Your quick guide to the child safe complaints handling processes

Eden Elliott - Thursday, September 09, 2021

The Council of Australia Governments’ endorsement of the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations highlighted the importance of complaints and investigation processes which uphold the rights of children and young people. The NSW Ombudsman’s Complaints Handling Guide (the Guide) was produced to help organisations meet this goal, applying a child’s eye view to best practice complaints handling.

Complaints processes can be opaque and confusing even for adults, so it’s important to make sure your process can offer children all the necessary information and supports. The Guide is extensive and should be read in its entirety, as it offers significant detail, checklists, examples, and handy templates in the appendices. However, there are a few key areas which are important for every child-safe organisation to understand, and we’ve summarised some practical applications of the Guide.

Communicate effectively with young people

  • Keep young people and their supporters up to date on active complaints processes. This means answering questions they ask, explaining what happens next, and telling them where to get support.
  • Tell young people about their rights, including the right to be informed, the right to privacy, anonymity or confidentiality, and choose whether to participate on an equal basis with others.
  • Make sure young people know who to talk to if they feel worried, and what they can complain about  
  • Make sure young people know they will not be punished for making complaints, but they also need to understand who gets to hear the information they share.
  • Be honest with young people about when they do or don’t have control or have a say, but remember that no one can replace a young person’s critical unique perspective on their own experiences
  • Ensure that all the information about your complaints process is available in age-appropriate formats
  • Protect diversity, remove barriers and provide cultural safety for young people who are queer, from CALD backgrounds, and/or have disabilities, and for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander young people. 
  • Ensure your people have a good understanding of the way young people communicate, and consider appropriate integration of communication technology in your complaints process
  • Assume that all young people are capable of being involved in the complaints process, and if needed, conduct a pre-investigation assessment to find out what supports they might need. Ask them about their needs, and then plan those supports together for each step of the process. Don’t forget to assess and apply reasonable adjustments for each individual young person just like you would for an adult.

Understanding capacity

If a young person can form their own views about things that affect their safety or wellbeing, give the young people the opportunity to express those views, and give them appropriate weight.

The appropriate weight is determined by the young person’s capacity for understanding and decision-making, which grows as they do. Assessed in the context of determining the best interests of a child, you can learn about a young person’s capacity by considering their age, maturity, physical & emotional development, changes in their health, their background & life experience. Their ability to understand an issue or process, what is involved and the consequences of an action is also very important. Check this understanding by explaining the issues in a safe and comfortable context using appropriate language, and then asking questions of your young person.

Sometimes you’ll need to make decisions about whether young people should participate in a process or learn certain information, balancing the process outcomes with the young person’s best interests. These decisions should be informed by your organisation’s usual processes and policies, the young person’s views, their capacity, and the effect of their participation on the complaint process.

The investigation process

  • Choose carefully who will be involved in the complaints process, and create separation between the staff and volunteers who support the young person in your service delivery, and those who will handle the complaint. This means the young person’s support people won’t be compromised by the needs of investigative procedures, and your investigators can remain as independent as possible.
  • Explain the process at the start, including what actions will be taken to protect young people, and what investigation outcomes are available.
  • Remember that the views and evidence of young people do not have less weight than an adult’s evidence, and ensure your staff are properly trained in potential bias, conflicts of interest and weighing young peoples’ evidence.
  • Look out for power imbalances in your process and address them. This might mean changing interview locations, reducing the number of people in a meeting, or changing the format of your evidence.
  • Consider choosing dedicated staff or volunteers to support young people in complaints processes, making sure they have the necessary resources to legitimise this role.
  • Be thorough and apply best practice to ensure complaints affecting young people are properly investigated.
  • Use child-safe interviewing techniques, making sure you build rapport and provide a safe and supported environment.
  • Keep diligent and accurate records about your interactions with young people, making sure you communicate about what records are being kept, and that you meet your compliance obligations.
  • Continue providing other services and supports to young people and their families while the complaints process is ongoing, and don’t let the complaints process become the entire relationship. It’s important to take whatever steps you can to maintain your relationship and trust so that services and support can continue beyond the complaints process.

Ensure compliance

  • Ensure your staff are fully trained and understand what needs to be reported, when, and to which authorities. Reportable conduct and criminal schemes are different for each jurisdiction and change regularly, so formal training in your relevant schemes is a good idea.
  • Get external authorities involved early. They can provide guidance to make sure you comply with your reporting requirements, and can also help you build reporting checkpoints into your complaints processes. If you have a good working relationship with your authorities, they can help you save time and streamline processes where multiple authorities are involved.
  • Privacy and disclosure are sensitive areas. Each reportable conduct scheme sets out different types of information that authorities may disclose and to whom, but your parties may also have concerns about confidentiality, defamation or simply causing conflict. Encourage parties to share their concerns so you can show how your applicable scheme covers their issue, providing reassurance and protection.


The rights of children and young people are not an afterthought – they should be built into your complaints processes from the ground up. Consult with young people about your process to identify improvements and remove barriers for young people, including about how the process is accessed, documented and communicated.

If you provide services to young people or their families, your complaints and feedback processes should start at the time they start receiving services. This early stage is also the right time to identify, document and plan any communication supports for young people, taking into consideration both their ability to express and receive information. The Guide contains specific advice on how to ask respectful questions about communication support needs.

Consider seeking feedback and input from your young people in an age-appropriate forum on a regular basis. Informal mechanisms can be more effective in helping young people feel comfortable that you really want to hear their concerns, and allow you to demonstrate how you’ll respond to feedback, and create a culture of participation.

In the spirit of National Child Protection Week, recent changes to the Family & Federal Court rules, and the impending introduction of a reportable conduct scheme in Western Australia, Wise Workplace is strongly focussed on providing child safe investigations and training. To enrol in one of our public courses, get a quote for a tailored course for your organisation, or just get some advice, contact us on 1300 580 685 or support [@]

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