Edina worked as a publications officer at a key Aboriginal child welfare organisation for four years, starting in the 2000s. During that time a new Chairman, Rob Foley, was appointed. However, Foley was arrested for child sexual offences that had occurred previously and in a different state. Edina came to the Royal Commission to speak about the poor response from management at the welfare organisation where she worked. Its primary focus was on reputational damage control rather than the welfare of children.
Edina had had a long career in child welfare, women’s health and policy before coming to the organisation. When Rob was new as Chair, Edina interviewed him for a newsletter article. Her suspicions were aroused when he started describing his former days as a youth worker and house parent in boarding schools. He described one situation where he was in the boys’ showers and was going through the pockets of their clothes. He even intimated that some of the boys were circumcised. When Edina queried this content with her CEO, Gordon, she was told to include it in the article if Rob was ‘okay’ with it.
Other things occurred at the time which gave Edina – and other staff members – a ‘weird vibe’. On one occasion, the secretary responsible for booking motel rooms for the executive staff had to book a room for Rob and his ‘young charge’, a young and good looking man working with him. The secretary thought it was a ‘bit weird’. On another occasion, when Rob discovered that a staff member had a 16-year-old son, he said ‘Give me his email. We can do some gaming together’.
‘We had nowhere to go’, Edina told the Commissioner. When she went to the CEO he wasn’t interested in ‘unpacking it’ she recalls. ‘If you have someone like me going “I’ve got a funny vibe about you”, who do I tell? Who are you gonna call?’
One recommendation Edina made to the Commission is that there needs to be some ‘body’ where people can report if they simply have suspicions – so long as there is some substance to those suspicions. That is what she needed in that workplace situation. She was never going to go to the police or an ombudsman. ‘It has to be more friendly.’
Later, while still Chair, Rob Foley was arrested and charged with child sex offences in relation to incidents prior to his appointment as Chair and unrelated to the organisation. Again, Edina was dismayed by the managerial response to this.
The staff, Edina recalls, were very calm about it. What they collectively thought was appropriate was to contact all stakeholders and be open about it. They even saw it as an opportunity for organisations to learn how to deal with such things, as it could happen anywhere. The staff also had a great need to sit and reflect on what happened as a group. However, during one of the initial meetings with Gordon, the CEO, he presented staff with a media consultant. This consultant had previously worked for a football team after its members had been accused of rape. She coached them on how to speak to the media. It was all ‘image protection junk’ Edina recalls. ‘His [Gordon’s] sole mode was organisation protection.’
Free therapy sessions were offered to the staff but that wasn’t what was required as the staff were not traumatised. They had little interaction with the Chair anyway. ‘They never allowed us to talk’, Edina told the Commissioner. She’s fairly certain they were ‘actively told’ not to speak about it in the staff room.
Gordon was also reluctant to remove Rob Foley’s name from their printed materials because of the expense. Edina saw that as an affront to children that his name should still remain. However, this was done anyway because the staff just went ahead and did it. The staff members all had solid experience in policy. ‘None of us are slouches.’
‘From our staff point of view we saw quite clearly [the organisation’s] role was to protect children. [The CEO’s] point of view was his role was to protect [the organisation].’ Edina saw this as the wrong focus.
Over the next few months 12 of the 16 staff resigned, many of them because of the organisation’s response to this event. ‘We lost a lot of knowledge. [The organisation] was devastated for about a year and a half. It didn’t produce anything of any worth … [The CEO] was paralysed. The committee was paralysed. The workforce was gone. It was just a big mess.’ Edina was eventually fired.
Edina believes Gordon’s actions – or lack of – stemmed from a concern that the organisation would lose government funding due to the controversy surrounding the Chair, who resigned. This leads Edina to her second recommendation to the Commission: that there should be a government guarantee that organisations won’t lose funding in these instances, so long as the organisation responds appropriately.