Is Child Protection a Priority in Your Volunteer Organisation?

by Vince Scopelliti

Volunteer organisations have a special place in the heart of every community. The vital work that they carry out most often involves providing assistance to those who are in need. Issues of poverty, homelessness, abuse, infirmity and mental illness are just some of the challenging aspects within the day-to-day operations of many volunteer groups.

Volunteering and our kids

Children and young people can often have a strong connection to one or more volunteer organisations in the community. This might be as a recipient of food parcels, being minded while parents sort out finances, or assisted to find accommodation. On the other side of the equation, children are increasingly involved in volunteer activities themselves as parents encourage their children to do their bit. Whether planting seedlings in waterways, helping to sort second hand clothes or lending a hand at the local pet shelter – children are involved members of many volunteer organisations throughout Australia.

It is sobering to say the least to necessarily consider child safety concerns within volunteer organisations. Education and training are essential for any adult volunteers working with children, as is a police check and Blue Card or Working with Children Check.

But it goes beyond this. Continuous improvement of policies and procedures relevant to child safetywill be the hallmarks of a truly safe volunteer organisation.

Constant evaluation of child safety initiatives

Due to constraints upon virtually all resources within a volunteer organisation, it is perhaps inevitable that some tasks are put on the ‘back burner’. Administrative duties can be the first to be overlooked in the face of relentless service demand from clients. Yet if one area of volunteering must be continuously examined and improved for possible flaws, it is the organisation’s child safety strategy. Laws, criminological knowledge and technology are constantly changing. Volunteer management staff must be vigilant when it comes to assessing and reassessing their internal policies around children.

As the Royal Commissioninto Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse has demonstrated, there are some recognisable patterns to the behaviour of adults who seek to cause harm to children. Specific procedures are necessary for example around the prevention of grooming behaviours by perpetrators, as well as the creation of opportunities for abuse.

Yet the commission emphasises that there is no one set of looks or behaviours that mark out a child abuser. This is a complex and ever-changing area and expert advice and auditing services are at times required to ensure that volunteer organisations remain up-to-date with their child safety obligations.

The broader child safety equation

The Australian Human Rights Commission developed its Child Safe Institutions Report in 2013, as part of a response to the ongoing royal commission. Importantly, child safety is seen to entail a broad notion of the potential dangers faced by children within organisations – educational, religious, volunteer, sporting or otherwise.

When we consider hazards such as the availability of inappropriate computer or television content at volunteer sites, physical and emotional damage from clientele interaction, bullying from other volunteers, accidents, or the potential for sexual abuse where inadequate supervision exists, it becomes clear that child safety within volunteer organisations should be much more broadly conceptualised that it perhaps is currently.

Child-safe systems and culture

We understand that operators of volunteer organisations are pulled in all directions. However, child safety is simply one of those ‘non-negotiables’ within 21st century organisational contexts. This is a growing and changing field of workplace knowledge, and involves the variables of procedural systems, workplace culture, legal compliance and training.

If doubts exist about the currency and quality of an organisation’s child safety system, an overhaul might be warranted. Qualified workplace professionals can audit and assess your group’s situation, and provide up-to-date advice on the best child safety mechanisms. 

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