It is a pleasure to rise to speak on the Working with Children Amendment (Ministers of Religion and Other Matters) Bill 2014. This bill continues the important work the government is doing to further ensure that children are kept safe in all areas, and in particular it strengthens the working with children check which was instigated in 2005. The bill furthers the recommendations of the Family and Community Development Committee Betrayal of Trust report and ensures that the protection of children is put first and foremost when it comes to some of the changes to the principal act.
The bill builds on reforms that have already been introduced such as antigrooming laws, making it an offence for persons of authority to fail to take action to protect children in their organisation against known child abusers, requiring the reporting of child abuse to police and the requirement for organisations that work with children to meet the new children’s safeguards. The bill amends the principal act to require all ministers of religion who have contact with children to obtain a working with children check. There have been some 1.492 million working with children checks issued, there are some 946 000 working with children card holders and 1861 negative notices have been issued to people who have applied for a working with children card. Those who have received negative notices are the sorts of individuals we need to focus on. When it comes to the part of the bill which deals with strengthening the working with children check, there are some 83 000 ministers of religion or people working in religious organisations who will be encompassed as part of this amendment.
The legislation makes it clear that a working with children check is a minimum requirement for working with children and is not a suitability check. We need to make sure that the working with children check is only the first stage for staff and volunteers in organisations that have a direct contact with children.
In the time I have remaining I will talk about a number of organisations that go beyond that minimum. The bill provides those organisations with flexibility to go that one step further and encourages them to do so. The Australian Childhood Foundation Safeguarding Children program was developed by the Australian Council for Children and Youth Organisations (ACCYO) in July 2009. ACCYO merged with the Australian Childhood Foundation to expand the reach of the program. The program is now managed by the foundation, a not‑for‑profit organisation which ensures there are a range of principles and practices which build on the working with children check. This is important because we need to make sure that our children are protected in whatever way is possible. We consider the working with children check to be a base, and we need to ensure that organisations build on that base and look at whatever strategies they can to ensure that our children are safe and protected.
Some of the organisations that have received accreditation through ACCYO and the Safeguarding Children program include the Somerville Family Support group, Camp Quality, Chabad Youth and the YMCA organisations in Ballarat, Bendigo and Manningham. Organisations that are currently seeking accreditation to build on that working with children check include the Australian Zionist Youth Council, Jewish Aid, Jewish Care Victoria, Jewish Labour Bund, Rabbinical Council of Victoria, Tzedek, Ronald McDonald House charities, Yeshiva College and the Ararat, Eastern Goldfields, Geelong, Portland, Whittlesea and Victoria YMCAs. All YMCAs have gone above and beyond the working with children checks and are building these safeguarding policies.
I want to touch on one of the organisations that I had involvement with over the years. Ardoch Youth Foundation has spent over 20 years working with young people in schools ensuring that those young people are protected and encouraged to remain in school through education programs, after‑school programs breakfast programs and mentoring programs. This organisation, as do many charities, works with hundreds of volunteers. We know of the importance of volunteers to our community organisations, to charities and to the emergency services. Right across the board volunteers are integral to this work. We also know that among those volunteers there are rare individuals who deliberately target these organisations. They put their hand up to volunteer to try to gain access to young people. They do it for a whole range of different reasons but mainly to exploit and take advantage of young people. These are the individuals that we need to be mindful of. These are the individuals that we need to be targeting. These are the individuals that we need to ensure children are protected from through the right legislation.
Ardoch Youth Foundation has a youth safe guard policy, and it covers a whole range of different things that go beyond working with children check including a code of conduct, a staff recruitment support supervision and training program and a volunteer support supervision program. All the way through, from staff to volunteers to training, everything is covered in its safeguarding policy. It does not just rely on the working with children check and say, ‘We’ve done everything we can’; it makes sure that there are safeguards all the way through the organisation. I commend the CEO, Mandy Burns, the board and the whole organisation for their discipline. This is a costly exercise but an important one to ensure that the safeguards to protect children are in place.
I want to give an example of the information included in its policy. Things to do include:
treat all young people with respect and take notice of their reactions to your tone of voice and manner;
maintain contact with children/young people in a supervised area;
raise all concerns, issues and/or problems about a child/young person’s wellbeing and safety with your supervisor as soon as possible; and
make sure all allegations or suspicions of abuse are reported, recorded and acted upon in a confidential manner.
Things not to do include:
engage in rough physical games;
hold, kiss, cuddle or touch a child/young person in an inappropriate and/or culturally insensitive way;
make sexually suggestive comments or use inappropriate language to a child/young person, even as a joke;
do things of a personal nature that a child/young person can do for themselves, such as going to the toilet or changing clothes;
disclose any personal information of a controversial nature; and
exchange personal contact details with, initiate or maintain unauthorised contact with children/young people.
This is really important. Certainly I have heard of cases in the past where an individual who wanted to target very young people would go for a working with children check, have access to these young people straightaway and do what they could to take advantage of them. We need to ensure that there is a minimum, which is the working with children check; that that minimum is strengthened; that there are a lot of elements in place to clarify the definition of child‑related work; and that the secretary has power to suspend or revoke a working with children check if the appropriate information is not presented. We need to tighten up all these issues to ensure that there are proper screening and supervision practices in place.
As I said earlier, this will ensure that our religious organisations, ministries and associated bodies take part in checks and that ministers of religion who have contact with children in congregations have a working with children check to further enhance the protection of children and their families. This was paramount in the parliamentary inquiry, which revealed flaws within many of the religious organisations that we know. This is a key element to ensure that these people are incorporated in this important area.
I commend the Attorney‑General and the Minister for Community Services for their great work in ensuring that we strengthen these laws, provide the appropriate protection for our young people and, most importantly, put children front and centre in all of our policies. That is symbolic of everything we do here as a government. We are making sure that our young people are protected. I commend the bill to the house.