Child safety: Creating the right organisational culture

“…The process for responding to suspected criminal child abuse needs to be part of an organisation’s culture, leadership and internal practices. The culture and sernior management of an organisation must actively support the reporting of suspicions or allegations of criminal child abuse to the police and relevant authorities. The organisation must also have an ongoing commitment to reviewing and continuously imporoving its processes.”
Victorian Family and Community Development Committee, during its Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Relivious and Other Organisations, 2013.

We recommend that organisations approach their culture on the following four fronts.

1. From the top down

It is the responsibility of the board (or, in the case of schools, the school council) to ensure the organisation has the appropriate policies, procedures and culture in place to both:

  • safeguard against the risk of child abuse; and
  • respond effectively if abuse is suspected or confirmed.

Creating the right culture in your organisation will not be possible unless the board is conspicuously committed to ensuring a child-safe organisation.

In its submission to the Federal Government’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, established in 2013, the Australian Children’s Commissioners and Guardians (ACCG) – a network that aims to promote and protect the safety, wellbeing and rights of children and young people in Australia – set out a series of actions that organisations can adopt in order to provide a child-safe environment. The principles provide a useful framework for boards and school councils looking to embed a child-safe culture. They are:

  1. Take a preventative, proactive and participatory approach to child safety
  2. Implement child safety policies and procedures that support ongoing assessment and amelioration of risk
  3. Value and empower children to participate in decisions that affect their lives
  4. Foster a culture of openness that supports all persons to safely disclose risks of harm to children
  5. Respect diversity in cultures and child rearing practices while keeping child safety paramount
  6. Provide written guidance on appropriate conduct and behaviour towards children
  7. Engage only the most suitable people to work with children and have high-quality staff and volunteer supervision and professional development
  8. Ensure children know who to talk with if they are worried or are feeling unsafe, and that they are comfortable and encouraged to raise such issues
  9. Report suspected abuse, neglect or mistreatment promptly to the appropriate authorities
  10. Share information appropriately and lawfully with other organisations where the safety and wellbeing of children is at risk
  11. Value the input of and communicate regularly with families and carers.

School councils and not-for-profit boards should publicly commit to these principles and should ensure that the organisation’s strategic plans, vision, and mission statements include specific consideration of child strategy.

Mandatory reporting

Governing bodies should satisfy themselves that their organisation is adhering to all legislative requirements. For the legislative obligations that are relevant in your state or territory, see this resource sheet published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Policies and procedures

The board should ensure the organisation has appropriate policies and procedures in place to promote child safety and reduce risk. A child-safe policy and a code of conduct are two essential documents for any organisation whose volunteers, employees or contractors come into contact with children.

Child-safe policy

Your child-safe policy should be clearly worded and should include, at a minimum:

  • a statement expressing the organisation’s commitment to child safety
  • a definition of what constitutes child abuse
  • procedures and decision-making processes that surround the organisation's interactions and involvement with children
  • an outline of your organisation’s recruitment and supervision processes
  • processes for identifying and managing child abuse risks
  • processes for reporting and handling child abuse concerns and complaints
  • processes for managing communication about suspected or actual child abuse, both internally and externally
  • a description of the roles and responsibilities of personnel involved in protecting children, including the duty of care of the board, management, staff and volunteers
  • a statement setting out the organisation’s commitment to honouring different cultural traditions when protecting children
  • a statement setting out the organisation’s commitment to the safety of children with a disability
  • information about how the policy is implemented, governed and reviewed.

We have put together a sample policy covering all the points above is available here, which your organisation can adapt to its needs.

Code of conduct

The board should also ensure the organisation has an up-to-date code of conduct that includes the following:

  • Clear and specific standards of conduct for working with children in different situations relevant to the organisation (e.g. where carers are looking after children with disabilities who may require soothing or restraining)
  • Clear expectations of appropriate relationships with children for staff, volunteers and families (e.g. when it is appropriate for there to be physical contact, social media boundaries, etc.)
  • Instructions on how adults should respond to any risks adults may pose to children, or that children may pose to each other
  • Guidance about how inappropriate conduct (or conduct that is not consistent with any legislation or code) should be reported
  • Recognition of the needs of children from culturally and/or linguistically diverse backgrounds
  • Recognition of the needs of children with a disability and appropriate behaviour and relationships for personnel and children (e.g. appropriate ways to physically and emotionally assist a child with a disability).

We have put together a sample code of conduct for child safety for your organisation to adapt to its needs.

2. Implement child-safe policies and procedures

Merely having policies in place does not guarantee child safety.

Organisations must ensure all relevant people (volunteers, contractors and staff) have the knowledge, skills and capability required to create, implement and follow appropriate systems and processes.

It’s generally not enough to communicate the existence of policies and procedures; training is required as well.

Your organisation also needs to have in place processes for regularly reviewing and refining policies and procedures to ensure that your organisation is compliant with:

  • all mandatory processes for responding to and reporting suspected child abuse
  • any new child safety standards (as this area is regularly evolving)
  • any other legislative changes surrounding child safety.

Strategies for doing this include making diary notes (e.g. in managers’ electronic calendars, and the board calendar) to review legislation in this area at least annually and update policies accordingly. You might also like to sign up to receive Our Community Matters, Our Community’s free e-newsletter, which contains regular updates about legal and other changes affecting Australian not-for-profit organisations and schools.

3. Empower children

Organisations where children and young adults feel free to question and speak up are generally the most child-safe organisations of all. Through your organisation’s policies, as well as the behaviour of its leaders and staff, children should be encouraged to come forward with questions or concerns about adult behaviour.

There are a number of ways to empower children within your organisation to speak up about both child abuse and behaviour that might lead to child abuse. These steps include:

  • ensuring all relevant policies and procedures are developed in conjunction with children, written in plain English and made publicly available online
  • making sure children know that your organisation cares about their feelings and safety – by exhibiting child-friendly posters and statements of your values, for example
  • discussing with children under your organisation’s care or supervision the relevant policies and procedures, and providing practical examples of situations which might or would be necessary for children to disclose
  • making a strong commitment to children’s participation (i.e. being inclusive of all children) and providing staff with resources that support participation
  • building children’s confidence and assisting them to develop skills for participation, such as communication skills
  • matching participation methods to the age, capabilities and background of the children and being adaptive to their ways of working
  • creating opportunities for children to be involved in policy and program development, implementation and review, including being honest with children about the extent of their involvement, and giving feedback on how their views have been actioned
  • establishing pathways and mechanisms (e.g. opportunities for children to communicate with and get to trust a variety of adults, etc.) which enable children to raise concerns safely and with confidence
  • using inclusive and empowering, child- friendly language in everyday activities and relevant written documents.


Another key factor in empowering children is to provide sensitive education on appropriate adult behaviour and how to spot and respond to the signs of inappropriate conduct.

While adults within your organisation must be alert to the warning signs of grooming and child sexual abuse, providing children in the care of your organisation with appropriate education about their bodies and personal boundaries will further strengthen your organisation’s child protection strategy.

Education may take place face to face (e.g. in a classroom setting) or via documented resources. We recommend that an appropriately qualified individual (such as a child psychologist or child counsellor with training expertise) provide this type of education.

The sorts of topics usually covered in such training include:

  • naming body parts – encouraging children to use proper names for body parts and explaining that certain parts are private
  • secrets – talking to children about the differences between a good secret and a bad secret, the importance of not keeping secrets from parents, how to be alert for tricks and bribes
  • safe and not-safe touches – an explanation about the difference between ‘safe touches’ and touches to private parts or those that make a child feel mad, upset or confused
  • it’s okay to tell – reinforcing to children that they will never get in trouble for telling trusted adults that someone touched them or did something that they were not comfortable about
  • adults aren’t always right – explaining to children that some adults can do wrong things and it’s important they let another adult know if they are worried about something
  • feelings and instincts – helping children to identify and talk about their feelings, encouraging them to trust their instincts, and telling them how to get help
  • trusted adults – ensuring that children know who they can go to when they have a question or concern (there should always be a number of nominated personnel specified)
  • communication – encouraging open communication and discussions about experiences and feelings.

Children should also be provided with education about cyber safety to protect them against online grooming by predatory individuals. For example, many organisations do not allow staff or volunteers to be ‘friends’ on Facebook or other social media with children in their care. If this is the case in your organisation, this should be explained to students so that they can identify inappropriate behaviour if it arises. If your organisation does allow interaction via social media, you should educate both adults and children about expected behaviours and boundaries.

4. Enable disclosure

Organisations should seek to foster a culture that encourages all children and adults to speak up about any concerns regarding a child’s wellbeing.

The following statement from the Royal Commission’s interim report highlights this point:

“It is apparent that perpetrators are more likely to offend when an institution lacks the appropriate culture and is not managed with the protection of children as a high priority.”

The Victorian Family and Community Development Committee’s Betrayal of Trust report (2013) echoed this point, saying, “Although having a process that requires personnel to report allegations or suspicions to management is important, there is also a need to ensure that the culture of the organisation supports such disclosures.”

Child-safe organisations are those that foster and demonstrate openness in multiple ways. This helps to create a culture whereby all persons (including staff, contractors, volunteers, parents, carers and children) feel confident and comfortable to disclose to management any of their child safety concerns.

Strategies that help to create such a culture include:

  • having management lead by example and establish honest two-way communication between themselves and others. Management should take the time to listen to others and encourage the expression of different viewpoints
  • insisting that all interactions between staff, volunteers, parents, carers and children are respectful
  • talking openly and honestly, where appropriate, about any past issues, alongside steps that have been taken to ensure those issues do not occur again
  • treating personal information confidentially and respecting individuals’ privacy
  • being open and transparent with parents and children about the organisation’s privacy practices. This might include informing children that their counselling records could be accessed by others in certain circumstances.

As recommended by the Victorian Government, organisations should clearly communicate child safety policies and procedures to all staff, volunteers, children and families, and publish policies for child safety on the organisation’s website.

Protection for reporters

All Australian states and territories have enacted legislation that protects individuals who make reports about suspected child abuse in good faith. ‘Good faith’ means the reporter has a valid and reasonable concern and is acting without malice or retaliation towards the alleged offender.

These protections ensure that the report:

  • cannot result in the reporter being seen as unprofessional or having breached professional ethics
  • does not make the reporter liable for any disciplinary or legal action (including in cases that are not proven).

As a child-safe organisation you should ensure that everyone (including board members, school council members, managers, staff, volunteers, contractors, counsellors, youth workers, chaplains, carers, parents and children – everyone) is made aware of their rights to report any concerns that they have of inappropriate behaviour towards children, and that they will not suffer any professional or legal consequences so long as they report in good faith.

Reports need to be made internally and externally in line with the organisation’s policies and procedures and the applicable state-based legislation.

For details of reporting channels and requirements, see the 1800Respect helpsheet on Mandatory Reporting and similar websites.

As recommended by the Victorian Government, organisations should promote a confidential reporting culture that respects individual privacy while maintaining adequate records of child safety issues.

All organisations other than the very smallest should appoint an appropriately trained child safety officer or child safety champion.

How to respond to leaders who don’t support child safety

We do not assume that everyone reading this series of child safety help sheets will be a CEO, director or board/ committee member. Some will be interested parents, employees, volunteers or contractors – a person who either seeks to prevent child abuse from occurring, or has seen something in their organisation that concerns them.

Whatever your role, we strongly commend you on your commitment to protecting children. Organisations depend on people like you to provide a safe environment for children. We all have a role to play.

We would, however, like to warn you that you may not always find support when it comes to ensuring safe places for children. You might instead here statements such as the following, which we regard as red flags:

  • “We don’t have paedophiles here. We all believe in the values and mission of the organisation.”
  • “We are a religious organisation. God protects us from people who would hurt children.”
  • “Everyone within the organisation has been with us for decades. We have no reason to mistrust them.”
  • “This isn’t a big issue for us; we are more worried about staying financially viable at this point.”

Leaders who use phrases like these often have a tendency to push back on attempts to introduce appropriate safeguards for children. No two leaders will be identical, and their reasons for pushing back may be a mystery.

However, there are many different angles you can try to get them onside. Here are some pointers to help you influence decision-makers:

  • The financial approach: Many insurance companies now require compliance with child safety laws and will either charge an organisation high premiums if there isn’t compliance, or refuse to provide coverage to an organisation that doesn’t comply. Further, to be able to defend a claim or minimise liability, you need to be able to demonstrate compliance, which means having in place a policy, a reporting procedure and regular training. It makes financial sense to comply.
  • We’re all in this together: Child safety laws apply to all organisations that work with children, which means everyone has to put in the time and effort to get themselves up to speed. Failing to comply will put the organisation at a disadvantage compared with its peers, while the alternative will allow you to position your organisation as a leader.
  • Highlighting your important work: Your organisation can use its steps to comply with new child safety legislation as an excuse to communicate with the community about all the positive work you are doing with and for children.

This message can be conveyed to great effect to the community at large, clients, partners, influencers (such as MPs and peak bodies in your sector) and potential funders.

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