How can child welfare and youth-serving organisations keep children safe?

Content type
Event date

15 September 2016, 1:30 pm to 2:30 pm (AEST)


Daryl Higgins




You are in an archived section of the AIFS website 



This webinar was held on 15 September 2016.

The following key strategies for keeping children safe were discussed:

  • pre-employment screening;
  • ongoing suitability assessment;
  • limiting opportunities by identifying and addressing situational risks;
  • developing policies and procedures for identifying signs of abuse and responsibility for responding to disclosures;
  • providing training and ongoing support for staff; and
  • implementing sexual abuse-specific prevention and education programs.

Key issues and challenges for policy and practice, and the research implications of the gaps in our knowledge, were also covered.

The webinar was particularly relevant for out-of-home care services, and all child-serving organisations including schools, early childhood education and care, youth-serving organisations and religious organisations.

Audio transcript (edited)


Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to today's webinar, "How can child welfare and youth-serving organisations keep children safe?"  My name is Elly Robinson and I'm the Executive Manager of Practice, Evidence and Engagement here at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.  I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today, and pay my respects to their elders past and present, and to the elders from the other communities who may be present today. 

We will hear about evidence-based solutions to creating child-safe cultures in child and family welfare organisations in today's webinar.  Before I introduce our presenter, I would also like to alert you to some brief housekeeping details.  You are able to submit questions via the chat box at any time during the webinar.  We have some time at the end of the presentation to respond to as many questions as possible, and we've also setup a forum on the CFCA information exchange website where you can discuss the ideas and issues raised and submit additional questions for our presenter.  We will send you a link to the forum at the conclusion of today's presentation. 

Please remember, that this webinar is being recorded and the audio, transcript and presentation slides will be made available on our website and YouTube channel in due course.  Accessible versions will also be available. 

It's now my pleasure to introduce today's presenter.  Associate Professor Daryl Higgins is the Deputy Director of Research at the Australian Institute of Family Studies where he has responsibility for the institute's research program and its knowledge, translation and exchange functions.  Daryl also holds an adjunct academic appointment at the University of Melbourne.  Daryl is a registered psychologist and has been researching child abuse, family violence, sexuality and family functioning since 1993. 

He has extensive experience in managing and supervising research, and has led projects looking at child abuse and neglect, children in out-of-home care and child-safe organisations, to name a few.  As well as collaborating with international colleagues on a project for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse examining risk factors for particular types of organisations, Daryl has recently published a paper in the Journal of Developing Practice that explains the national and international context and an overview of what we have learned from research about creating safety for children.  Welcome, Daryl.


Thank you, Elly, and it's a great pleasure to be here within my own organisation presenting this webinar and I'd like to also acknowledge my respect for elders past and present.  In terms of acknowledgements, I'd also like to mention two colleagues, Keith Kaufman and Marcus Erooga, who have worked with me on some of the analysis of research relating to particular risk factors in different types of organisations and to a number of colleagues, past and present, at the institute, including those who have worked as part of the CFCA information exchange. 

Today I want this to be evidence-based, I want to reflect on research, but it's also about reflecting on the implications of theoretical constructs relating to risk and how that actually applies to the everyday realities that I know you, as attendees at today's webinar, are likely to be encountering.  So I want this to be practical and in order to achieve that I'd like you to just spend a few seconds thinking about the organisation that you work in or, if you're actually not personally involved in a child-focused organisation, think about an organisation that your son or daughter or another family member or a friend might be involved with and think about what that organisation does. 

What do you think might be the most risky aspect of that organisation's activity that could possibly allow the sexual abuse of a child?  So just take a moment to write down what you think that particular activity or the element of that activity that might bring about the greatest risk and I want you to come back to that after I've talked a little bit about some of the frameworks that we think about, in terms of assessing risk and addressing risk and let's see whether by the end of today's webinar I've given you some suggestions for how you might be able to think through and address to mitigate or reduce that particular risk so that's a bit of a tall order I've set for myself but I'd love to hear your feedback at the end as to whether you think that today's been helpful in trying to address that. 

So on the screen now you can probably see a very large number of risk factors that has been identified in research over the years around characteristics of children that might increase their vulnerability to sexual abuse or characteristics of offenders or adults, would-be offenders, that might increase the chance of them being an offender or engaging in offending behaviour. Now, I'm not going to focus too much on this today because that research is relatively well known, it probably is not going to come as a surprise to you. 

What I think is a bit of a surprise is the third aspect that we have much less visibility of and much less focus on, in terms of our prevention strategies and the responsibilities of organisations right throughout the community and I'm talking here about volunteer organisations, not just funded services like out of home care or residential care providers.  So what are the characteristics of the environment within organisations and more broadly across the community that might increase risk? 

That's really what I want to focus on today.  Why is that important?  Well, if we think back about how, within Australia, we're trying to address the issue of prevention of child abuse, we have a National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children, which explicitly is based on what we call a public health approach to prevention and what that identifies, first of all, is that we try and address harm before it occurs by looking at what the drivers are of a particular event, in this instance, child abuse and neglect, and therefore we have to look at the risk factors.

So where those characteristics might be occurring and how those can be changed in order to reduce the likelihood of an event such as child maltreatment occurring rather than focusing on detection of events after they've occurred and ameliorating their impacts and, of course, that's what statutory child protection systems are focused on so explicitly the National Framework is about trying to move things upstream to a public health approach, so therefore we need to look at what are those risk factors at the individual level, at the parent or the family level, at the level of those who are offenders or would-be perpetrators, particularly within the context of them having already been identified as an offender.

How do we reduce the likelihood of them re-offending, but importantly what are some of the social or environmental factors such as at the community level, our knowledge, our attitudes and our skills around prevention of abuse and child safety and then specifically, within the context of organisations, how do we identify and reduce situational risk and actually create child safe cultures right across our suite of child-related and youth-serving organisations, and that's going to be my focus today. 

I know this is a long preamble but it's really important to kind of set up the rationale for why we are not focusing on individuals but rather talking about systemic strategies that can be implemented across organisations and across communities and the reality is that if we focus too much on the issue of trying to identify bad people that we are likely to miss a whole lot of instances of sexual abuse. Why is that? Well, first time abusers have no offence history so we're not going to detect them in any kind of screening system because they haven't yet offended. Also, much abuse goes undetected or unreported so even if someone has abused before, if it hasn't been reported or in fact if we have poor systems to share information, that's not likely to be picked up and identified. 

We also know that it's not just adults who engage in inappropriate, illegal or harmful behaviours.  We have good research to show that young people also engage in sexually abusive or harmful behaviours towards other young people, either younger than themselves or even same age peers and so if we try and have too much of a focus on preventing bad adults we will miss a lot of the potentially risky situations that young people are likely to be exposed to.

The other thing that we can focus on is that the lessons that we have learned from other elements of organisational safety.  There's things that we can learn from the laws and the strategies that have been put in place to address occupational health and safety within organisations.  We can also think about how we've tried to prevent issues of financial mismanagement within organisations.

So just focusing on the latter, we don't expect that the processes for ensuring financial prudence rely primarily on employment screening i.e. that you would be able to know that someone is a bad person and therefore shouldn't get into an organisation because they're likely to financially mismanage it, engage in fraud or some other unfortunate activity. Nor do we rely primarily on customer vigilance, that's it up to, let's say, someone who deposits money in a bank to make sure that nothing goes on in that bank, that they're the ones who are responsible for their own safety.  We don't have either of those things.

Instead, what we have is systems right across organisations from financial institutions right through to small not-for-profit community organisations where we define what acceptable and unacceptable behaviour is, where we implement strategies to minimise some of those risks so it could be as simple as having someone observe while somebody else counts cash when you've been collecting money through a volunteer organisation.

Thirdly, we make sure that we try and change the culture of organisations and, for those of you who are fans of movies and have seen, "The Wolf of Wall Street", we see there a very clear example of how within a broad sector there was a culture of getting away with fraud and unscrupulous behaviour that actually led to widespread financial mismanagement.

Similarly, and some of you will be thinking, “Oh, I've spent a lot of time going to the movies”, there's a couple of other examples that we've seen in the box office lately that remind us not to focus just on the individuals but rather the power of the situation that sits behind those individual actions.  For example, the movie, "Spotlight", really highlights the issue of how the Boston Diocese was exposed for their cover up within the church of abuse and how there were failures to disclose but really what the movie emphasises was not the individual behaviour of one or two people but rather the systems that failed to support when those concerns were raised so it moves it on from the level of a bad person to a bad system.

That same theme emerges in the, "Stanford prison experiment", and that has, you know, it's a famous psychology experiment.  Those of you who've done psychology or even social work where you're exposed to some of these key research studies from the 1970s will know the amazing ways in which the situation determines and strongly influences individual's behaviour. 

There was a small group of undergraduate college students who were selected for an experiment randomly assigned to two groups.  They were either chosen to be prison guards or prisoners.  There were no differences between those two groups.  It was randomly assigned and yet what happened within a very short space of time, a matter of hours, that they started to comply with the expected behaviours.

I think I've said enough about that but the important issue is it's not about bad people, it's about saying how can we at a systems level change the situation so that anybody is likely to be prevented from engaging in untoward behaviour. 

So it demonstrates the power of the situation and the implication, I think, for child safety in organisations, is that we've failed and we will continue to fail if we try and focus solely on identifying, weeding out or preventing bad people from joining organisations.

So what are some of the key risks in child-related organisations that we need to think about that simply focusing on screening and detection is not going to pick up?  Well, for those of you who've worked in the area of child abuse and neglect, and particularly child sexual abuse, you will have heard of the concept of grooming, and this is the process prior to the act of abuse that's a precursor that those who are going to engage in offending behaviour will rely on to build up a relationship and to build up trust between them and the victim but also the institutional community and that's what I would really like to focus on now is that grooming doesn't just occur with victims, grooming actually occurs with others within the organisation, because we know from research about offenders is that they are often seen as being high profile, trustworthy, important people within organisations and within communities and the claim will often be, “Oh it couldn't possibly be him” or “It couldn't possibly be her”.

So the modus operandi of perpetrators might differ between institutional context and different settings allow different opportunities for and different facilitators of abuse so we actually need to take a different lens depending on the type of organisation that we're working in and what are the particular opportunities that our organisation provides, and I hope you're starting to think back to those notes that you wrote back at the beginning about what is the risky elements of your particular organisation.

Just as an example, we know that this is not static but changes over time so when we have new technologies available, mobile phones that have, you know, smartphone capability and new social media apps and so forth open up new avenues for communication and therefore for engagement in those grooming behaviours that are one of those necessary precursors, in most instances, for sexual abuse to occur.

So therefore we can see how elements of the climate of an organisation, the particular culture and the norms that go on within organisations can actually act to facilitate or, hopefully, to interrupt abuse and its precursors.

I've got a quote here from a researcher saying, "Just as children are groomed by adults to allow them to perpetrate sexual acts, other adults are groomed or desensitised to perceive potentially risky behaviour as harmless".

So now I'm getting to the bulk of the task of today's webinar and that's to talk about what do child safety environments look like and what are the important steps? 

As you've probably guessed, I've already talked about the limitations of screening for known perpetrators but that's not to in any way diminish the importance of it as a first step.  So I'll talk a little bit about that. I'll talk about managing situational risks and what we've learned from research about risk factors and strategies for prevention but most importantly I want to end on talking about creating positive cultures and how we need to focus on clarifying unacceptable behaviours, encouraging disclosures and involving authorities.

So let's talk firstly about screening so that is that first but very minimal step of preventing those who we already know carry risks and so the three steps there are: undertaking police checks, Working with Children Checks and following mandatory reporting and disclosure laws.

So pre-employment screening I'm going to go through fairly quickly but for those of you who are not familiar with it, there's some great resources on the CFCA website around what police checks are, what a Working with Children Check is, which is more extensive but also more targeted, so it doesn't just include offences but it includes a wider range of concerning behaviours. But it's also not as extensive as police checks in that police checks will go to other elements of criminal behaviour that are not relevant for a Working with Children Check so you have to think about fit for purpose and what the obligations are within your particular organisation or sector.

So you need to understand those obligations very clearly but most importantly to recognise the limitations of pre-employment screening that, as I said earlier, most child sex offenders do not have criminal records, so therefore having staff vetted through a pre-employment screening of some sort is just the first chapter in the book, not the final chapter.  Therefore we need to go to some of the next steps about creating child safe organisations through policies, through monitoring and through ongoing actions.

Mandatory reporting is also an important step, because, as I said, while most abusers won't necessarily have been reported, one of the ways of turning that around is to follow the guidelines around mandatory reporting. That way there's an increased chance that those who have engaged in offending behaviour are then known to authorities and therefore can be detected in the future. So it's not about preventing harm now because the harm is likely to have already occurred, it's about preventing harm for the future and building up a database, if you like, of those who have a known history, even though, of course, that has serious limitations, and, as you can see here on the slide, there's also quite a bit of variability between the laws right across Australia regarding who is mandated to report and what it is that they're mandated to report about, so the types of situations and the types of harm.

Finally, I'd point out that Victoria now has some new legislation that's about failure to disclose, which is covering all adults with a reasonable belief that a sexual offence has been committed against a child and that's quite separate from the mandatory reporting obligations that apply to specified professional groups so it's important that people are keeping up to date with that information and please keep checking with CFCA for updates regarding those kinds of laws.

Secondly is the issue of managing situational risks.  So making organisations safer involves identifying those risk factors, changing risky environments where possible and where it's not possible because of the activity inherently has some risks, it's about closer monitoring in order to be able to try and minimise those.

So different organisations will have a different risk profile and I'm sure for all of you who are listening in today and have written down what's the most risky element of the organisation that you're involved in or are aware of, I'm sure that we will have different things written down for many of you. There will be some overlaps but there'll be some really different things. 

Why is that? Well, because organisations operate in different ways and we know, for example, that organisations that are more like a family style environment and some of the ones that ironically carry the higher risk. Why is that? You would think that families are a place of safety and security for children and, of course, for many children they are, but families themselves are one of the opportunities of risk and that is because families have those characteristics of high levels of trust, high levels of interaction unsupervised by others.

So where those same characteristics are occurring in organisations, they tend to carry higher risk. So that's where staff might be required to act in the place of parents and to be exercising parental responsibility. Where there's a need for physical contact with children or young people, for example, through showering, through toileting, through changing clothes, such as sports organisations.  Where there are sleepovers or camps and where there's a need for transport at odd hours or where there's unexpected decisions that need to be made that involve interaction with and supervision of children.

So some of the questions that you might want to ask yourself if you struggled to write down at the beginning an example of what is a risky element of your particular organisation is to think about do you have low levels of supervision from others of adult/child interactions.  So who gets to see when an adult is spending time one on one with a child or a young person? Are adults used as role models or as mentors? Are they meant to be friendly and building trust with young people? Are there opportunities for private communication channels where there's low levels of supervision, such as social media? And are there other elements to the organisation's culture that actually might allow abuse to be tolerated or excused? So is there a stronger gender stereotype? Are there only males or only females involved, either as children and young people or as the adults or the supervisors within the organisation?  Are there unfortunate attitudes regarding same-sex attracted young people that might lead to actual, or perceptions of, homophobia and therefore young people feel as though they are silenced and somehow excluded or marginalised and increase their vulnerability? Is there alcohol misused within the organisation that could be used as an excuse or as a facilitator for perpetrators or something that is used to overcome the inhibitions, if you like, of a child or a young person?

So these are all questions that we know that research has pointed out are examples of things that carry greater risk, but the operationalisation of them in your particular organisation is something that you have to work through and find out where those elements of risk might be operating, why they're operating, how inherent they are and what might be the opportunities for changing or ameliorating some of those risks.

In talking about risk, I don't want to sound alarmist because, of course, many of those things that I just talked about that, not only are they things that carry risk, but they are also things that carry opportunities.  We know that building trust and having close mentoring relationships between adults and children can be really positive and can be an essential component of some programs, for example, if you're running a mentoring program, it's not sufficient just to say, well, it involves mentoring, therefore it carries risk, therefore we won't do it. It's about how do you put in place strategies to try and mitigate that risk and do a better job of supporting both adults and young people within that organisation so that those activities that do inherently carry a higher level of risk can still occur because they are important and we have evidence to show that they're important for building resilience and supporting young people.

So some possible protective factors we know is that adults can be positive role models and can actually model safe relationships, model demonstrating the way in which they put in place boundaries around their personal life, around their personal physical space et cetera.  Encouraging and responding appropriately to abuse that's occurring elsewhere is one way that adults within an organisation can demonstrate that they are supporting and using those opportunities of having close and trusting relationships with children and young people for their good and, of course, fostering inclusion and peer support right across the organisation.

So I don't want you to be left thinking that organisations are all about risk and you should go looking for risks everywhere without also looking at what are the opportunities and that you don't inadvertently lead to a reduction in the effectiveness of your organisation's activities and its supports for children and young people.

I want to spend a little bit of time talking about the research that we have on what's call situational crime prevention and this has come from the fields of criminology and juvenile justice and other fields like that where we understand that, given the right circumstances, anyone could offend, so, for example, safety from car theft.  We don't focus on trying to identify who are the high risk car thieves.  We've actually put most of our effort into changing the situation such as having better car locks, having visible systems of alarms or, I remember from the 80s and 90s before the, sort of, electronic locks, there were the big manual locks that you would put over your steering wheel so it was very visible that the car was locked and therefore trying to break in and steal it wouldn't be effective.  Removing money and hand bags and wallets and cash from visible places within the car or any other things of course is another of those strategies.

So how can we think about what we've learned from some of these other aspects and try and apply them to the issue of crime against children and particularly sexual crime?

So the basic tenets of a situational crime prevention approach is that it's meant to focus on trying to address the limits of pre-employment screening and ongoing suitability assessments because it focuses on creating safe environments rather than safe individuals. 

So what are the ways we do that? First of all, it's primarily about reducing opportunity, and by that, what we mean is making crime more risky. And let's not forget when we're talking about child sexual abuse we're not just talking about untoward behaviours. We're at a point in our society where we absolutely know that this is criminal behaviour. So let's think about what we can learn from other elements of criminal behaviour.

So it's about making crime more risky, making crime more effortful, reducing the rewards for engaging in that crime, removing the excuses and preventing, and, for people around that young person or that potential offender, to not tolerate what we call grooming behaviour.

How do we do that? And this is really the final and most important part of my presentation today, is to talk about some of the critical steps in creating child safe organisations and by that we really mean the positive organisational culture that gets rid of excuses and makes overt the importance of protecting children and addressing at all levels within the organisation risks that might occur. 

So the three, kind of, key aspects are: clarifying unacceptable behaviour, encouraging and responding appropriately to disclosures, and, thirdly, involving police and child protection authorities. It's really the first one that I think is the most important one of those.

So what are some examples of what we mean by that?  One is values-based interviewing.  What we mean by that is not simply screening, in terms of have you ever had an offence that relates to a child but rather talking about the conditions that might facilitate or inhibit those untoward behaviours starting to occur, let alone a criminal behaviour actually occurring and so being able to, at an interview or a selection process for a volunteer or for commencement of a program that you talk about those things that are important to a child safe organisation so the value of children, talking about how people would apply their thinking to a particular context.

Creating induction programs, once you've gone through that screening and the values-based interviewing and made sure that you're happy with the way in which a person coming into an organisation as a worker or as a volunteer is going to be approaching children and valuing children, it's about reinforcing that through induction programs where you define what acceptable behaviour is. 

Recently I came across a statement by an organisation, "Life Without Barriers", and there are a number of organisations like this, where they make very clear what acceptable behaviour is and they have one example for people working in residential care settings where they say explicitly workers who are staying overnight need to make sure that they are wearing pyjamas. Now, that seems like a bit of an odd thing to say in some ways and yet it's a very practical thing. You have to think about what are the steps that you need to go through if you're a worker. You need to be able to be prepared to be interrupted during the middle of the night and therefore having appropriate attire in order to not place yourself at risk, let alone place a young person or other person at risk, is really important so it's about thinking through what are the particular requirements of my organisational setting for both adults and for children and young people. Those induction programs, they need to be reinforced with ongoing professional development.

So I hope you're starting to get a very strong message here that this is not about a single action that can be taken but it's rather a suite of interconnected activities that need to be continually revised and reinforced right throughout the life of a project, a program or an organisation. 

Professional development, implanting supervision, mentoring, and accountability for staff, now, I would ask you, those of you who are supervisors or team leaders, how often do you ask your team members who are working with children or young people, specific questions about have they ever observed something that was a concerning behaviour either by another staff member or were they ever asked to do something that was inappropriate?  Unless we ask these direct questions we're not likely to get answers.

Certainly in other areas we have the same things. I'm on a risk committee for a Commonwealth organisation where the auditors literally ask other members of the committee to say are you aware of any other information that would be of concern. Unless you ask those kind of questions you're not likely to get the answers because people often feel as though, well, you know, I don't really know, I'm not quite sure, I might be, you know, dobbing in somebody. So we have to turn that around and talk about things more often so that we have an open environment and can discuss concerns freely.

We also have to have good supports and training around understanding and compliance with mandatory reporting obligations. As I said before, there needs to be a process, a structured process to support the analysis and then the addressing of risks right across each organisation. It's not possible to develop one template and say this can be applied right across every organisation because of the different types of activities that agencies and organisations and different community sectors engage in so there does need to be tailoring of those kind of analysis of risks and therefore the kind of policies, procedures and standards that need to be developed in order to address those risks, and, of course, for them to be not just done once and placed upon that shelf for dust to collect on them but rather to be regularly used and reviewed and updated as part of the business as usual of an organisation.

Secondly, and this is equally important, in terms of sending a strong message around the culture of an organisation, is the importance of facilitating disclosure of actual abuse or disclosure of concerning behaviours, so where a young person has been asked to do something or feels icky or feels unsure.  It's the process of about telling somebody about an incident of sexual assault or one of it's precursors so we need to be able to reinforce that in context such as abuse between peers in schools or youth serving organisations, between peers outside of those organisations, at home, or elsewhere, as well as those that actually occur within the organisation by adults so it's important that all of those issues are part of disclosure policies.

It can relate not just to sexual abuse, but as I indicated before, if we have a culture where other forms of bullying, harassment, discrimination and other forms of child abuse, such as physical abuse or emotional abuse are going on, we know from past research that those things often go hand in hand with a higher risk of sexual abuse and it goes to a culture of saying I won't be believed, I won't be trusted, I won't be valued as a child or a young person so we need to take an integrated approach to addressing those risks to young people in order for them to feel as though they can speak up when they have a concern.

From the research that we've done, we know that disclosure isn't always a conscious or a planned decision, that young people and adults who have experienced sexual assault as well will often talk about the need for safety, protection and support, for not wanting to be alone and for seeking information to help them clarify their understandings about the nature of assault and so therefore it could happen at different times and in different places and we also know that it can multiple attempts, that many, many people will say that they have taken three or four or five times to actually disclose, and that's certainly backed up by the evidence that the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has been disseminating, that we know that this is a process and therefore one of the strategies that we can do to make our organisation safer for children is to take seriously those first disclosures and treat them as important revelations from a child or a young person.

Overcoming some of those barriers, and I think I've talked about most of these, so I won't go into those in detail, but make sure that we think about what those barriers might be in our particular organisation, or, more importantly, how can we put in place policies or procedures that try and address this?  And that could be in terms of professional development, to try and overcome some of those cultural things, such as the expectations about what's normal for young men and women in heterosexual relationships or clash of expectations regarding masculinity or sexuality.

I'd also like to talk for a moment a little bit about the importance of a whole of organisation approach and why that's important is it's not enough for one particular segment of an organisation, such as one class within a school or one group within an organisation to be trying to be a leading light and just assuming that that will be enough because that can easily – the good work within one area can very easily be undone by another area and that could actually be even riskier for a young person to think that they will be supported and then to find that they are not once they encounter someone from elsewhere within the organisation who isn't on board.

For them to work and there's a lot of research around different forms of harmed children, not just about sexual abuse but about homophobia, about bullying and about other elements of respectful relationships that all lead to this same message about the importance of whole of organisation approaches and so we need to be able to link together strategies around promoting respectful relationships, around physically safe environments and around emotionally safe environments.

Some of the concrete activities that you can do there is about having agreed definitions across the whole of the organisation about what is meant by child sexual abuse, statements about what are the consequences for offending. I mean, that's one of the clearest things that can get written into a policy. What will happen if an adult or another young person, for that matter, is found to have been involved in engaging in sexually coercive or abusive behaviour?

Clear and published policies and procedures that are victim centred and that are supported with regular training, review, monitoring and evaluation. We also need to think about prevention education programs for students and young people, for teachers and also their family members, again, getting to that point that we actually need to have all people who are involved in those young people's lives being educated and made more aware of what the risk factors and how they can be addressed right throughout all elements of a community.

Some examples of that can be seen in the documentation around the National Safe Schools Framework, which obviously is focused primarily around things like emotional well-being and prevention of bullying but it applies equally well to the issue of child sexual abuse prevention, in terms of the broad strategies and the way in which they needed to be embedded in a whole of organisation approach so I won't go into detail on that because I know we're getting towards the end of our time for this webinar. But you can see on the slide there the URL to the National Safe Schools Framework and some of the anti-bullying strategies that you can see have a large amount of overlap with what's needed in order to be able to raise awareness around child sexual abuse, the precursors to it, what allows grooming to go on, and how we can try and interrupt that.

We also need to, when thinking about a particular type of organisation, think about how some of the context around that might add additional complexity to understanding or, in fact, overcoming what some of those risks are and I was involved in some research a number of years ago that was looking at a case study of a particular religious organisation where there was an allegation of abuse that was raised about a young person, an adult, a young adult, against a young female within the congregation and the analysis of that case study and linking it with the available literature identified a number of problematic organisational features that in many ways can be inherently linked to the business of the organisation so within this particular religious community there was an unquestioned power and high levels of authority placed in leaders. 

There was minimisation and denial of allegations by leaders in positions of authority. There was failure to encourage victims to report to police. There was inappropriate responses to legal proceedings that had been commenced and then there was the doctrinal or theological beliefs and practices that supported patriarchal views and repressed sexuality and, of course, in many different types of religious institutions, we have questions around the role that celibacy might play, in particular, and I know that those things have come up in relation to evidence given before the Royal Commission.

We saw, in this particular case study, failure to appropriately support both victims and alleged offenders and making sure that that's done separately but carefully.  We saw poor leadership and polarisation of members of the church or religious community and, of course, underlying that, some particular beliefs around sex roles and so here you can see a quote from that research saying religious sex role beliefs that posit men's sexuality as unable to be contained and women as the source of men's incitement and church doctrines and practices that support patriarchy are some of those things that contribute to an organisational culture in which disclosure of sexual abuse is discouraged are victims are unsupported.

That's just one example of how you might be able to think through a particular context of an organisation and how the activities, such as preaching sermons with particular belief sets might be contributing or have the opportunity to support young people who are at risk.

To sum up what I've been talking about today, the focus of prevention of child abuse and neglect spans the continuum from awareness training to a range of organisations through to more systemic institution-wide efforts to identify and ameliorate environmental or situational risks that create conditions that allow child sexual abuse to occur and so what we need to do is ensure that existing protective systems and processes are implemented more rigorously, more thoroughly and more consistently.

You can see on the screen there and I won't leave this up for too long because you'll be able to access these slides later.  There are a number of resources that you can draw on for thinking through and accessing templates and ideas for how to create child safe organisational policies and procedures and climates within your organisation, but it also goes beyond organisation and goes to community.

I'm aware of some resources and some campaigns that have happened around understanding how the sexualised imagery that many young people are exposed to is one of those contributing factors and so we need good relationship education and sexuality education in order to be one part of that picture and so you can see the URL addresses here for these resources. 

To summarise the risk management strategies, it's about pre-employment screening, including values-based interviewing and ongoing suitability assessment. 

Secondly, it's about minimising situational risks by limiting those opportunities and recognising that any person can perpetrate child abuse even though some people might be at higher risk, particularly those who have already engaged in that behaviour.

Most importantly, that there's a need for appropriate articulated and supported policies and procedures about identifying signs of abuse, about responding to disclosures, about training and providing ongoing support for staff and other adults and all of that is about leading to more positive culture that is child-friendly, transparent and respectful.

I also think that there's an important role for implementing specific prevention programs and strategies.  Often people will talk about these as protective behaviours programs but I think that they have serious limitations unless we embed them in a whole of organisation child safety strategy because otherwise we risk sending the message that it's the role of young people to protect themselves whereas it's actually the role of adults and organisations to be child safe, to be child friendly, and of course empowering children and young people with information is one component but it's by no means the first and foremost of those.

Finally, I'd like to remind people that what I've been talking about today is entirely consistent with research synthesis that's come out from the Royal Commission on what they see as the key elements of a child safe institution and I won't read out all of those but I've just listed the ten different elements that has been coming out from the research that they have commissioned at the Royal Commission and you can see at the bottom of the slide the URL so you can access that information.

Of course, all of the resources that we've been talking about today can be accessed from the Child Family Community Australia information exchange so please continue to engage with that resource in order to access information.

I've talked for a little bit about the specific example of religious organisations and I know that a lot of great work has been happening through organisations such as the National Council of Churches in Australia, which has a framework and standards and a safe church training agreement and many of the denominations have developed for themselves particular policies around responding to and protecting children so we know that there's a lot of good work going on in a range of different organisations and I would commend those resources to you.  Finally, you can see a list of references from some of the research that I've been drawing on for this presentation.  So that's the end of my presentation and I'd like to turn over to questions now from you all and I know Elly's going to try and mediate some of that for me.  Thanks Elly.



The transcript is provided for information purposes only and is provided on the basis that all persons accessing the transcript undertake responsibility for assessing the relevance and accuracy of its content. Before using the material contained in the transcript, the permission of the relevant presenter should be obtained.

The Commonwealth of Australia, represented by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), is not responsible for, and makes no representations in relation to, the accuracy of this transcript. AIFS does not accept any liability to any person for the content (or the use of such content) included in the transcript. The transcript may include or summarise views, standards or recommendations of third parties. The inclusion of such material is not an endorsement by AIFS of that material; nor does it indicate a commitment by AIFS to any particular course of action.

Slide outline

1. How can child welfare and youth-serving organisations keep children safe?

  • A/Prof Daryl Higgins Deputy Director (Research), Australian Institute of Family Studies
  • CFCA Webinar 15 September 2016
  • Child Family Community Australia, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Australian Government
  • The views expressed in this webinar are those of the presenters and not necessarily those of AIFS or the Australian Government.

2. Acknowledgements

  • This presentation includes material by collaborators on a project for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse:
    • Keith Kaufman – Psychology Professor, Portland State University, Oregon, US
    • Marcus Erooga – Visiting Research Fellow, Centre for Applied Childhood, Youth & Family Research, University of Huddersfield, UK
  • I am also grateful for the input from colleagues—past and present—at AIFS who have contributed to the material, including: Antonia Quadara, Leah Bromfield, Lorraine Beyer, Mel Irenyi, & Debbie Scott.
  • The Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) is committed to the creation and dissemination of research-based information on family functioning and wellbeing.

3. Pause and reflect

  • Think of a familiar organisation that engages with children. What is its risk profile?
  • Stop and think about what would be the most risky aspect of an organisation’s activities that allow the possibility of child abuse – particularly child sexual abuse?

4. Child sexual abuse risk factors – focus on characteristics of potential victims and offenders…

  • Characteristics of children may increase their vulnerability to sexual abuse:
  • Age (middle childhood and around puberty: 8-13
    • Gender (female) – but boys are also frequently abused
    • Previous experience of child maltreatment (physical or emotional abuse, neglect, family violence)
    • Child disability
    • Level of assertiveness
    • Social and structural disadvantage (e.g., poverty or discrimination experienced by single parents, CALD or some Indigenous communities)
    • Family dysfunction and parent characteristics (parenting skills, mental health, drug/alcohol issues)
  • Charactristics of offenders:
    • Gender (male) - but women can also offend sexually
    • Problems such as substance abuse
    • Prior history of abuse (though ‘victim-to-offender’ cycle is not determinative, and problematic)
    • Psychopathology & personality characteristics (charming, but deviant attitudes)
    • Engage in ‘grooming’ behaviour – de-sensitising a child/young person
    • (NB: social status and sexual orientation of offenders are myths that are not supported by the research)
  • Characteristics of the environment (including organisational context)
  • Source: Irenyi, Bromfield, Beyer & Higgins, 2006

5. Public health approach to child abuse prevention – includes environmental factors & organisational context

  • Individual child factors – e.g., child abuse prevention education ("protective behaviours") programs; and programs to build resilience
  • Family/parental factors – e.g., parent skills training; building support & enhancing protective factors (e.g., warmth; supervision & monitoring)
  • Perpetrators – reducing risk of (re-)offending
  • Social/environment factors – e.g., community knowledge/attitudes/skills re: abuse & child safety
  • Organisations – reducing situational risks; creating child-safe cultures across child-related and youth-serving organisations

6. Preventing ‘bad’ people isn’t enough

  • Sexual abuse prevention strategies in organisations have focused on screening to identify those with a history of child sexual abuse.
  • However:
    • First-time abusers have no offence history
    • Much abuse goes undetected or reported, so won’t be detected in screening
    • Young people also engage in sexually abusive behaviours (30–60%)
    • Source: Boyd 2008; Pratt & Miller, 2012

7. Preventing abuse in organisations….

  • How is it like preventing financial fraud?
    • We don’t expect that the processes for ensuring financial prudence rely primarily on employment screening, or on customer vigilance
  • Instead:
    • Define acceptable behaviour
    • Implement strategies to minimise risk
    • Address the culture – as The Wolf of Wall Street demonstrates

8. Box Office lessons: The power of the situation

  • Spotlight
  • The Standford prison experiment

9. Box Office lessons

  • Social Psychology knowledge from the 1970s explored on the big screen
  • Demonstrates the "power of the situation" to influence individual behaviour
  • Implications for child-safety in organisations:
  • We have failed—and will continue to fail—if we try and focus solely on identifying, weeding out, or preventing ‘bad people’ from joining organisations.

10. Key risks in child-related organisations

  • Grooming process prior to the act of abuse is a precursor to offending that relies upon relationship and trust building between the victim, the perpetrator, and the institutional community.
  • The modus operandi of perpetrators may differ between institutional contexts, as different settings allow for different opportunities for, and facilitators of, abuse.
  • New technology, mobile phones, and social media open up new avenues for communication, and therefore grooming, for potential abusers
  • Climate, culture and norms in organisations can facilitate abuse:
    • "Just as children are 'groomed' by adults to allow them to perpetrate sexual acts, other adults are also 'groomed' (or desensitised) to perceive potentially risky behaviour as harmless" (van Dam, 2001)
  • Kaufman et al., 2016; van Dam (2001) cited in Irenyi, Bromfield, Beyer, & Higgins, 2006, p. 10)

11. Overview: Child-safe environments

  1. Screening for known perpetrators
    • Preventing infiltration - national overview of working with children checks
  2. Managing situational risks
    • Overview of research on risk factors, and strategies for prevention
  3. Creating positive cultures
    • Clarifying unacceptable behaviour
    • Encouraging disclosures
    • Involving police and child protection authorities

12. 3 steps in creating child-safe organisations

  • 1. Screening
    • Preventing known perpetrators:
      1. Police checks
      2. Working with Children Checks
      3. Mandatory reporting

13. Pre-employment screening

  • Understanding differences between a police check and a Working With Children Check:
    • more extensive, but also more targeted
  • See CFCA Resource sheet Pre-employment screening: Working With Children Checks and Police Checks – May 2016
  • Understanding your obligations – in many jurisdictions, employers are prohibited from employing someone in a child-related occupation who does not have a Working With Children Check.
  • Recognising the limitations of pre-employment screening – most child sex offenders do not have criminal records.
    • NOTE: Having all staff vetted (pre-employment) is the first chapter in the book, not the final chapter!
  • Next steps: Creating child-safe organisations through policies, monitoring and ongoing actions.

14. Mandatory reporting

  • The legal requirement to report suspected cases of abuse/neglect
  • Laws differ depending on which state/territory you live, and about what type of abuse/harm (or in many jurisdictions, risk of harm) there is a concern
  • Sexual abuse and physical abuse are the two types of child abuse type about which it is mandatory for some people to report concerns in all Australian state/territories; but…
    • The categories of people who are so required varies from very restrictive (e.g., in Qld) or very expansive (NT)
    • The situations in which the sexual abuse occurred also determines whether or not a notification is mandatory e.g., in WA, sexual abuse has to be reported by child care or after-hours school workers, but it is limited to abuse occurring in the care setting.
    • Victoria now has "failure to disclose" legislation, which covers all adults with a ‘reasonable belief’ that a sexual offence has been committed against a child. It is separate from mandatory reporting obligations of specified professionals.
  • Source: Mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect

15. 3 steps in creating child-safe organisations

  • 2. Managing situational risks
    • Making organisations safer involves:
      1. Identifying organisational risk factors
      2. Changing risky environments where possible
      3. Closer monitoring of inherent risks

16. Not all organisations are equal

  • Different organisations will have a different risk profile
  • Family-like environments carry the highest risk:
    • Staff required to act in loco parentis
    • Physical contact, showering, changing clothes (e.g., sports)
    • Sleep-overs/camps
    • Transport (at odd hours)
  • Does your organisation:
    • Have low supervision of adult-child interactions?
    • Use adults as role-models or mentors?
    • Use social media or other potentially private communication avenues?
    • Have a culture where abuse might be tolerated (gender stereotypes? homophobia? alcohol?)

17. It is not only about ‘risk’:

  • What are the opportunities for building resilience?
  • How can staff act as a support for young people who might be vulnerable to, or who have actually experienced maltreatment in the home or elsewhere?
    • This includes sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, or exposure to family violence
  • Some possible protective factors or supports:
    • Being a positive role model (safe; boundaries)
    • Encouraging and responding appropriately to abuse occurring elsewhere
    • Fostering inclusion and peer support

18. Situational Crime Prevention

  • Underlying premise:
  • Under the right circumstances, anyone could offend
  • Situational crime prevention approaches:
    • address the limits of both pre-employment and ongoing screening/suitability assessments
    • focus on creating safe environments rather than safe individuals
    • have been successfully applied to reducing a range of criminal behaviours
  • Key focus is on opportunity reduction:
    • making crime more risky
    • making crime more effortful
    • reducing rewards
    • removing excuses
    • preventing—and not tolerating—potential ‘grooming’ behaviour
  • Source: Irenyi, Bromfield, Beyer & Higgins, 2006

19. Examples of strategies for creating child-safe organisations

  • Values-based interviewing
  • Create induction programs – where acceptable behaviour is defined
  • Reinforce with ongoing professional development
  • Implement supervision, mentoring and accountability for staff
  • Understanding and comply with mandatory reporting obligations
  • Analyse & address risks across the organisation
  • Develop (regularly review and update) child abuse policies, procedures, and standards

20. Facilitating Disclosure

  • Disclosure is the process of telling someone about an incident of sexual assault.
  • Could be referring to disclosure of offences from a range of contexts such as:
    • between peers at schools or youth-serving organisations
    • between peers outside of schools or youth-serving organisations
    • at home – by a family member (sibling/parent/other); neighbour; acquaintance
    • elsewhere – by a known or unknown offender
  • Disclosure could relate to experiencing a variety of abusive behaviours:
    • physical sexual assault, unwanted requests, as well as a range of online offences or using digital media (including images, ‘sexting’, bullying, etc.)

21. Facilitating Disclosure… cont.

  • "Disclosure was not always a conscious decision or planned action and not all survivors had a clear objective in disclosing. Those who did were primarily motivated by:
    • the need for safety, protection and support;
    • not wanting to be alone; or
    • were seeking information to help them clarify their understandings about the nature of the assault."
  • Source: Lievore, 2003, p. v; cited in Quadara, 2008, p. 3

22. Barriers to Disclosure

  • Disclosure is complex
  • Barriers to a young person disclosing sexual assault include:
    • relationship between victim and perpetrator
    • fear of not being believed or being blamed for the assault
    • cultural factors and values
    • concerns about how disclosure will impact on significant others
    • expectations and attitudes about what is "normal" for young men and women in heterosexual relationships
    • being a male victim/survivor – clash with gendered expectations of masculinity, and fear of being labelled "gay"
  • Source: Quadara, 2008

23. Whole-of-organisation approaches

  • Schools, churches, sports & other youth organisations can:
    • Promote respectful relationships
    • Create physically safe environments
    • Create emotionally safe environments that facilitate disclosures, respond appropriately to disclosures, and provide a supportive/therapeutic context for victim/survivors
  • Whole-of-organisation approaches are aided by:
    • Agreed definitions of child sexual abuse
    • Statement about the consequences of offending
    • Clear, published policies and procedures that are victim-centred (with regular training, review, monitoring & evaluation)
    • Prevention education programs for students, teachers & families
    • Education on the long-term impacts of sexual assault
    • e.g., National Safe Schools Framework (2011) "Promoting and providing a supportive learning environment in which all students can expect to feel safe". See < >
  • Source: Quadara, 2008

24. National Safe Schools Framework

  • Similar to anti-bullying strategies
  • Effective strategies for school responses to child abuse include:
    • Professional development training and resources for staff
    • Specific policies based on consultation with parents and students
    • Use of curriculum activities to develop knowledge, attitudes and skills
    • Empowering students/young people
    • Clarifying roles for teachers / carers (e.g., responsibility for supervision; reporting concerns or disclosures, etc.)
    • Addressing cases that arise
    • Documenting and evaluating responses to cases that have arisen
    • Effective counselling and social support for victims
    • Collaboration with relevant external agencies
  • Source:

25. Religious organisations – a case study

  • Problematic organisational features can be:
    • unquestioned power and high levels of authority
    • minimisation and denial of allegations by leaders in authority
    • failure to encourage victim to report to police
    • inappropriate response to any legal proceedings
    • doctrines and practices that support patriarchy or repressed sexuality (celibacy?)
    • failure to appropriately support both victims and alleged offenders
    • poor leadership and polarisation of members of the church/religious community
    • sex-role beliefs (e.g., see next slide)
  • Source: Higgins, 2001 (cited in Irenyi et al., 2005); Kaufman, Erooga et al. (2016)

26. Organisational culture

  • "…religious sex role beliefs that posit men’s sexuality as unable to be contained and women as the source of men’s incitement, and church doctrines and practices that support patriarchy contribute to an organisational culture in which disclosure of sexual abuse is discouraged and victims are unsupported."
  • Source: Higgins, 2001, paraphrased in Irenyi et al., 2005, p. 14

27. Summary: The focus of prevention….

  • spans the continuum from from awareness training directed toward individual parents or staff members
  • to more systematic, institution-wide efforts to identify and ameliorate environmental or situational risks that create conditions allowing child sexual abuse to occur
  • ensures existing protective systems and processes are implemented more rigorously, thoroughly, and consistently

28. Resources for Creating Child-Safe Organisations

  • The Australian Council for Children and Youth Organisation’s Safeguarding Children is an accreditation program run by the Australian Childhood Foundation
    • <>
  • Life Without Barriers – We Put Children First
    • <>
  • Childwise has published 12 Steps to Building Child Safe Organisations and conducts regular training, such as Choose with Care and cybersafety programs
    • <>
  • Erooga, M. (ed). (2012). Creating safer organisations: Practical steps to prevent the abuse of children by those working with them. Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester, UK.
  • AIFS resources on organisational issues:
    • <>
    • <>
  • Protecting Australia’s Children Research Register:
    • <>

29. Relationship education and navigating a world of sexually explicit images

  • The Porn Factor
  • In the Picture: Supporting young people in an era of explicit sexual imagery

30. Summary of risk management strategies

  • Pre-employment screening, values-based interviewing and ongoing suitability assessment
  • Minimising situational risks by limiting opportunities (recognising that any person can perpetrate child abuse, though some people are higher risk)
  • Appropriate, articulated, and supported policies and procedures about:
    • identifying signs of abuse (recognise risk factors/vulnerability of some children; grooming behaviours of perpetrators)
    • responding to disclosures
    • training staff
    • providing ongoing support for staff
  • Positive culture (child-friendly; transparent; respectful)
  • Implement specific prevention programs and strategies
    • e.g., respectful relationships; sexual health; child-abuse prevention awareness & skills ("protective behaviours"), etc.
    • Source: Irenyi et al., 2006

31. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

  • Elements of a Child-safe Institution
    1. Child safety is embedded in institutional leadership, governance and culture
    2. Children participate in decisions affecting them and are taken seriously
    3. Families and communities are informed and involved
    4. Equity is promoted and diversity respected
    5. People working with children are suitable and supported

32. Elements of a Child-safe Institution… cont.

  1. Processes to respond to complaints of child sexual abuse are child focussed
  2. Staff are equipped with the knowledge, skills and awareness to keep children safe through continual education and training
  3. Physical and online environments minimise the opportunity for abuse to occur
  4. Implementation of child-safe standards is continuously reviewed and improved
  5. Policies and procedures document how the institution is child safe
  6. Source:

33. Child Family Community Australia


34. Church policies to protect children/respond to disclosures

  • National Council of Churches in Australia – Framework and Standards; and Safe Church Training Agreement: <>
  • See also:
    • Catholic Church’s Truth Justice Healing Council <>
    • Anglican’s Professional Standards Units: e.g., <>
    • Presbyterian’s Breaking the Silence: <>
    • Salvation Army’s Professional Standards Office: <>
    • Christian Reformed Churches of Australia policy: <>
  • For other examples, see: <>

35. References

36. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Personal Safety Survey. See: <>

37. Higgins, D. J. (2001). A case study of child sexual abuse within a church community. Journal of Religion and Abuse, 3(1/2), 5-19.

38. Higgins, D. J., Kaufman, K., & Erooga, M. (2016). How can child welfare and youth-serving organisations keep children safe? developing practice: the child youth and family work journal, 44, 48-64.

39. Irenyi, M., Bromfield, L., Beyer, L., & Higgins, D. (2006). Child maltreatment in organisations: Risk factors and strategies for prevention. Child Abuse Prevention Issues No. 25, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.

  • Available: <>

40. Quadara, A. (2008). Responding to young people disclosing sexual assault: A resource for schools. <>

41. CFCA resources relating to Protecting Children:

  • <>
  • <>
  • <>

42. Protecting Australia's Children Research and Evaluation Register: <>

43. Thank you… for keeping children safe!

  • Questions?
  • Join the conversation & access key resources
  • Continue the conversation started here today and access a range of key resources, including the related practice paper, on the CFCA website:
Related resources

Key resources and further reading

  • Creating Child Safe Institutions 
    Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, July 2016
  • Safeguarding Children 
    The Australian Council for Children and Youth Organisation's Safeguarding Children is an accreditation program run by the Australian Childhood Foundation
  • We Put Children First 
    We Put Children First is a resource from Life Without Barriers that provides information about child safety and well-being, and includes guidelines about what constitutes illegal, unacceptable, and concerning behaviour in relation to children.
  • Child Wise 
    Child Wise has published the 12 Steps to Building Child Safe Organisations resource and conducts regular training, such as Choose with Care and cybersafety programs.
  • Erooga, M. (ed). (2012). Creating safer organisations: Practical steps to prevent the abuse of children by those working with them. Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester, UK.
  • AIFS resources on organisational issues:


Associate Professor Daryl Higgins was the Deputy Director (Research) at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, where he had responsibility for the Institute's research program and its knowledge translation and exchange functions.