Executive summary

In Australia, each state and territory has its own scheme for conducting background checks for people seeking to engage in child related work. These schemes, commonly known as Working with Children Checks (WWCCs) help ensure the right people are chosen to work or volunteer with children. They aim to do this by preventing people from working or volunteering with children if records indicate that they may pose an unacceptable level of risk to children.

This type of pre-employment screening for child-related work commenced in Australia in 2000, when New South Wales introduced its WWCC scheme. Since then, every jurisdiction has established some form of WWCC scheme.

WWCCs are one of a range of strategies needed to make organisations child-safe. They are one part of an organisation’s recruitment, selection and screening practices. While an important tool, WWCCs – in the absence of broader child-safe strategies – do not make organisations safe for children. In fact, an over-reliance on WWCCs can be detrimental to children’s safety. They can provide a false sense of comfort to parents and communities, and may cause organisations to become complacent due to the belief that people who have undergone WWCCs do not pose any risks to children – this is not the case.

WWCCs only detect people who have been reported previously, or come to the attention of authorities, for offending against children. However, many perpetrators of child sexual abuse have not been reported or convicted for past offences. This means that any risk they pose to children would not be detected via a WWCC.

WWCCs will only contribute to keeping children safe if they are used in the context of broader child-safe strategies, such as appropriate leadership, governance and culture; quality recruitment, selection and screening; training; effective child protection policies and procedures; and child-friendly practices.

We decided to examine the WWCC schemes because early in our work it became apparent that the schemes were not as effective as they could be at contributing to children’s safety in organisations. We therefore looked at the schemes as they currently operate and considered whether, if strengthened, children could be afforded better levels of protection from the schemes. We concluded, overwhelmingly, that this was the case.

Each state and territory has its own scheme, and each of the eight schemes operates independently of the others. They are inconsistent and complex, and there is unnecessary duplication across the schemes. There is no integration of the schemes, and there is inadequate information sharing and monitoring of WWCC cardholders. These problems create a number of weaknesses:

  • Each scheme defines who needs a check differently, such that you might require a WWCC in one jurisdiction but not in another despite engaging in the same type of work.

  • Aside from criminal history, there are no mechanisms to share information between jurisdictions for the purposes of assessing WWCC applications.

  • People are able to ‘forum shop’, whereby a person with adverse records in one jurisdiction may be able to obtain a clearance in another jurisdiction where the adverse records are not available.

  • Screening agencies do not have the capacity to access WWCC decisions or the status of WWCC cardholders from other jurisdictions.

  • Once a person holds a WWCC, the continuous monitoring does not include monitoring of national criminal history records.

  • WWCCs are not portable across jurisdictional borders.

  • People and organisations working across jurisdictional borders find it challenging to comply with the varied and complex schemes

Combined, these problems mean that the system is not providing the protection to children that it otherwise could.

The varied and non-integrated schemes mean that WWCCs are not portable across borders. A person must apply for a WWCC in each state or territory in which they intend to engage in child-related work. Organisations and people working across borders report substantial challenges in working with the varied schemes, including extra costs and difficulty understanding and complying with the various laws.

These problems are not new and have been recognised by governments for some time. We believe that the absence of any action to fix these problems is a significant and inexcusable failure on the part of governments – these problems cannot continue to be ignored. Child protection is paramount and, as outlined above, there are obvious opportunities to strengthen this regime to better contribute to making organisations child-safe.

We have determined that implementing a national approach to WWCCs is overdue. For too long, governments have favoured maintaining their own systems over working together to achieve a more nationally consistent approach. We have therefore recommended a national model for WWCCs, by introducing consistent standards and establishing a centralised WWCC database to facilitate cross-border information sharing. Implementing these recommendations will improve the protection afforded to children by:

  • creating a standardised approach so that key aspects of WWCC schemes are dealt with in the same way (for example, who needs a check and how records are assessed)

  • allowing WWCCs to be portable across jurisdictions

  • assisting organisations and people working across borders to comply with the schemes by reducing their complexity and duplication

  • eliminating the opportunity for forum shopping, whereby potential perpetrators can work in locations with less rigorous checking or where access to adverse records is limited

  • improving information sharing so that there is continuous monitoring of WWCC cardholders’ national criminal history records and visibility of WWCC decisions across all jurisdictions.

In addition to these systemic improvements, our recommendations will also:

  • require all religious leaders and officers or personnel of religious organisations to have WWCCs

  • deny people convicted of certain serious offences against children the right to appeal against adverse WWCC decisions, in some circumstances

  • stop some jurisdictions placing conditions on WWCCs (eg supervision, role-based clearances), so that a person is either cleared or not cleared for child-related work.

We are aware that some stakeholders question the efficacy of the WWCC scheme because of the cost of its operation, the significant number of people who are required to hold WWCCs and the small number of people it prevents from working with children. We have not been able to draw conclusions about the overall effectiveness of WWCCs because of the limited research and evidence available. However, we share the view held by the majority of government and non-government stakeholders whom we consulted about WWCCs: that they deliver unquestionable benefits to the safeguarding of children.

We have made the following recommendations to strengthen the WWCC regime in Australia.