood around “…initiatives to address institutional child sexual abuse, as well as broader child safety issues, and include links to other related policy frameworks”, there is a danger that current conceptualisations of ‘safety’ are hindered by perceptions of managing risk (rather than transparency and accountability about a child’s best interests) and do not broadly embed emotional, cultural and developmental safety, alongside general wellbeing considerations and physical safety. This broader view has implications for related recommendations about a new statutory agency, a National Office for Child Safety, and designated Commonwealth Minister.
A range of recommendations is made in relation to children’s e-safety, a growing area of concern for children of all ages and vulnerabilities.
Recommendations are made about responding to complaints about child sexual abuse given the potential for under-reporting. The recommendations seek national consistency about reporting obligations and protections for reporters, and have implications for Queensland as new categories of reporters are proposed (eg. people in religious ministry, juvenile justice workers).
Because many institutions failed at responding well to complaints, recommendations relate to organisations developing tailored, clear, child-focused systems and a code of conduct. This is not dissimilar to existing requirements in Queensland’s child safe organisation requirements.
Because poor and inadequate records and recordkeeping practices, and “obstructive and unresponsive processes for accessing records” were identified as causing distress and trauma, five high-level principles are recommended. While these mention records and recordkeeping about child sexual abuse, the principles refer to full and accurate records relating to a child’s safety and wellbeing, about reported incidents, appropriate maintenance of records, disposal in accordance with law or policy, and recognising the right to access, amend or annotate records. In regard to obtaining access, the report states “Full access should be given unless it is contrary to law. Specific, not generic, explanations should be provided in any case where a record, or part of a record, is withheld or redacted.” Adherence to the principles and improving the release of records are critical and welcome changes.
Nationally consistent legislative and administrative information exchange between prescribed bodies about possible perpetrators of abuse is recommended, particularly to prevent, identify and respond to incidents in schools and out-of-home care. A register of carers – foster, kinship and residential – is recommended to help with sharing information collected about child sexual abuse by carers.
A range of reforms is recommended to address inadequate and insufficient service system responses to child sexual abuse, including to ensure responses are trauma-informed and offer targeted supports where needs are different, for example, for people with disability or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, complex or changing over time. Specifically mentioned is a mix of community-based services, a national telephone hotline and a national service to assist with legal options and service system navigation, advocacy, support and therapeutic services, and redress and civil litigation. A national centre for children and adults who experienced child sexual abuse in childhood is recommended to provide national leadership.
Better responses to children with harmful sexual behaviours are also subject to recommendations relating to primary prevention and community awareness raising activities to understand and prevent children’s harmful sexual behaviours; early intervention to prevent children’s problematic sexual behaviour from escalating to the point where the child might harm other children; and therapeutic assessment and interventions and tertiary child protection and criminal justice responses. Best practice principles for responding to children’s harmful sexual behaviours are provided.
Notwithstanding reform agendas across Australia in relation to out-of-home care, the Royal Commission found ongoing weaknesses and systemic failures. Recommendations include mandatory accreditation of all out-of-home care providers by an independent agency; nationally consistent carer authorisation requirements for all types of carers; resources for service providers to implement child-friendly mechanisms in relation to views, concerns or complaints; training for all carers about trauma and abuse; coordinated and multidisciplinary strategies to identify and disrupt child sexual exploitation; full implementation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle in recognition of the importance of culture to keeping Indigenous children safe; specialised supports for children with disability; and readily available supports for young people who have been sexually abused in care as they transition to independence.
Again, acknowledging state and territory reforms in youth detention systems, recommendations are made about implementing the recommended Child Safe Standards in youth detention environments, reviewing building and design features that may place children at risk of being sexually abused, strategies that provide for the cultural safety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people, staff training, and therapeutic treatments for victims of child sexual abuse who are in youth detention.
The Royal Commission’s Final Report is clear in the rationale for the 189 new recommendations and the recommendations made in the three earlier reports. Within six months of the Final report being tabled, the Commonwealth, state and territory governments are expected to issue a formal response indicating whether each recommendation is accepted, accepted in principle, rejected or receiving further consideration. Ongoing periodic reporting by governments is expected to begin within six months of tabling to report on the implementation of recommendations in the Final report and three earlier reports.
A recommendation is also included obligating larger institutions and peak bodies of institutions engaged in child-related work to commence reporting on implementation of recommendations within 12 months of the Final report being tabled, and annually for five years, to the National Office for Child Safety. Particular mention is made of reporting by institutions that were the subject of institutional review hearings. A review at 10 years is also recommended. The schedule goes some way to accountability and
In the case of out-of-home care services, partnering with children and young people living in out-of-home care and their advocates, providers and their peak bodies, and adults who as children experienced institutional child sexual abuse will be critical to changes being effective and welcomed.
Given the length and nature of the Final Report, it will take some time to read the volumes thoroughly and properly assess the implications for Queensland’s legislative, policy and practice frameworks. Watch this space.
Principal Policy Adviser