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Making institutions child safe

This volume looks at the role community prevention could play in making communities and institutions child safe, the child safe standards that will make institutions safer for children, and how regulatory oversight and practice could be improved to facilitate the implementation of these standards in institutions. It also examines how to prevent and respond to online sexual abuse in institutions in order to create child safe online environments.


This volume examines the role that community prevention can play in making institutions child safe. It discusses the Royal Commission’s proposed Child Safe Standards which aim to make institutions safer for children, and the way that regulatory oversight and practice should be improved to facilitate the implementation of the Child Safe Standards in institutions. It addresses the emerging issue for institutions of creating online environments that are child safe.

Through our case studies and in private sessions, we heard many stories where institutions failed to protect children in their care from sexual abuse. What we heard showed that child sexual abuse in institutions continues today and is not just a problem from the past. We learned that institutional cultures and practices that allowed abuse to occur and inhibited detection and response continue to exist in contemporary institutions. Children’s safety and best interests must be at the core of an institution’s operations, and be supported by a well-informed community.

The initiatives recommended in this volume aim to achieve cultural change in the community and institutions to ensure that children are valued, their rights are respected and their best interests are paramount. This involves creating an environment where institutional child sexual abuse could be better prevented, identified, reported and responded to.

For institutions to be safe for children, the communities in which the institutions are located need to be safe for children. A focus on all Australian communities is needed to address child sexual abuse wherever it occurs. The whole nation can contribute to change.

Our work has shown that there are misperceptions, attitudes, beliefs and behaviour in all Australian communities that can enable, encourage or normalise sexually abusive behaviour towards children. Such attitudes and misunderstandings can discourage victims from disclosing abuse or seeking help.

A well-informed and proactive community could help to create an environment that is hostile to child sexual abuse. This could make it harder for people to groom and abuse children, increasing the likelihood of grooming behaviour and abuse being identified and reported, and making it easier for victims to disclose abuse. Such communities could increase pressure on institutions to create environments for children that are safe.

Child safe institutions need child safe communities

Institutions interact with children across a broad range of sectors and activities, such as schools, sport and recreation clubs, support services and childcare centres. These institutions are part of the fabric of our daily lives and reflect community priorities, needs and values. Making such institutions safe for children requires making communities safe – places where every child is valued, and where their rights to safety and wellbeing are respected and upheld.

Well-designed and appropriately tailored prevention initiatives could help to mobilise all community members to be agents of change. Through building knowledge and capacity, parents, volunteers, professionals and others could become better equipped to recognise and counter problematic attitudes and behaviour that put children at risk, and know how to respond to warning signs and indicators.

Community-based prevention initiatives are part of a comprehensive response to building a strong, preventive system for creating child safe organisations. These could be delivered concurrently with changes to policies and procedures, training in institutions and legislative reforms.

How the community needs to change

To develop community-based prevention initiatives, it is important to understand the characteristics of communities that enable child sexual abuse to occur in institutions.

Our work has shown that members of the community lack understanding of the nature of child sexual abuse, including the characteristics of adult perpetrators, grooming practices, and risks to children in both physical and online environments. Harmful sexual behaviours in children are also not well understood.

Further, we have heard that problematic community attitudes and behaviour can contribute to child sexual abuse, and to its effects on children being overlooked, minimised, denied, or even tolerated and perpetuated. Social taboos and stigmatisation also create barriers to seeking help when concerns are raised.

The public health approach to community prevention

We recommend that the Australian Government oversee the development and implementation of a national strategy to prevent child sexual abuse (see Recommendation 6.1). This strategy should apply a public health approach to the prevention of child sexual abuse.

Also known as the population health approach, the public health approach is used when a preventable problem is widespread, serious and associated with severe long-term effects on individuals and communities. This approach was originally designed for disease prevention, but has been modified to address other complex problems relating to social behaviour. The model is well established and has been applied to child sexual abuse, both in Australia and overseas.

Community initiatives for preventing child sexual abuse

We have concluded that the objectives of community prevention initiatives should be to:

  • increase awareness and knowledge about child sexual abuse, both inside and outside of institutional contexts
  • counter problematic attitudes and practices that increase risks to children
  • strengthen the community’s capacity to respond effectively, and remove social barriers to seeking help and disclosing abuse.

This involves building on the strengths in communities that can help to keep children safe.

Initiatives must reach and involve all communities at all levels, including leaders, families, workers and children themselves. They must be delivered in accessible ways for different cultural contexts, languages and religious settings. They must also take account of barriers to participation, such as individual impairments and community attitudes towards disability, culture and ethnicity.

Our recommended national strategy should encompass a number of complementary initiatives that could contribute to change in communities (see Recommendation 6.2), including:

  • social marketing campaigns for all communities
  • prevention education through early childhood centres, schools and other institutional settings for children and parents
  • online safety education for children and young people, and their parents and carers
  • prevention education for tertiary students intending to work in child-related occupations
  • help-seeking services for potential perpetrators
  • information and help-seeking services for bystanders (family members and other community members) who are concerned that an adult they know may perpetrate child sexual abuse or that a child may be at risk of harmful sexual behaviours.

Several considerations are common to the design and implementation of the community prevention initiatives (see Recommendation 6.3). These are to:

  • build on and learn from evidence-based strategies for preventing violence against adults and children, and for addressing other forms of child abuse and bullying
  • tailor and target initiatives to reach, engage and provide access to all communities, ensuring accessible and inclusive approaches
  • involve children and young people in the development, design, implementation and evaluation of all initiatives
  • use research and evaluation to build the evidence base for best practices to prevent child sexual abuse and harmful sexual behaviours in children, and to guide the development and refinement of interventions, including the piloting and testing of initiatives.

We examined the elements that define a child safe institution, noted the reasons that institutions fail, and considered what standards could be applied to make them safer places for children. From this work we identified 10 Child Safe Standards that we believe would contribute most effectively to improve the safety of children in institutions.

Defining a child safe institution

Child safe institutions create cultures, adopt strategies and take action to prevent harm to children, including child sexual abuse. We have adopted a definition of a child safe institution as one that consciously and systematically creates conditions that reduce the likelihood of harm to children, creates conditions that increase the likelihood of identifying and reporting harm, and responds appropriately to disclosures, allegations or suspicions of harm.

Developing the Child Safe Standards

We have developed Child Safe Standards that articulate the essential standards of a child safe institution (see Recommendations 6.5). The Child Safe Standards can guide what institutions need to do to be child safe by setting best practice to drive and guide performance.

The 10 standards that would make institutions safer for children are:

  • Standard 1: Child safety is embedded in institutional leadership, governance and culture
  • Standard 2: Children participate in decisions affecting them and are taken seriously
  • Standard 3: Families and communities are informed and involved
  • Standard 4: Equity is upheld and diverse needs are taken into account
  • Standard 5: People working with children are suitable and supported
  • Standard 6: Processes to respond to complaints of child sexual abuse are child focused
  • Standard 7: Staff are equipped with the knowledge, skills and awareness to keep children safe through continual education and training
  • Standard 8: Physical and online environments minimise the opportunity for abuse to occur
  • Standard 9: Implementation of the Child Safe Standards is continuously reviewed and improved
  • Standard 10: Policies and procedures document how the institution is child safe.

We have also identified the core components of each Child Safe Standard as guidance for institutions in implementing the standards (see Recommendation 6.6).

Understanding the Child Safe Standards

Our work on child safe institutions has been underpinned by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Consistent with Article 3 of the convention, all institutions should act with the best interests of the child as a primary consideration (see Recommendation 6.4).

The Child Safe Standards are a benchmark against which institutions can assess their child safe capacity and set performance targets. The standards work together to articulate what makes a child safe institution. All the standards are of equal importance and are interrelated. They should be read holistically, not in isolation, as there are necessary overlaps. Standards can cut across, or be relevant to, other standards.

The standards are designed to be principle-based and focused on outcomes and changing institutional culture as opposed to setting prescriptive rules that must be followed or specific initiatives that must be implemented. This is to enable the standards to be applied to, and implemented by, institutions in a flexible way, informed by each institution’s nature and characteristics. The risk of child sexual abuse varies from institution to institution. Therefore, every institution needs to consider each standard and take time to identify risks that may arise in their context, and find ways to mitigate or manage those risks.

The standards are intended to be dynamic and responsive rather than static and definitive, and would be subject to review.

Protecting children and promoting their safety is everyone’s business. It is a national priority that requires a national solution. Everyone – the Australian Government and state and territory governments, sectors and institutions, and communities, families and individuals – has a role to play to better protect children in institutions.

While we heard about child sexual abuse in institutions that spanned the past 90 years, it is not a problem from the past. Child sexual abuse in institutions continues today. Through our private sessions and public hearings, we heard about abuse that occurred in the last 10 to 15 years in a range of institutions, such as schools, foster and kinship care, respite care, health and allied services, performing arts institutions, childcare centres and youth groups. We also learned that institutional cultures and practices that allow abuse to occur and inhibit detection and response continue to exist in contemporary institutions.

The Royal Commission has developed a national solution to better protect children in institutions. We have determined what could make institutions safer for children, and how institutions could be required and supported to be child safe. The approach is proportional to the risk of harm and the characteristics of different institutions.

Children’s safety and their best interests must be at the core of all child-related institutions’ operation and purpose. Many institutions that we inquired into did not have a culture where the best interests of children were a priority and were championed by leaders. We heard in our case studies that some leaders did not take responsibility for their institution’s failure to protect children against sexual abuse. Some leaders felt their primary responsibility was to protect the institution’s reputation, and the person accused or other adults involved, without recognising the impact this had on the children. Poor practices, such as inadequate governance structures, failing to record and report complaints, or understating the seriousness of complaints, were evident in our case studies.

A lack of understanding of child sexual abuse in institutional settings continues, particularly misperceptions about child sex offenders. There is also a lack of understanding about grooming behaviours. People have tended to believe adults over children, and to be afraid of falsely accusing someone of child sexual abuse for fear of retaliation. Our case studies and research reveal many examples where abuse was reported but the perpetrators denied the abuse and were believed over the child. All these factors contributed to the abuse of children and poor responses by institutions to that abuse.

We considered options for driving cultural change and practice in valuing children, respecting their rights and promoting a child safe environment, and thus keeping children safe in institutions and the broader community. Supporting cultural change through leadership and capacity building should be a key focus of implementing the Child Safe Standards. Government should invest in supporting and building the capacity of institutions to become child safe by partnering with sector regulators, peak bodies, sector leaders and other bodies to better support institutions.

We believe that improving child safe approaches in institutions will ultimately reduce the risk of institutional child sexual abuse. Valuing children and their rights is the foundation of all child safe institutions. By promoting the best interests of children as a primary consideration, we believe institutions will better prevent, identify and respond to child sexual abuse and other forms of abuse, and create an environment where the community, parents and children can expect and demand institutions to be child safe.

Current child safe approaches

Since the concept of a child safe institution first emerged in Australia, about a decade ago, a range of child safe institution frameworks have been developed. Some are nationally agreed, others are state or territory based, or apply only to specific sectors. Some approaches are mandatory and others voluntary.

Need for an improved national approach

Despite significant work to improve the safety of children in institutions across Australia, current approaches to child safety in institutions at the national, state and territory, and sector levels vary in scope and content. The differences create unequal and inadequate protection of children in institutions, as well as inefficiencies, additional costs and burdens.

Overwhelming support has been expressed for a national approach to child safe institutions. The benefits of a national approach are many. National consistency, based on the best available evidence, leadership and coordination, is needed to better protect children from harm in institutions.

Our proposed Child Safe Standards should be the foundation of a nationally consistent approach to children’s safety in institutions. The standards should be agreed to by the Council of Australian Governments (Recommendation 6.7).

All institutions should strive to be child safe. The national Child Safe Standards should be mandatory for institutions that engage in child-related work and should be embedded in legislation (see Recommendations 6.8, 6.9 and 6.13).

The implementation of mandatory Child Safe Standards would make it clear that child safety in institutions that engage in child-related work is not optional and would thus drive cultural change.

Improving regulatory oversight and practice

Well-designed Child Safe Standards will be effective only if they are implemented and regulated in a way that considers the diversity of institutions implementing the standards. Governments must strike the right balance between ensuring that Child Safe Standards are implemented effectively and that institutions are not overly burdened by the weight of compliance. Government oversight should aim to achieve better safety for children while minimising costs for institutions.

State and territory regulation and oversight for the protection of children in institutions varies in scope and context. Current child safe approaches are neither consistent nor coordinated in how they deal with institutional child sexual abuse. An important part of creating our national solution to improve child safe approaches is to outline a consistent way for state and territory governments to improve regulation and oversight of the Child Safe Standards through monitoring and enforcement, and capacity building and support.

An independent oversight body in each state and territory should be responsible for monitoring and enforcing the Child Safe Standards (see Recommendations 6.10 and 6.11). Governments might enhance the roles of existing children’s commissioners or guardians for this purpose.

The oversight body should be able to delegate functions to sector regulators, such as school registration authorities, to capitalise on existing regulatory regimes. The standards should be incorporated into existing regulatory or legislative frameworks where possible. For example, the proposed National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) Quality and Safeguards Commission would need to consider the appropriate means to incorporate the Child Safe Standards into the NDIS Quality and Safeguarding Framework, and include education about the standards as part of its capacity-building role for NDIS providers. The Quality and Safeguards Commission could work collaboratively with state and territory oversight bodies responsible for monitoring and enforcing the Child Safe Standards to appropriately facilitate compliance with the Quality and Safeguarding Framework and the Child Safe Standards in NDIS-funded services and support.

When enforcing the Child Safe Standards, regulators should take a responsive approach and focus on building the capacity of institutions to be child safe. This approach would encourage compliance and reduce the regulatory burden on institutions.

The independent state and territory oversight body should work with local governments, sectors, non-government organisations and the community to enable them to provide capacity building and support to institutions. This work should focus on building the culture of an institution to be child safe, and on helping institutions to know and understand the Child Safe Standards.

Some jurisdictions and sectors have developed child safe resources and initiatives. Fragmented and inconsistent approaches by jurisdictions have led to inefficiencies, duplication, and additional costs and burdens. There is currently no authoritative, central source of child safe, capacity-building resources that are quality assured and evidence based. A centralised approach to capacity building and support could minimise the burden on institutions and work to eliminate duplication and fragmentation. A national role could facilitate collaboration across sectors and jurisdictions.

We believe government and institutional investment to prevent institutional child sexual abuse is justified. The impact of institutions’ child sexual abuse often has lifelong repercussions and can have significant social and economic consequences on victims and survivors, their family, friends and the community. Significant social and economic costs of institutional child sexual abuse include costs related to healthcare, lost earnings and tax revenue, increased need for welfare and child protection, the criminal justice system, and crime.

The safety of children in institutions is everyone’s responsibility. Promoting the value of children and empowering families to understand child safety can influence institutions in the community. Institutions or frameworks that do not directly engage with children or child-related issues, such as workplace health and safety schemes, government and non-government procurement practices, local governments (see Recommendation 6.12) and insurance companies, also have a role in creating safety for children. Our recommendations in our Criminal justice report about the civil and criminal liability of institutions would also influence the behaviour of institutions.

National leadership, coordination and continuous improvement

The need for a nationally consistent approach to children’s safety in institutions across Australia is clear. Only national leadership, coordination and continuous improvement can drive the effective implementation of interventions to better protect children, and maximise collaboration and the efficient use of resources across jurisdictions.

A national approach would also facilitate the integration of child safe initiatives with other national strategies aimed at protecting children, including the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010–2022 and the National Disability Strategy 2010–2020.

The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009–2020 has promoted the national importance of child safety, and fostered collaboration and cooperation across governments and non-government organisations. There appear to be limitations in the current arrangements under the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, for example the Framework’s governance, funding, focus on child protection stakeholders, research agenda and transparency.

We believe:

  • the Australian Government is best placed to drive national consistency, collaboration and continuous improvement (see Recommendation 6.14)
  • evaluation and review of implementation and outcomes are necessary to improve child safe strategies
  • there should be a national role to evaluate, review and publicly report on the implementation of the Child Safe Standards and recommend improvements.

The Australian Government should develop a National Framework for Child Safety that is endorsed and governed by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to supersede the existing National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, which expires in 2020 (see Recommendation 6.15). The National Framework for Child Safety should commit governments to implementing longterm child safety initiatives and hold them to account. It should specifically include institutional child sexual abuse as well as broader child safety issues, and include links to other related policy frameworks. The government should commit adequate long-term funding to initiatives in the National Framework for Child Safety.

The Australian Government should establish a National Office for Child Safety in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, to provide a response to the implementation of the Child Safe Standards nationally, and to develop and lead the proposed National Framework for Child Safety (see Recommendations 6.16 and 6.17). The Australian Government should transition the National Office for Child Safety into an Australian Government statutory body within 18 months of this Royal Commission’s Final Report being tabled in the Australian Parliament. Establishment by legislation would give the office longevity, accountability, appropriate governance arrangements, and sufficient powers and resources to perform its functions.

An Australian Government minister should be given portfolio responsibility for national leadership of children’s policy issues, including child safety (see Recommendation 6.18). Creation of a ministerial portfolio would cement child safety as a national priority. The portfolio should include responsibility for the implementation and effectiveness of the National Framework for Child Safety and its associated initiatives.

A phased approach going forward

The implementation of our recommendations for improving child safe approaches should be a priority for governments. Our recommended changes are significant and will affect a large number of institutions. Implementation should begin immediately, with a phased approach.

Phased implementation is preferred to:

  • emphasise the long-term cultural change needed
  • allow time for institutions to build their capacity to comply with the Child Safe Standards, recognising that sectors vary in readiness to comply
  • allow time for regulatory bodies and governments to build their own capacity to implement the changes and carry out new functions, as jurisdictions vary in readiness to implement.

Ensuring children are safe online is a growing area of concern in communities and institutions. While most accounts of child sexual abuse in institutions that we heard predate the availability of digital technology, its use is an emerging theme in more contemporary accounts. Addressing these online risks is a critical aspect of creating child safe environments for institutions.

For young people, the boundaries between online and offline interactions are becoming increasingly arbitrary and invisible. We acknowledge that access to digital media is an essential component of children’s rights and that most online interactions for children are positive and support their social development, relationships and education. However, the nature of the online environment and the rapidly evolving ways in which it is being used create risks that need to be identified, considered and minimised to better protect children from harm. A balanced approach is needed that acknowledges the positive role played by online technologies in young people’s lives and their advanced digital skills and fluency online.

The importance of creating child safe online environments for children is reflected in our proposed Child Safe Standard 8: Physical and online environments minimise the opportunity for abuse to occur. This relates to how institutions can minimise the opportunity for abuse to occur as a result of children’s online activity, and to respond effectively when incidents do occur.

To help meet Child Safe Standard 8, institutions require more support. The Australian Government’s Office of the eSafety Commissioner, which was established in July 2015 as an independent statutory office, has a national leadership role in the online safety of children, and would be best placed to lead this work.

We have concluded that effective responses to online child safety could only result from a highly coordinated and collaborative approach that involved a range of agencies and a number of key components. A useful way to think about these key components is as ‘the four e’s’: education, engineering, enforcement and engagement.

Risks of child sexual abuse in an online environment

To address online child sexual abuse or harmful sexual behaviours by children, we considered the following issues:

  • the use of online communications for grooming purposes by adult perpetrators
  • the use of digital technologies and platforms to produce, distribute, broadcast and traffic child exploitation materials, including images, video and live-streaming of sexual abuse of children
  • image-based abuse, including non-consensual sharing or publishing of sexual images of children for blackmail, humiliation, payback or trafficking purposes.

Further, as an area for future consideration, we note the impacts that have been associated with children’s increasing exposure to online pornography.

There is some indication that children who are vulnerable to harm online are often already at risk offline. In such instances, digital media tends to serve as a tool to facilitate or aggravate an existing problem.

Challenges for effective prevention of and response to online child sexual abuse

A considerable number of existing initiatives, mechanisms and areas of legislation in Australia could be built on to support children’s online safety. However, we heard that despite these considerable efforts, challenges remain for the effective prevention of, and coordinated responses to, online child sexual abuse, as technologies rapidly change and online behaviours evolve. These include:

  • the need for more comprehensive and relevant online safety education to be delivered to all children and parents
  • the lack of effective policies, procedures and practices to ensure children’s online safety in institutions
  • the need for effective, coordinated and proportional responses to online incidents that occur in institutions
  • the need to increase national capability across agencies, including law enforcement, to deal with complex technological challenges and share effective responses.

Opportunities for effective prevention and response to online child sexual abuse

We have concluded that there are opportunities for strengthening children’s safety online and improving responses to online child sexual abuse. These should build on the considerable work that is underway in Australia, and on existing mechanisms, frameworks, programs and resources.

Online safety is a rapidly evolving and dynamic area of activity. Our recommendations in Chapter 5 reflect this, as well as the need for a combination of flexible, ongoing, nationally coordinated measures.

Importantly, this work should be led by and build on the work of the Office of the eSafety Commissioner, acknowledging the Australian Government’s overarching responsibilities under the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Act 2015.

We conclude that key opportunities to strengthen children’s safety online and improve responses to online child sexual abuse include:

  • a nationally consistent approach to online safety education embedded in school curricula, starting from an early age and staged appropriately from Foundation year to Year 12. Vulnerable children who may not access formal school education programs should be engaged through targeted responses (see Recommendation 6.19)
  • national online safety education aimed at parents and other community members to better support children’s safety online (see Recommendation 6.20)
  • pre-service education and in-service staff training to support child-related institutions in creating safe online environments (see Recommendation 6.21)
  • an e-safety framework and resources to support schools in creating child safe online environments, which includes strengthening institutional policies and procedures, and implementing codes of conduct (see Recommendation 6.22)
  • centralised mechanisms within state and territory departments of education to support schools in managing responses when online incidents occur and ensuring the appropriate level of escalation of issues to relevant agencies (see Recommendation 6.23)
  • building national capacity and collaboration to deal with the complexities of the evolving online environment (see Recommendation 6.24).

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