Child protection is something that every parent and educator should be concerned with. So, what is child protection, why is it so important and what do we do if we suspect abuse has occurred?
Introduction to Child Protection
Article 19 of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that ‘Governments should ensure that children are properly cared for and protect them from violence, abuse and neglect by their parents, or anyone else who looks after them’. An upbringing in a safe and secure environment that is free of abuse and neglect is a fundamental human right – but sadly there are many circumstances where children are not adequately protected from harm. Our Government holds a particular responsibility in relation to child protection, but the system relies strongly on individuals to step up and report on suspected cases of child abuse and neglect so that interventions can be put into place. It is crucial that everyone understands their responsibilities in relation to child protection so that we can all work together to ensure the safety of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.
What is child protection and why is it important?
Whilst child protection is certainly the responsibility of everyone, there is an area of public law that states that authorities are able to intervene in family environments when there are allegations of harm or where there has been an identified risk of harm for a child. Within Australia, the Government of each state and territory is responsible for the operation and administration of child protection services across their jurisdiction. Each state and territory has their own legislative acts that govern the way that these services are provided, however the underpinning messages are consistently focused on ensuring safety for all children across Australia.
Within a perfect world, keeping families together is the best possible scenario. Unfortunately, whilst a preference remains for supporting families to remain together, there are certainly times where the removal of a child from their family setting is essential for protecting that child from harm. Child protection departments across Australia do not take lightly the removal of a child from their home environment. This is why early identification of children at risk followed by support and intervention for the family is important for a proactive approach towards child protection.
Why is child protection important in childcare?
According to the 2020 March quarter Child Care in Australia report (Child Care in Australia report March quarter 2020 – Department of Education, Skills and Employment, Australian Government (dese.gov.au)) 1 376 470 children and 986 000 families attended a child care centre in 2020. This means that childcare services hold a particular responsibility for ensuring that children are safe from harm. When families attend an approved childcare centre, educators have an opportunity to get to know families and to build strong relationships with children. This close knowledge of children and families can at times lead to suspicions or disclosures about neglect or abuse occurring within the child’s home. Since childcare is typically for children under school age, it often requires educators to support children with feeding, changing and other self-care tasks that can allow for opportunities to notice and observe both physical and emotional signs of abuse or neglect. With childcare and school educators being so well-placed to observe signs of potential abuse and neglect, it is imperative that they have good understandings surrounding their legal and ethical obligations in terms of child protection.
Do all educators need to have Child Protection training?
In order to meet the National Quality Standards for education and care settings, approved providers must ensure that each nominated supervisor within a service has successfully completed the required child protection training within their state or territory. Each service should also have in place policies and procedures that relate to providing a child safe environment.
In some states, any person that works or volunteers with children and young people must have completed child protection training. In South Australia, this training is known as Responding to Abuse and Neglect – Education and Care (RAN-EC). Through this facilitated course, educators and volunteers will grow their understandings of their role in keeping children safe and learn how to recognise the indicators of abuse or neglect. The training also details the process for making a report and will help individuals understand what it means to have suspicions on ‘reasonable grounds’.
In most states, qualified teachers are required to hold an up-to-date child protection training certificate as part of their teacher registration process. Whilst in childcare centres, it is the responsibility of the nominated supervisor to complete formal training, many childcare centres choose to provide training to all of their staff under their site-based child protection policy. The training is useful for helping staff understand their responsibilities when it comes to their role as a legally mandated notifier.
To check what child protection training is required in your state, the regulatory authority or child protection agency can be contacted for state-specific information. Alternatively, the following website contains links to information about child protection requirements for each state Child Protection Requirements by state – Workplace Learning (csu.edu.au).
Do all educators need to have a Working With Children Check?
Police checks and working with children checks are two different types of employment screening programs that are designed to ensure that there are child-safe working environments across Australia. The screening of adults and volunteers prior to beginning employment in a place where contact with children will occur is mandatory and legislated within most states and territories in Australia. Whilst the need for a check is consistent across the country, each state and territory has their own specific procedure and requirements that must be followed. To understand the requirements in your state, check out the following link: Working with Children Checks in Australia | ANCC (australiannationalcharactercheck.com.au)
What is an educator’s role regarding Child Protection?
Teachers and early years educators have a direct responsibility to protect children in their care. Educators are perfectly placed to build relationships with children and students that can at times lead to disclosures or suspicions about possible abuse or neglect.
In South Australia, under section 30 of the Children and Young People (safety) Act 2017, an employee or volunteer within a childcare service is clearly listed as a mandated notifier. This means that childcare educators, along with many other occupation groups, are required by law to notify the relevant authorities if they suspect on reasonable grounds that a child may be at risk of harm. Whilst each state and territory has their own Act, childcare workers are consistently listed as mandated reporters across Australia.
Quality Area 2 of the National Quality Standards is focused on children’s health and safety and standard 2.2.3 states that ‘management, educators and staff are aware of their roles and responsibilities to identify and respond to every child at risk of abuse or neglect’. This standard has led many centres to develop localised policies related to child protection to ensure the safety of children and to meet this NQS requirement.
How can you identify if a child is at risk of harm?
There are a great many indicators that could lead to suspicions that a child is at risk of harm. Whilst one indicator might be enough to arouse your suspicions, it is often a combination of indicators that appear over time that can lead a person to wonder about the possibility of abuse or neglect. When considering if a child or young person has experienced abuse or neglect, it is important to consider the circumstances of the child and their family and there are several risk factors that might heighten the concerns. Some common risk factors include:
– The child’s geographic location.
– The family’s lack of access to support services or extended family.
– Previous abuse or neglect of other children within the home.
– A family history of domestic violence.
– Physical or mental health issues for the parent or caregiver.
– Abuse of drugs or alcohol within the home.
When these risk factors are considered in conjunction with any observable indicators of abuse or neglect, raised suspicions are certainly warranted.
What are the signs of neglect?
Neglect of a child occurs when their basic needs are not being met. Access to adequate food, housing and clothing is the right of every child. There are also other needs that a child requires in terms of hygiene and health such as access to required medical or dental care. Whilst the physical signs of neglect can be more obvious, it is important to remember that emotional neglect can also have significant damaging impacts on a child’s long-term health and development and that a secure and loving attachment to at least one safe caregiver is also a vital and fundamental need for children. Here are a few common indicators that a child might be experiencing neglect at home:
– The child might be small for their age or have a low weight.
– The child might appear unwashed.
– The child might be wearing inappropriate clothing, eg. Shorts and t-shirt during winter.
– The child might have untreated physical problems such as dental decay or sores on their body.
– The child might be stealing food or avoiding going home.
– The child might not be appropriately supervised for their age.
– The child might have poor school attendance.
– The child might be inappropriately affectionate with unfamiliar adults.
What are the signs of child abuse?
The World Health Organisation defines child abuse as ‘the intentional use of physical force against a child that results in – or has a high likelihood of resulting in – harm for the child’s health, survival, development or dignity’. Whilst this definition is broad, there are 4 sub-types of child abuse that include:
– Physical abuse
– Emotional abuse or Neglect
– Sexual abuse
– Exposure to family violence
The physical signs of child abuse can be quite confronting, but it is important to understand them so that we know what kinds of indicators should arouse suspicion. Here are some common indicators that child abuse might be occurring:
– The child has bruising that does not seem consistent with usual childhood injuries.
– The child might have lacerations, welts, scratches or burns on their skin.
– The child might have bone fractures, dislocations or sprains.
– Explanations of a child’s injury might sound questionable.
In cases of sexual abuse, the child might have:
– Bruising or bleeding in or around their genitals.
– Sexual knowledge that is inappropriate for their age.
– Bruising to areas such as their breasts, buttocks, abdomen or thighs.
– Regressive behaviours such as bed wetting.
– Troubling behaviours such as self-harming, risk taking or running away from home.
In terms of emotional abuse or neglect, the following indicators might be evident:
– The child seems to have a distrust of people.
– The child might have low self-esteem.
– The child might lack appropriate social skills.
– The child might have extreme attention-seeking behaviours.
– The child might be extremely compliant and eager to please adults.
– The child might be depressed or anxious.
When we think about child abuse, it is important not to underestimate the impact that exposure to family violence can have on a child – even if they are not being directly physically abused themselves. Living in a home where there is spousal violence can leave a child in a constant state of fear and with an overactive fight, flight or freeze response. The trauma of exposure to violence can have a deep and lasting impact on a child’s brain development and wellbeing.
For detailed information about the signs of potential abuse or neglect, visit the following website: Signs of abuse – Child at risk of harm and neglect | Family & Community Services (nsw.gov.au)
What is a disclosure of abuse?
A disclosure of abuse occurs when a child reveals information that leads to aroused suspicions that abuse or neglect might be occurring. Unfortunately, a disclosure is not often a straightforward process and many children will disclose information in a way that is indirect or accidental. Some disclosures can happen over time, gradually building a picture of what is happening for the child, whilst others can be direct and confronting.
According to Priebe & Svedin (2008), children and young people are most likely to disclose abuse to either a parent or similar-aged friend. It is also not uncommon for a disclosure to be made to a trusted adult such as a teacher, sporting coach or family friend. Knowing how to respond appropriately to a disclosure is important for minimising the trauma that a child will experience throughout this process – especially when they are disclosing abuse about a perpetrator who is a person that they love.
What should you not do when someone discloses abuse?
In the event of a disclosure, there are times where a child might suddenly recant what they have just told you. Sometimes the fear of repercussions and a strong sense of loyalty for the perpetrator can make a disclosure particularly difficult for a child. This is also why our response to the disclosure is so crucial.
When faced with a disclosure of abuse or neglect, it is important to be calm and empathetic as you listen to the child or young person. Maintaining a calm appearance will help the child to feel supported throughout their disclosure. If we act visibly shocked or surprised the child might feel like they have done the wrong thing in telling you and then change their story or try to take back what they have said.
When listening to a disclosure, be sure to reassure the child that they have done the right thing in telling you. Accept the information they are disclosing and allow the child to take their time and use their own words. Never make promises to a child that you cannot keep and avoid asking leading questions. Instead, use open-ended questions such as ‘can you tell me more about that?’ or ‘what happened next?’.
After a disclosure of abuse or neglect, never confront the suspected perpetrator yourself. Reporting the disclosure appropriately will ensure that it is followed up in a way that protects the child best and allows for a proper investigation. For detailed information relating to disclosures of abuse or neglect, visit the following website: Responding to children and young people’s disclosures of abuse | Child Family Community Australia (aifs.gov.au)
What is the meaning of mandatory reporting?
Mandatory reporting refers to those that are legally required to report any suspicions of child abuse or neglect to the relevant authorities. These laws are intended for the identification of child abuse and neglect and were first developed to create a process for bringing cases to the attention of child welfare organisations. In Australia, mandatory reporting laws were first introduced in 1969 and have developed over time to ensure that particular groups of people are legally bound to report their suspicions. Whilst the list of occupations that are mandatory reporters varies from state to state, the most commonly named mandatory reporters are teachers, early childhood educators, doctors, nurses and police. For a detailed list of the differences between states, check out the following link. Mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect | Child Family Community Australia (aifs.gov.au)
What needs to be in a child protection policy in childcare?
A child protection policy within a childcare service will support the implementation of Quality Area 2: Children’s Health and Safety. A high-quality policy will contain definitions and details about abuse and neglect and will also list key indicators. The policy should define terms such as ‘significant risk of harm’ and ‘reasonable grounds’ so that all stakeholders have clear understandings of how these terms are to be interpreted. In addition to this, a child protection policy should detail the steps that the centre is taking to support child protection, such as the completion of relevant training, as well as a description of how these actions will be implemented.
Within a child protection policy, there should be detailed information about staff responsibilities in terms of reporting and documenting suspected abuse or neglect – and this includes reporting if there are suspicions that a fellow worker might be guilty of these kinds of offences. In NSW, the Reportable Conduct Scheme focuses on the protection of children by workers within an organisation. All allegations must be reported to the Office of the Children’s Guardian under the Children’s Guardian Act 2019. For a list of frequently asked questions about employee responsibilities in terms of reportable conduct, visit the following site: Employees and volunteers FAQ – NSW Office of the Children’s Guardian
A child protection policy should also include some information on how to respond to a disclosure from a child and also expectations around confidentiality. For a comprehensive policy, including information about how staff are to educate and support children about protective behaviour is also recommended. Of course, an important aspect of the policy will include the state-specific procedure for the reporting of suspected abuse and neglect. In NSW, the Mandatory Reporting Guide supports reporters through the process of making a report of abuse or neglect within the Child Story Reporter Community website. This process will also ensure that the regulatory authority is notified of the allegations that have been made. The NSW Mandatory Reporting Guide can be found here: Home (nsw.gov.au).
If you are in the process of writing or updating a childcare centre child protection policy, the following policy example may be helpful: Child Protection Policy 2017 (thekindergarden.com.au)
How do you educate children on child protection issues?
An important step in ensuring child protection is the education of children in relation to protective behaviours. In NSW, a series of books have been developed to support the teaching of protective behaviours to children. The SAFE series is a set of 4 books that have been written for children aged from 2-6 years. Each book delivers a different protective behaviours message that supports children to identify the parts of their body that are private, help them understand their feelings, and to identify who are the trusted adults in their lives. Training opportunities are also available for staff to learn how to implement this protective behaviours program effectively. You can find further information about the SAFE series and training here: SAFE series books and workshops – NSW Office of the Children’s Guardian
In South Australia, a child protection curriculum has been developed for children aged from 3 years old. The Keeping Safe: Child Protection Curriculum (KS:CPC) provides developmentally appropriate information and strategies for helping young children keep themselves safe. This curriculum is known across the world for its content and contemporary nature and its clarity around explicit teaching. If you are interested in knowing more about the KS:CPC, you can find further information here: Keeping Safe: Child Protection Curriculum information for educators (education.sa.gov.au)
A Child Protection Program for pre-school children; my personal experience
Each year, as Educational Leader, Early Childhood Teacher and Director in my early Learning Service, I have implemented a Child Protection program for the children who will be going to school the following year – (4-5 year olds). Before commencing, I describe to the families what I will be discussing with the children and ensure I get their permission before commencing.
The general outline is as follows;
- Identifying and naming our body parts, including the correct name for our genitals.
- Talking about touching – ‘safe touching’ (such as high 5’s, hugs and a pat on the back) compared to ‘unsafe touching’ (kicking, pushing, somebody touching our private parts without a good reason).
- Talking about ‘happy secrets’ (such as a surprise party or a wrapped present) opposed to ‘unhappy secrets’ (being asked to ‘Not tell’ something that makes them feel confused, sad or ‘yukky’).
- Introduce the ‘NO GO TELL’ concept – Learn to say ‘NO’ if somebody touches them inappropriately, then GO (away from that person or situation) and TELL a trusted adult (and keep TELLing until somebody believes them).
- Identify who the trusted adults are in their circle (immediate family, teachers, extended family they’re familiar with)
- I support the program by reading particular books to the children; my own personal library collection as well as the SAFE series books mentioned above.
My personal library of Child Protection related books include the following titles of which I highly recommend;
‘Everyone’s got a bottom’ by Tess Rowley
‘My body is Private’ by Linda Walvoord Girard
‘The trouble with Secrets’ by Karen Johnsen
‘Your body belongs to you’ by Cornelia Spelman
Summary of Child Protection; what parents and educators need to know
Child protection really is everyone’s business – but those who work in education and care settings play a central role in noticing and reporting any suspicions of the abuse or neglect of children. Whilst there may be slight differences in the legislation and requirements from state to state, the overall messaging surrounding the importance of child protection is consistently strong across the country. Nelson Mandela once said that ‘the true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children’. With this I 100% agree.