In December 2017, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released its final report, showcasing for the first time the true extent of child sexual abuse in Australia. Three months later, MacKillop Family Services brought the sector together at its Child Safe Organisations conference, to explore child safe practice and prevention and ensure the ongoing safety of children and young people in Australia.
Keynote speaker, Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald – one of six Commissioners who led the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – shared stories from the Royal Commission that showed consistent failures in governance, leadership and culture – three elements that are critical to creating and sustaining child safe environments.
“If in 10 years’ time, you have every policy and procedure in place, and you meet every mandatory standard, but you do not have a genuine culture of safety – then you will fail. What we have seen over the decades is that bad culture breeds bad conduct,” Commissioner Fitzgerald said.
One of the great key learnings of the Royal Commission is that the nature of the abuse was not an indicator of the impact of that abuse.
“It doesn’t matter the nature of the abuse; the impacts can be extraordinary. It’s not possible to predict with any certainty who will suffer or live with the greatest impacts. But the lesson is that the event itself is less significant than the fact that it occurred, and what then occurs thereafter. Most importantly, if a person or a child comes forward and is not believed, then the impact of that abuse is greatly enhanced in its intensity, particularly if that abuse is not accepted by people they trust.”
In creating child safe environments, institutions must understand the nature of the perpetrator, the vulnerabilities of the children they work with, and – most importantly – they must genuinely listen to children.
“Listening to children will give us the answer,” said Commissioner Fitzgerald as he challenged all organisations to look at their organisation through the eyes of those who encounter their services and ask themselves ‘what do I see, hear and feel that tells me this is a child safe organisation?’
Building upon the critical importance of listening to children, Professor Anne Graham delivered her keynote address on how children respond to grief and loss, and how adults need to respond.
Professor Anne Graham is a Professor of Childhood Studies at Southern Cross University and the author of Seasons for Growth, an international grief and loss education program for children.
Anne echoed the need for children to have their status, voice and agency taken into consideration in all decisions organisations make that impact on their lives.
Grief, change and loss are significant factors for children and young people supported by child welfare organisations, particularly those in out of home care. Anne discussed the importance of trusting relationships for young people to heal and navigate a journey of change. She explained that grief, loss, behaviour and trauma are intrinsically linked, and to support children to heal, we must recognise children as both vulnerable and capable. Tellingly, she observed that, “you cannot understand the grief and trauma of children and young people, unless you understand children and young people.”
The conference concluded with two panel discussions, hosting experts across research, advocacy, service provision, compliance and government. The panels sparked dynamic conversation across the two topics: Helping families recover from trauma: Lessons from evidence-based, culturally safe practice; and Child sexual abuse prevention and response.
The understanding of trauma was a strong theme across all presentations and discussions at the conference.
The following year, MacKillop hosted the Lead the Way Towards Wellbeing conference in Sydney. You can watch a short video about the conference and read more about the presentations and panel discussions here.
“The conference was a celebration of collaborating across sectors, providing an opportunity for knowledge sharing and promoting the critical importance for us all to have a deep understanding of trauma and its impact on the families and children we support, and the staff who support them,” said Dr Robyn Miller, CEO of MacKillop Family Services.