The recent abduction of two small children from a North Perth vacation care centre raises broader concerns about the approach to safety of children’s service providers in WA.
When parents trust their children to out of school or vacation care programs, or indeed any other children’s service, they trust that the provider has the competence and systems in place to ensure their children will be safe in their care. Unfortunately as we have seen all too recently, this trust can be misplaced.
How can a child predator remove two young children from a vacation program without the knowledge of staff, in spite of state and national regulations that require children of this age to be in direct line of sight at all times? For me, it brings into question whether the rules are being enforced adequately and whether a system of regulatory compliance that has been reported as being "aspirational" is appropriate for safeguarding the welfare of children.
I know from personal experience of vacation care when my own daughter attended a centre that they can be chaotic due to the wide range of children's ages catered for, the many activities happening at once, and the mixed indoor/outdoor environments in which they often take place. Although ratios of staff to children are proscribed by regulation, it can be very difficult in these fluid, activity-based settings to make sure all children are accounted for at all times. Add to that the often temporary nature of vacation care settings such as community halls, not always designed for child care and only in use occasionally for that purpose, and access and control of attendees and visitors can become an issue.
Relying on partial or occasional government assessments to ensure compliance is inadequate in my view for this crucial area of care. It is not enough for providers to have written policies and criminal history-checked staff if the mindset of the provider is that these are simply regulatory principles that need to be ticked off so they can get on with operating their holiday activity business.
For systemic improvements to occur, service providers need to develop a culture of child safety for their organisation that is driven from the top-down and that involves embedding risk management approaches in everything they do. From their core business values, policies and procedures, to staff screening and training, codes of conduct, environment risk assessment and rigorous reporting of incidents or abuse, centre operators must start thinking of child safety in the design of all their key processes. Crucial to this approach is the need to involve children as active participants in their own safety rather than just the recipient, ensuring they can contribute to and take responsibility for the design and delivery of safe systems approaches. A sense of collective ownership of safety issues by all involved is widely acknowledged as being the key to better outcomes, an approach practiced for many years now in the WA resources sector.
More broadly, the concept of an organisation that is "child safe" is one that all organisations should be encouraged to adopt, not just child care services. Activity and event venues, sporting clubs, entertainment providers, cinemas – any service whose client group includes children and young people should be actively embracing this model. This approach has been adopted in a number of states and territories over recent years and I am encouraged to see that it is now coming to WA, championed by the office of the Commissioner for Children and Young People amongst others.
I have no doubt that changing the mindset of providers to one of continuous risk assessment and mitigation through a culture focused on children's safety is ultimately going to be the best way to prevent the shocking events of last week from reocurring again.
By David Gribble, Chief Executive Officer, Constable Care Child Safety Foundation