Legal: Child protection absolutely front and centre in 2015

Across Australia, enormous investments are being made in child protection issues. These will impact significantly on everybody working in occupations involving care of children.

The expectations of school teachers, both in respect of their own personal conduct towards children and their response to knowledge or suspicion of inappropriate conduct by others, are rising all the time. The purpose of this article is to identify, necessarily briefly, issues of which teachers need to be aware and in respect of which they need to ensure that they are familiar with the precise obligations imposed on them.

The federal government is committed to approximately $500 million of expenditure in respect of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse. When one takes account of the investment being made by others in relation to this Royal Commission, it is probably a billion dollar enterprise.

New offences

Teachers need to be aware of the ever-growing list of offences created in relation to their dealings with students or other children. These involve inappropriate touching of students, inappropriate exposure of children to indecent material (whether in hard copy or in the virtual world), supplying children with alcohol, accessing child exploitation material on the internet and, in at least one state, leaving children unreasonably unsupervised.

Grooming

Many jurisdictions have recently or will soon introduce a criminal offence involving the concept of “grooming”. This is an entirely legitimate concept, though it needs to be applied with care as, unfortunately, many of the activities in which groomers engage are engaged in sometimes by teachers whose motives are entirely proper but who, in the current circumstances, are naïve about the inferences that may be drawn. The essence of the criminal offence of grooming is to do with the intention, eg. an intention to facilitate a child engaging in a sexual act. Grooming offences normally carry heavy prison sentences and will almost certainly be career ending. Grooming is an extremely serious offence. The need for teachers to have a clear understanding about which interactions with students are considered appropriate is of increasing importance. Each school community should work collectively to ensure that teachers are aware of this issue and that teachers and students are protected by clear protocols as to what that school community considers is or is not appropriate conduct in interacting with students, especially away from school.

Notification duties

All inquiries show how vital it is that, in appropriate circumstances, teachers report to appropriate authorities, whether in the school or elsewhere, their knowledge or suspicion of actual or possible, or sometimes even likely, abuse of students. These obligations can arise from employer instructions, from the general duty of care or from legislation, whether child protection legislation or teacher registration legislation. The definitions of what constitutes abuse vary (which creates difficulties for teachers but is appropriate given the different contexts in which the issue arises). Similarly the obligations as to who one must report and what one must report vary. Teachers need to ensure that they make the appropriate enquiries as to the obligations imposed on them personally.

School leaders need to ensure that they make it clear that they welcome such enquiries, as it will increasingly be their responsibility to ensure compliance with these obligations and to assist their teachers in doing so. 

Finally, what really matters is the “culture”, as noted by the interim report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse. It is important not to approach child protection issues as “a bunch of rules”, but to be aware of the underlying rationale, namely that responsibility should be taken to ensure not only compliance with the strict technical legal obligations, but also to ensure that appropriate steps are taken if there is any reason to suspect that a student may be at risk.

Andrew Knott
TressCox Lawyers


Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 120 No 2, 13 March 2015, p25