New Child Safety Complaint Handling Guide

On Monday 5 August 2019, the National Office for Child Safety released its Complaint Handling Guide (the Guide), developed with the NSW Ombudsman’s Office, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the e-Safety Commissioner amongst others. The message is clear – organisations need to be prepared for child safety complaints and allegations. The Guide makes it clear that receiving no complaints is not necessarily an indicator of a child safe environment. Rather, an organisation that empowers individuals, especially children and young people, to raise concerns and then effectively addresses the concerns is better placed to create a child safe environment.

Increasing rates of complaints

We are seeing an increase in the rates of child abuse reports across all sectors. In 2016-17, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) received 110,987 reports. In 2017-18, it received 115,641 reports. Since 2014-15, the number of reports has risen by more than 20%. The Commission for Children and Young People (CCYP) received 850 reports in 2017-18 in the first year of the Reportable Conduct Scheme (the Scheme). The number of reports for 2018 -19 is expected to be higher.

The increase in the number of complaints is considered to be largely due to an increased awareness of child abuse and the importance of reporting, as opposed to increased rates of child abuse. The introduction of the Scheme has also lead to a broader range of child safety concerns being reported to organisations, including historical allegations and family violence incidents involving their employees. In this environment, if an organisation has not received a child safety concern yet, they should not assume that it cannot happen.

Lack of preparedness

In our experience and as reflected in the Guide, organisations often do not have in place the processes required to respond to complaints and concerns in a child-focused manner. This is despite it being a requirement under Principle 6 of the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations (National Principles) and Standard 5 of the Victorian Child Safe Standards.

The definition of a child safety concern or complaint encapsulates a range of concerns. Some examples include a complaint about:

  • the conduct of an employee towards a child in your care;
  • the conduct of an employee towards a child not in your care;
  • a historical allegation about the conduct of an employee before they were an employee;
  • the way your organisation handled a prior complaint;
  • your organisation’s interaction with children; and
  • the conduct of another adult or child in relation to a child in your care.

Each type of complaint will trigger different considerations and reporting requirements. Complaints can also be received in a range of ways, including from a child, a parent, a member of the public, another employee, an incident or anonymously. Organisations need to have in place procedures that are flexible to capture different types of complaints but also provide employees with guidance on how to respond in accordance with their child safety obligations.

Key messages of the Guide

The Guide provides a helpful overview of the different considerations that organisations need to be mindful of when responding to complaints. While it is no substitute for your own tailored complaints procedures and child safety documents, it provides a good starting point.

In particular, the Guide outlines the importance of creating a child-centred approach where the best interests of the child inform the organisation’s response. This includes putting strategies in place to empower children to raise their concerns and training staff and first responders on how to properly respond. The Guide also sets out nine key guidelines for organisations to consider. These are:

  1. Embedding Children’s Rights, Safety and Wellbeing into the Complaints Process
  2. Reporting Responsibilities
  3. Sharing Information and Communicating with Stakeholders
  4. Confidentiality and Privacy
  5. Managing Risk – Complaints and Incidents
  6. Conduct Investigations Involving Children and Young People
  7. Being Fair and Objective
  8. Explaining Outcomes and Review Options
  9. Record Keeping and Complaints Data

It is clear from the Guide that responding to child safety complaints is complex and organisations need to find the right balance between protecting children, their reporting requirements, the investigation and their employment obligations.

Next steps

The key message is that while it is tempting for organisations to wait until they receive a complaint before they act, it is fundamentally important that organisations are putting in place processes to be prepared for allegations.

We recommend that organisations get ready by taking the steps below:

  1. Review and implement – Organisations should review their current complaints handling process and child safety reporting process or put these in place. In particular, organisations should consider whether their complaints handling process is appropriate for child safety concerns, if the reporting process complies with their legal obligations state-to-state (particularly reportable conduct schemes) and if their process takes a child-centred approach.
  2. Training – Aside from general training on your policies and procedures, tailored and intensive training should be provided to Child Safety Officers who may be required to make reports to regulatory authorities and first responders who are most likely to hear complaints. Training should be practical and include relevant case studies.
  3. Empower children – Organisations should consider their current strategy for empowering children and if children in their care understand where to go for help and how to raise a complaint. This is in accordance with best practice and obligations under the Child Safe Standards.
  4. Gap analysis and evaluation – Some organisations may have already experienced and responded to a child safety complaint. Where this is the case, it is important for organisations to evaluate their response and identify where the gaps in their policies and procedures are.

How we can help

Moores is experienced in supporting organisations responding to a child safety concern, including managing allegations under the Reportable Conduct Scheme. We also offer a range of training options to up-skill your employees on their child safety obligations.

For more information on preparing your organisation’s response to child safety concerns, please do not hesitate to contact us.