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Building a child-safe culture with the child in mind

  • Start with a decision from the leadership and board to have a child safety culture.
  • Get their input from children and parents in your organisation.
  • Continually review your culture and processes for child safety.

A child safety culture according to the National Child Safety Standards must be led and championed by the board and leadership of any organisation. National Child Safety Standard 1 states: ‘Child safety and wellbeing is embedded in organisational leadership, governance and culture.’

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse spanned 2012 to 2017 and comprised 42,041 calls, 25,964 emails and letters, 8,013 face-to-face private sessions and 2,575 referrals to authorities including police. These numbers and abuse stories are incredibly high but we can multiply them by four, as these are only the cases of abuse in organisations that were recorded. Many people, such as myself, didn’t come forward about their abuse.

This hard reality highlights the need for change and it must come from the top. When we asked former royal commissioner, Robert Fitzgerald OAM, if any organisation is safe or exempt from abuse happening, his response was, ‘No, if the organisation cares for children then there is a possibility that abuse could occur. The only way an organisation can say it will be less likely to happen here is if they choose to make sure that the child safety standards are in place and that they are lived out’.

If child safety governance is not lived at a leadership level, then the culture of child safety will not permeate throughout the organisation, which puts children at risk of harm and abuse. With one in five children sexually abused before they reach 18 years old in Australia, organisations working with children must embrace Standard 1 to reduce the risk of child abuse.

One of the stories of abuse of the royal commission illustrates the tragedy of this. ‘Krystle’ was sexually abused from the age of about 14 through to 18, by a health worker. Despite multiple reports, none of them [staff, carer, management ] did anything about it. That’s ten [more] years he’s [the perpetrator] had a reign of terror . . . [but] nothing was done.’

So how can an organisation’s leadership embrace Standard 1?

Start with a decision from the leadership and board to have a child safety culture

Embed an intentional decision at a board level to do everything you can to keep children safe. This kind of culture doesn’t just happen, it must be led.

Professor Stephen Smallbone stated in a submission to the royal commission, ‘Staff [and volunteer adults] … should have a culture of “extended guardianship” or shared personal responsibility, where preventing abuse is seen as the ordinary responsibility of all adults.’

This means that if you are asking the leaders of children to do a child safety training then the board will be included. Deciding to have a child safety culture cannot be a ‘that’s what the leaders of children do’. It must be a ‘this is a priority for all of us and we will do everything we can to make sure the whole organisation understands this and our practice will reflect this’.

Hold forums, speak to children in groups and learn from them what they say keeps them safe.

Talk with the children and parents in your organisation and get their input

When building a child safety culture engage the children and parents in the process as their voices are critical for success. Hold forums, speak to children in groups and learn from them what they say keeps them safe. Listen to the parents about what keeps them bringing their children back to your organisation and children’s safety is not just lip service but a demonstrated approach.

The Australian Catholic University in its submission to the royal commission report, ‘Taking us seriously1 stated, ‘Being safe’ and “feeling safe” are not the same. An environment needs to be reviewed in terms of the lived experience of participants and implied safety structures. While an institution may be focused on observable threats, it may not be informed by valuable children’s perceptions and experience.’

An organisation can underestimate the powerful impact children’s voices and vision can provide in an array of areas including safety and well-being. Parents and caregivers, by virtue of their relationship to their children, can see thing differently when it comes to safety concerns, which may not be apparent to the organisation.

Back up your child safety culture with policies and procedures

Whatever culture you are developing around child safety, your policies must reflect it. Your organisation must have a child safety policy and a code of conduct. A policy states what you believe and your commitment and a code of conduct describes what behaviour you will accept from your leaders, parents, board around children.

However, a policy is not the same as your culture. During the royal commission, too many testimonies were presented of policies quite divorced from the actions, as they related to children’s safety and care. This type of behaviour of saying one thing but doing another contributes to the growth of distrust of organisations.

Advertise to the community your decision to protect children

Tell the world how you care about children as this will help to inspire your community and ward off perpetrators who are trying to infiltrate your organisation. Advertise your commitment to child safety and make your policies and procedures accessible to all via your website.

Set mechanisms in place to continually review your culture of child safety.

A child safety culture is not a set-and-forget approach. It must be something that is constantly reviewed through surveys, interviews and other mechanisms. The practical illustration of this organisation process is shown as ‘quality circle’ or ‘plan-do-check-act’ cycle (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle

plan do check act

Applying this process adds weight to Standard 1 of creating the right culture. This continuous loop provides a way of testing and managing improvements.

So, who is doing this well? The answer is some are, but many are not. Often when I speak with organisations about whether they are building a culture of child safety. The common response is: ‘All of our staff/volunteers have undertaken a working with children check’. While this is valuable, it is not going to build culture. Creating a child safety culture with the child in mind goes beyond legal compliance. It is about making sure you listen to children and parents and the leadership team agrees on what is acceptable as the kind of culture you want for your organisation.

Effective and sustainable leadership of an organisation involves the duty of care by all staff. Looking the other way when poor culture is being perpetrated can result in the demise of an organisation and potentially the devastation of children’s lives. ‘To effectively address sexual violence against children it is necessary to recognise that it is not only a social problem perpetuated by the adults abusing/exploiting the children, but by non-abusing adults through complicity, silence, denial and failure to take appropriate action.’2

Let’s lead well by establishing a child safety culture with the child in mind … the children in our care deserve this.

When asked what is the most important standard Robert Fitzgerald said ‘It is culture, and the question we must ask ourselves is: Do we act in the best interest of children? And can we demonstrate this in our organisation?’

  2. Sommarin C, 2011, Preventing sexual violence against children, University of Pennsylvania, UNICEF, Pennsylvania,

Neil Milton can be contacted on 0426 391 675 or by email at

Material published in Governance Directions is copyright and may not be reproduced without permission. The views expressed therein are those of the author and not of Governance Institute of Australia. All views and opinions are provided as general commentary only and should not be relied upon in place of specific accounting, legal or other professional advice.

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