The Royal Commission’s (RC) final report includes a volume specifically dealing with institutional responses to child sexual abuse in contemporary (post 1990) out-of-home care.
The out-of-home system in Australia is similar to the UK in that when a child is considered to be unsafe living with their family or in an informal care arrangement, they are placed with alternative carers on a short or long term basis. These placements usually occur after there has been some statutory intervention.
The out-of-home placements considered were foster homes, kinship/relative care, residential care, independent living facilities, family group hotels and other home-based care such as refugee hotels/motels and boarding schools.
Its focus was what factors continue to contribute to child sexual abuse in these settings and the risks children face. It also wanted to establish the barriers for children disclosing child sexual abuse whilst in institutional care.
The responsibility for administering, funding and delivering this service rests with the states and territories of Australia. It is reported there are tens of thousands of children in this type of care in Australia and despite recent major reforms child sexual abuse is ongoing with abuse being perpetrated by carers, caseworkers, family members and with a particular concern being residential care.
The RC learnt of systemic failings that threaten the safety of children including frequent placement changes, poor information sharing, poor responses to abuse suffered prior to being in care and significant gaps in training. It was also found that there was a failure to listen and respond to children in these settings.
The out-of-home settings in Australia focus is on home placements; moving away from the idea of children’s homes. It is thought that this can be a risk in itself as perpetrators exploit these settings. The carers are encouraged to become close to vulnerable children in order to protect and support them and if the carer is a potential perpetrator, this gives them unsupervised access to those vulnerable children often in private settings.
The RC spoke to survivors of abuse that had been placed in out-of-home placements and it was reported that there was a higher percentage of girls who said they were abused whilst in a home environment whereas more boys reported being abused in residential settings. It also highlighted the finding that more girls reported that they were abused by family members.
There were 22 recommendations published in this which focus on:
- Data collection and reporting
- Accreditation of out-of-home care service providers
- Carer authorisation
- Child sexual abuse education strategy
- Creating a culture that supports disclosure and identification of child sexual abuse
- Strengthening the capacity of carers, staff and caseworkers to support children
- Identifying, assessing and supporting children with harmful sexual behaviours
- Supporting kinship/relative care placements
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children
- Children with disability
- Residential care
As with many of the recommendations of the RC across all sectors the guidance is of application within the UK and not entirely specific to Australia. At a time when there is increasing pressure on in-home care services and with recent judgments in the cases of Armes v Nottinghamshire County Council and in CN v Poole Borough Council an added pressure when things go wrong is an increasing risk of litigation. Clearly it is essential to take all steps to prevent the abuse occurring and much can be learnt from the RC recommendations.
Nicola Aspinwall, BLM solicitor