It’s organisational leaders who fail to manage situational risks for the safety of children

It’s organisational leaders who fail to manage situational risks for the safety of children

22 January 2018

Professor Daryl Higgins reflects on the findings from the Royal Commission and considers how organisational leaders can best respond.

Child protection in Australia has been under the spotlight of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse for over 4 years, but we will not be able to maximise the opportunity for sustainable change if the leaders of our organisations do not respond accordingly.

With the release of the Royal Commission's final report on 15 December 2017, it is important to reflect on its learning and recognise what leaders of institutions with responsibility for children have to do. Through the Royal Commission’s work, it has become evident that organisational leaders—CEOs and bishops, principals, managers, ministers or priests, team leaders and other practice leaders—must drive cultural change, better manage situational risks, and prioritise the participation of children and young people in institutions. This includes listening to children about what makes them feel safe or unsafe. Leaders of organisations must also rise to the challenge of acknowledging the past and ensuring that such abuse is never allowed to occur again.

In addition to historical institutions, such as children’s homes, the Royal Commission focused on current youth-serving organisations (including sports programs, recreation and arts organisations), churches and religious organisations from many different denominations, schools, and welfare organisations (such as those providing out-of-home care services).

Australian jurisdictions anticipated the Royal Commission’s recommendations and proactively made legislative changes. For example, in Victoria, where an earlier Royal Commission also took place, the Government has legislated Child Safe Standards and a reportable conduct scheme. Rather than making every participant at a local soccer match have a Working With Children Check, this provides the legislative impetus for culture change within organisations to prioritise the safeguarding of children.

Some institutions are finding it challenging to accept the consequences of the Royal Commission. While some are understandably overwhelmed by, but committed to, the task of making significant organisational changes, others have become defensive, including leaders of churches and religious organisations. Rather than be defensive, the work of the Royal Commission should be considered a gift. The work shines an uncomfortable light on the dark past, and even on the murky present, which can help to provide the motivation to address the contemporary leadership challenge: how to ensure we have acknowledged and learned lessons from the past, and implemented strategies to bring about the necessary safeguarding revolution within organisations. This is not something that can simply be imposed upon organisations—organisations must also be willing to make change from within.

One of the key messages that came out of the case studies, reports and research published by the Royal Commission is the importance of changing the cultures of organisations. Victim-blaming, unclear definitions of acceptable and unacceptable adult behaviours, ignoring or tolerating breaches, and power imbalances where children and young people feel unable to speak up about abuse or concerns are all aspects of organisational culture that need to change.

Leaders within organisations are responsible for and must be willing to examine how the “power of the situation” that they manage influences individual behaviour and how they can shape the situational context to improve conditions of safety. Social psychology research demonstrates that individuals’ behaviour is shaped significantly by the situation and norms that are created. Organisational cultures may allow for a variety of forms of bullying, harassment and intimidation to occur, which in turn can increase a child’s vulnerability to sexual abuse.

Overreliance on pre-employment screening (such as Working With Children Checks) takes our focus away from assessing the capacity of adults to bring the desired values and skills to working with children and young people, from setting clear behavioural expectations through policies and supervision, and from implementing strategies to monitor their ongoing suitability. It also ignores the ways that individual behaviour—including harmful behaviour—is shaped, or excused, by the environmental context. And that is something that leaders can directly influence. Focusing on individual factors—the propensity of adults to abuse, or the vulnerability of individuals or groups to be victims—neglects the important role of situational risks.

Safeguarding children and young people

In response to the Royal Commission, the Institute of Child Protection Studies at the Australian Catholic University has launched the Safeguarding Children and Young People Portal for organisational leaders, policy makers, practitioners, and professionals who work or volunteer in institutions that support children and young people. The portal includes a range of relevant research publications and resources, tools, and professional development opportunities to increase institutions’ capacity to protect the children and young people in their care.

Feature image by Rachael Crowe, CC0 1.0.


Great summary of the overall value of the Royal Commission and where we need to go from here. It absolutely has been a gift for organisations, and we all need to do the deep learning and reflection this gift provides. The new ICPS portal looks really valuable, too!
Karen Wilcox
Very important point in changing the culture of organisations that maintain power, control and secrecy of known breaches of care for children and young people. Of note is the covert psychological bullying that occurs when individuals in organisations attempt to break the silence and report abuse to protect those vulnerable who are themselves then victimised and punished, often through the loss of employment and then blacklisted in their quest for upholding a duty of care. We must continue to ensure the culture change is a top down approach as this has proved to be the barrier to change. Policy is not enough, it takes courage to challenge the status quo and uphold policy and create a culture of collaborative care for everyone who works in this field.

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Daryl Higgins

Professor Daryl Higgins is Director of the Institute of Child Protection Studies at the Australian Catholic University.

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