Last week, a former childcare centre worker was charged with more than 1,600 child abuse offences, sending shivers through the Australian community. There are about 1.4 million children using a childcare service (including centre-based care, family daycare and outside school hours care) around the country.
In response to a confidential briefing about the case last year, Education Minister Jason Clare set up a review into safety practices in the childcare sector.
This will see the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority work with the Australian Federal Police. They will provide an interim report in October and a final report in December.
Recent Australian research indicates children are most likely to be sexually abused by an adolescent they know (such as a sibling or peer at school) or an adult caregiver in the home.
Nonetheless, the first question parents have understandably asked in the wake of this devastating news is “how could this happen?”. Followed very closely by “is my child safe?”.
We can reduce the likelihood of abuse occurring in childcare centres. This will need governments, childcare services, educators and parents to work together.
Police checks are just the start
Each state and territory requires people who work with children to have a working with children clearance.
There are differences between state and territory jurisdictions but applicants are required to prove their identity and provide prior aliases.
At the centre of the process is a police criminal history check. Certain records, including charges or convictions for child sexual offences or other violent offences would see an application denied.
This is a start. But it does not mean all employees with a clearance are trustworthy. Unfortunately, many offenders remain undetected, let alone prosecuted. And working with children may give employees the opportunity to offend for the first time, or trigger previously unrealised motivations to offend.
The man charged with 1,623 child abuse offences in multiple jurisdictions, including Queensland, had passed the state’s “blue card” check, clearing him to work with children.
Safer recruitment processes
A history of frequent job changes and working at multiple sites and organisations – particularly when accompanied by residential relocations – suggests someone might be trying to evade detection.
Verbal reference checks are more effective than written forms or reports. This includes talking directly to past managers and supervisors, including those in other jurisdictions. Questions should include, were there any concerns about their interactions with children? Were they reported? Would the employer hire them again? If not, why not?
The importance of open plan centres
Even if someone motivated to abuse children gets a job, it is still possible to prevent abuse occurring.
The physical environment of a childcare centre and how it is managed can significantly reduce the opportunity for abuse to occur. Open plan centres allow for natural surveillance and reduce the likelihood of offending.
Where possible, it is also important to prevent blind spots (created by moving furniture, covering windows or building cubbies) that obstruct the natural line of sight. If there are blind spots like windowless offices or storerooms, open door policies or CCTV can be used.
On top of all this, centres can require staff to always be in line of sight of another staff member.
Centres should also ban staff from carrying personal mobile phones during work hours and stipulate where they should be stored. If staff need to take photos of children for documentation or parent reports, this can be done on a centre device that is managed and overseen by multiple staff.
Beware of cognitive biases
Research on child sexual abuse is full of accounts of disbelief a person could engage in that behaviour.
Both parents and centre workers are susceptible to cognitive biases, that can lead them to discount the likelihood a person could abuse children. In the childcare context two factors can increase these biases.
Knowing a person has a working with children check tends to reinforce the view they are a “good person” who would not harm a child.
Child sex abusers also engage in a range of grooming techniques. While community awareness of child grooming techniques is increasing, there is less awareness that offenders often groom parents and colleagues. They do this by ingratiating themselves through acts of kindness and friendship.
These behaviours serve to reinforce they are “good people” and facilitate continued access to children. Overly familiar and personal conduct is another red flag in child-related employment contexts.
Information sharing is a key part of reducing risk. Centres should have clear processes for staff and parents to safely raise concerns and have them investigated quickly.
Importantly, we must also equip children with the skills to communicate concerns if they arise. This includes teaching them appropriate terminology for body parts and basic rules about safe and unsafe behaviours. This can empower even very young children to disclose abuse.
The vast majority of childcare workers are good people. And if there is clear leadership and governance for childcare centres and good parental awareness, we can improve children’s safety. But we need to remain vigilant.
For support and advice regarding child sexual abuse, you can call Bravehearts on 1800 272 831.
If you are a child, teenager or young adult who needs help and support, you can call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.
If you are an adult who experienced abuse as a child, call the Blue Knot Helpline on 1300 657 380.
You can also call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 to access support for domestic, family and sexual violence.
David Bartlett, Industry Fellow, Griffith University; Amanda L. Robertson, Adjunct Research Fellow – Griffith Criminology Institute, Griffith University, and Danielle Arlanda Harris, Senior Lecturer, Griffith University