The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) handed down its Final Report in 2018, which highlighted widespread child sexual abuse across various institutions. It uncovered the immense harm inflicted on numerous lives and exposed data highlighting the extent of abuse spanning decades within institutions that were responsible for the well-being and protection of children.
Given these findings, the Royal Commission made recommendations to improve child safe approaches in organisations through the adoption of Child Safe Standards. The National Principles for Child Safe Organisations (National Principles) give effect to the Child Safe Standards and were committed to by national, state and territory governments in 2019 through Council of Australian Governments (COAG). It is noted that the National Principles go beyond the Child Safe Standards as they cover all forms of child abuse and neglect, whereas the Standards are limited to child sexual abuse.
Underpinned by a children’s rights approach in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Child Safe Standards recommended by the Royal Commission, the National Principles offer a set of guidelines designed to promote child safety and wellbeing by outlining the necessary steps and standards that organisations, services, and communities, should adopt to a cultural shift creating safe environments and a voice for children. They emphasize the importance of child protection, culturally safe environments, risk management, staff training, and the involvement of children and families in decision-making processes. The National Principles serve as a framework for organisations to assess and enhance their policies, practices, and procedures related to child safety, with the ultimate goal of ensuring the well-being and preventing harm to all children involved with these organisations.
Throughout Western Australia (WA), it is estimated that there are 25,000 organisations employing staff and/or volunteers working with children in different capacities including:
a. accommodation and residential services for children, including overnight excursions or stays in regional areas
b. activities or services of any kind, under the auspices of a particular religious denomination or faith, through which adults have contact with children in regional areas
c. childcare or childminding services in regional areas
d. child protection services, including out-of-home care in regional areas.
e. activities or services where clubs and associations have a significant membership of, or involvement by, children in regional areas
f. coaching or tuition services for children in regional areas
g. commercial services in regional areas for children, including entertainment or party services, gym or play facilities, photography services, and talent or beauty competitions
h. services for children with disability in regional areas
i. education services for children in regional areas
j. health services for children in regional areas
k. justice and detention services for children, including immigration detention facilities in regional areas
l. transport services for children, including school crossing services in regional areas.
To date, the WA government has not mandated (through legislation) the implementation of the National Principles for organisations engaged in child-related work cross the State. However, a voluntary approach is strongly encouraged, focused on building capacity and awareness as a starting point. The Department of the Premier and Cabinet is working to develop a system of independent oversight with high level input from key government and non-government agencies.
There has been a strong commitment from some larger organisations (particularly those working in child protection and family support services) to implement the National Principles via substantial investment in accreditation, training and policy development. Smaller organisations may face capacity barriers that make practical implementation of the principles in their policies and practices more difficult without further advice and support. Smaller organisations report their willingness to create safer places for children, however many are uncertain how to proceed and reluctant to commit limited resources without clear guidance and direction – particularly when compliance with the principles has yet to be operationalised in contracting and regulation.
The Department of Communities (Communities), Royal Commission Implementation Team (RCIT) is leading work across WA to focus on co-ordination of building capacity and capability to implement the National Principles across WA including through the Supporting Communities Forum Child Safe Organisations Working Group, comprising key sector organisations, and the National Principles Working Group, which engages key partners across the WA government. Additionally, Communities has engaged in a discretionary grant agreement with the Western Australia Council of Social Services (WACOSS) to deliver a Child Safe Project to support practical implementation by smaller and regional services.
In 2020, a National Principles for Child Safe Organisations, Community Sector Organisations Consultation project was run in WA as a partnership between Communities, WACOSS and the Youth Advisory Council WA (YACWA) to better understand the community service sector’s level of awareness, capacity and progress in implementing the National Principles.
The findings from this project highlighted some positive progress from organisations in the community service sector having moderate awareness of the National Principles and their success in implementing some of the National Principles, including Principle 5 pertaining to recruitment, including screening; Principal 7 regarding training and Principal 10 requiring the implementation of policies.
The challenges of implementing other principles was accentuated particularly in relation to Principle 2: Children and young people are informed about their rights, participate in decisions affecting them; Principle 3: Families and communities are informed and involved in child safe: Principle 6: Processes for complaints and concerns are child focused. Furthermore, it demonstrated most importantly organisations require strategies and support to mitigate risks in the physical environment and online to minimise chances for children to be harmed (Principle 8). Organisations reported requiring support to change their cultural and operational strategies to engage children’s voices and inputs in all aspects of practice and whilst placing child’s best interest at the center of all decision making.
Given these findings from a WA context in the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations, Community Sector Organisations Consultation Report, the WACOSS Child Safe Project will aim to address some of the findings of the above project that hinder progress in the implementation of the national principles.
 Recommendation 6.9 of the Royal Commission outlines that State and territory governments should implement legislative requirements to comply with the Child Safe Standards to institutions that provide child-related services as listed.