Quality education and care and child safety go hand in hand

Former National Children's Commissioner, Megan Mitchell, explains how recognising indicators of risk and ensuring every child’s voice is heard ensures child safe organisations.

19 February 2021

Along with state specific laws, standards and guidance, the National Principles, endorsed by members of the Council of Australian Governments including the Prime Minister and state and territory First Ministers in February 2019, provide a strong foundation for the work ahead.

Embedding truly safe and happy environments for our children to learn, grow and thrive – is where early childhood education and care services can play a critical leadership role.

Safeguarding is more than just child protection

It is important to understand that the task at hand is more than protecting children from deliberate harm – focusing on children’s fundamental rights is the most effective platform for keeping children safe and promoting their overall well-being.

This kind of approach recognises the strengths of organisations like early childhood education and care (ECEC) services, and the benefits that children themselves can gain from being part of these services, such as helping children to:

  • develop positive relationships with peers and adults
  • learn about the world around them
  • explore things they are interested in
  • feel empowered by enabling them to have a voice and express themselves.

The ten National Principles for child safe organisations

The ten National Principles collectively show that child safe organisations consciously and systematically:

  • create an environment where children’s safety and wellbeing is at the centre of thought, values and actions
  • place emphasis on genuine engagement and valuing of children
  • create conditions that reduce the likelihood of harm to children and young people
  • create conditions that increase the likelihood of identifying any harm
  • respond to any concerns, disclosures, allegations or suspicions of harm.

The principles are accompanied by a suite of online training modules and practical resources to assist in their implementation.

The importance of child voice

Two things I consistently heard from children and young people about their safety and wellbeing in organisational settings, are that:

  • they want to be able to have a say
  • they expect adults not just to listen to them, but to take action when they know something is not right.

These themes also resonated throughout much of the work of the Royal Commission.

Many children who tried to speak out about their experiences were not listened to or believed. We also know that many adults failed to act appropriately when they discovered signs of abuse. It is important to remember that silenced children are never protected children.

Children communicate in different ways, and at different ages, so it is critical to provide them with multiple platforms to participate, have a say and express themselves.

Ways to involve and engage younger children in discussion about their rights and their own safety might include:

  • Drawing or painting people who are important to them – family, friends and workers.
  • Collecting items that represent being healthy and happy.
  • Identifying the spaces where they feel happiest and safest.
  • Agreeing a special sign for when they feel worried.
  • Discussing safe and unsafe secrets.
  • Reading storybooks on personal safety and empowerment.

Recognising indicators of a child at risk

Having set out that child safety starts with rights, respect, and getting the environment right, it is also important to be on the lookout for certain signs that a child is at risk or might be feeling unsafe.

Threats to children can come from many sources - their neighbourhoods, their families, their peers, strangers, and adults who volunteer or work with them. The physical environment too can be threatening, unwelcoming or alienating to children. So, it is important to ensure the space is bright, child friendly, culturally inclusive and age appropriate, is comfortable and clean, and includes ‘safe’ quiet places in good view of staff.

Staff should expect to receive regular training on detecting signs of abuse and what to do about it.

Common signs of abuse and neglect in children include:

  • unexplained bruises, cuts or marks
  • changes in behaviour, like becoming quiet and sad, or angry, aggressive and agitated
  • self-harming
  • reluctance to take off coats and jumpers, even on hot days
  • bedwetting
  • disturbed sleep
  • poor concentration
  • disordered eating
  • becoming overly talkative and clingy
  • acting unusually adult or infantile – for example being overly protective of other children, or reverting to behaviours like rocking
  • developmental delays
  • headaches and stomach aches with no apparent causes.

For individual children, signs like this might also be part of the normal business of change and development, but for others it can be a sign that they are experiencing something traumatic in their life, such as child abuse and neglect. While child abuse can be a one-off incident, more often it is part of a more regular and prolonged pattern of behaviour.

If a child is going to make a disclosure about the abuse that they are experiencing, they typically tend to seek out a trusted adult. A child might disclose spontaneously (more common in younger children), indirectly or by giving parts of the story over time.

If a child does disclose that they have been abused, it is important to stay calm, listen and reassure the child that they have done the right thing by telling you. You should also be honest about needing to report (as age appropriate), maintain appropriate confidentiality and report the information to the authorities as a matter of priority.

In receiving a child’s disclosure it is important not to:

  • Promise the child that you won’t tell anyone.
  • Have a strong reaction of shock or revulsion at what you are being told.
  • Ask the child leading questions about the disclosure.
  • Discuss the disclosure freely with people who do not need to know.
  • Fail to meet your reporting obligations or take protective action.

Recognising and responding to inappropriate behaviours

All services should have a code of conduct that sets out expected behaviours for keeping children safe. These should be supported by policies, procedures and risk management strategies, developed and understood by the entire workforce.

A particularly telling case reviewed by the Royal Commission concerned a convicted pedophile. The Commission found that the offender not only groomed the children at the service but also staff. The Commission found that the offender deliberately befriended staff so that they would not think he was doing anything suspicious or inappropriate. Reflecting back staff conceded that he was overly close physically to children, would favour, isolate and reward certain children, and often offered to transport children to and from their homes.

In any scenario like this it is important for workers to feel empowered to call out something that doesn’t look or feel right. This might involve intervening in a situation and confiding in a peer or manager. It may not amount to anything, but it may also prevent harm or further harm from occurring.

Typically, grooming behaviour is when someone tries to build relationships with children, families or caregivers with the aim of engaging the child in unlawful sexual activity. The grooming can take place in person or online, as can the offences. For younger children signs they might be being groomed include:

  • having unexplained gifts, and not wanting to talk about where they came from
  • being repeatedly favoured over other children in a group setting by a particular adult
  • having secrets with an adult that they are not allowed to tell
  • sexualised talk or sexualised behaviours that are not age-appropriate
  • wanting to be alone with certain older children or adults
  • talking excessively about an older child or adult
  • becoming secretive - not wanting to say what they’ve been doing or answer questions about time spent with someone
  • significant change in appearance – either dressing up or down to make themselves appear more or less attractive to a particular person or in general (this can occur even in young children)
  • spending more time alone.

These are not definitive signs of grooming or abuse but may be an indicator that warrant further attention, inquiry and closer supervision.

To report or not to report?

In New South Wales, early childhood education and care educators are mandatory reporters under the law. This means that they are required by law to make a report to the statutory child protection agency (currently based within the NSW Department of Communities and Justice) if:

  • they receive an allegation or disclosure about the abuse or neglect of a child that meets the Risk of Significant Harm threshold; or
  • they suspect or have concerns that a child may be at risk of abuse or neglect, and that concern meet the Risk of Significant Harm threshold.

Risk of Significant Harm relates to sexual, physical and emotional abuse and neglect, as well as carer concerns such as substance abuse, mental health and domestic or family violence. It also includes concerns for an unborn child.

If mandatory reporters are unsure about whether or not the information they have reaches the Risk of Significant Harm threshold, they have access to the NSW Mandatory Reporter Guide. If they are still uncertain, it is always best to err on the side of reporting.

Generally reporting occurs by either:

All early childhood education and care staff should be aware of their reporting responsibilities and the protocols in place to facilitate reporting.

It is important to stress that all educators have a duty of care to do so. Providing immediate and ongoing support to the child is paramount, including being in a position to connect children and families to local services that might be able to assist.

Visit the child safety webpage for more information on reporting, notifications and your legal obligations.

Reportable conduct

Staff from early childhood education and care services fall within the jurisdiction of the Reportable Conduct Scheme under Part 4 of the Children’s Guardian Act 2019. This requires early childhood education and care service providers to notify the Children’s Guardian of ‘reportable allegations’ against their employees within 7 days of the head of the organisation becoming aware of the allegation. These obligations are in addition to the mandatory reporting obligations and any other reporting obligations (such as the obligation to report criminal allegations to Police or reporting obligations to the regulator).

More information about the Reportable Conduct Scheme can be found on the Children’s Guardian’s website.

A free eLearning course ‘Responding to reportable obligations’ available on the OCG’s website provides detailed information about understanding the child protection system in NSW and how to identify and respond to reportable allegations should they arise in your setting.

Conclusion

Safeguarding frameworks are a pivotal tool to support early childhood education and care services to provide a caring, respectful and safe environment for every child who comes through their doors. But ultimately, quality in practice is about embedding cultures and attitudes that allow all children to thrive.

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