How do we keep Young People safe on our Programs?


The late Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa put it this way:   “Safety and security don’t just happen, they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.” 

A Short History

It may appear to many that abuse issues are either a problem bookended in history or an issue that publically arose in the last five years and being put to rest by 2017 when the Royal Commission ends. The reality is that the issues are both pervasive through time, remain current and span across all areas of society. Accordingly they demand ongoing vigilance.

Issues of institutional child sexual abuse gained significant national traction in the 1990’s. Governments began a more concerted campaign to grapple with these issues in the early 2000’s with the 2005 COAG meeting being a significant milestone in seeking collective responses across states and territories. Of course the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was enacted by the Gillard Government in 2013 and will run to 2017.

Inquiry outcomes to date indicate these issues are neither straight forward nor are there single silver bullet solutions. However there are consistent behaviours and mechanisms that can produce improved outcomes for our children and therefore our future. As a youth leader in any capacity you are front and centre and can practice responsible actions regardless of your role as staff, professional, volunteer, carer or any other status.

“I have become convinced that if God stands a child before you, for even just a minute, it is a divine appointment.”    Wess Stafford (CEO, Compassion International

So what can you do?

Take daily, effective people-focussed steps that become a way of doing things rather than a compliance-driven rigid rule-book. However in doing this as individuals you will need to be consistent with the organisation to whom you are responsible. Therefore organisational culture needs to follow this same pathway. For this to happen organisation leadership will need to be similarly driven, galvanised to the well being of children and youth as a priority.

As a leader of children and youth tasked with providing this well-being and safe environment, there are certain identifiable responsibilities to help you exercise this safety and care. These are consistent with the ‘child-safe’ organisation outlines as presented by Australian State governments. These are also consistent with early indicators arising from the Royal Commission. This is how ChildSafe describe them in its 6-step plan.

Properly Screen and Appoint Team Leader

You are responsible for recruiting your team leaders. These people will be engaged in services and ministries to children and youth. Therefore, it is essential that they are properly appointed, screened, reference-checked and compliant with statutory Working with Children type checks

Strong appointment process reflects strong safety management. Screened leaders subject themselves to robust safety protocols and are provided clear role requirements (both staff and volunteers). These include regulatory checks, interviews and validated references. If this is your responsibility you must follow a consistent disciplined screening approach that makes no exceptions for anyone, including senior leaders.

Training the Team Leaders in Safety Management

You are responsible for ensuring that your team are oriented and trained in the standards for safe people, programs and places. Understand what these standards are, and ensure that all team leaders in your team receive a copy of such standards or at least have seen and understand them. Your team must be able to depend on you to help them serve safely. There are training organisations like ChildSafe who can assist you, or your organisation may have these elements in place.

Training should review the organisation’s ‘child-safe’ policy and key procedures that flow from that policy that support effective action for care and well-being. This should include an organisation code of practice so leaders understand the way in which they should behave towards children and youth in their care as well as child behaviour indicators that could alert to issues of abuse.

Basic Risk Planning

As a Leader, you are responsible for following a process where the risks associated with the program and team you are leading are identified and mitigated. This is a crucial part of your role in relation to safety management. Use a basic Risk Assessment tool, commonly available (google – Australian standard risk assessment matrix) and based on international standards. This process would be part of you and your team’s learning in how to identify risks, and look to reduce or mitigate them.

Seeking ‘Permission to Proceed’

As a Leader, it is your responsibility to work with those to whom you are accountable to achieve permission for your programs, no matter what they are. No-one is accountable to themselves and those who are create a serious risk to the organisation and children in their care. In this process, you will need to provide evidence that your team is properly appointed and that a program safety plan has been reviewed. Of course your organisation’s insurance will also outline what activities are covered. Activities that are not covered create substantial risk to all.

Managing Safety During the Program

As a Leader, you are responsible for the conduct of your team and the safety of the program and people under your leadership. Your safety plan and training come together to provide a quality, safe program. During the running of the program, you should be vigilant and responsive when you see safety and care standards breached.

Activating Emergency Response if Needed

Sometimes, despite our best efforts and effective plans, things can still go wrong. Responding on the fly to unexpected emergencies or critical incidents will usually be futile, as you will not have the emotional capacity to think clearly or effectively. Effective response comes from a pre-determined plan to act in specific ways to respond to an emergency or critical incident at hand. Your organisation should either have or develop an Emergency Response Plan (ERP). All leaders need to be familiar with it and utilise the ERP if called upon to do so. This will prove vital in these rare cases but produce significantly improved responses when followed. In addition your jurisdiction may require certain obligations to respond to authorities e.g child abuse. This should be part of that ERP.

By attending to these core responsibilities, you give your team and the children and youth you care for the best chance to have a safe and enjoyable experience with your church or organisation. Strong practice is the evidence your mechanisms are consistent with a safety culture and that you and your church or organisation values children and youth.

Thanks to Elliott Lauder, ChildSafe for writing this article.  If you would like to know more about a management system and process to ensure that your young people are given the very best care, please contact Elliott on the ChildSafe website.


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