Preventing the Sexual Abuse of Adults with a Disability

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Sexual abuse of people with a disability is a crime that unfortunately is often misunderstood, undetected and ultimately overlooked by organisations. Individuals with a disability are often uniquely vulnerable to sexual and other forms of abuse and deserve both strong protection and swift action in relation to any such allegations. 

Organisations responsible for the care of people with a disability are entrusted with the tasks of fully understanding the signs of sexual abuse, dealing with disclosures, and putting in place robust procedures for prevention and action.

the issue of consent

For organisations or individuals who care for a person with a disability, it can at times be difficult to ascertain the presence or absence of consent to sexual activity, particularly where the person accused is a spouse, partner or other close companion.

Part of this uncertainty is tied to society's historical myth that people with a disability are inherently non-sexual. Yet at the other end of the spectrum is the very real potential for sexual exploitation and abuse of people with a disability. Navigating the difficult issue of consent to sexual activity in these contexts requires a nuanced approach to each individual allegation. 

The above-mentioned nuanced approach only applies to adults with a disability. When children with a disability are concerned, the standard rule applies that children under the age of consent are unable to consent.

signs of abuse

In some cases, the individual with a disability will be able to quickly and clearly articulate their complaint of sexual abuse in care. 

However, just as each person with a disability is unique, so are the types and complexities of presenting issues. This can create challenges for those seeking to prevent and/or investigate sexual abuse allegations. For example, verbal or intellectual capacity issues can reduce the ability of carers and others to absorb the gravity of a situation. 

There are some key signs however that a person with a disability might be the victim of sexual abuse. Sudden changes in behaviour, temperament or activities can often raise the alarm. This could involve exhibiting fear towards an individual, acting out sexually or becoming uncharacteristically aggressive. 

Physical signs can include restraint marks, facial bruising or blood in the genital area. There are many more signs - some quite subtle - that a person with a disability has been subjected to sexual abuse. 

It is crucial that all staff and family members are aware of these and are prepared to take swift and appropriate action to further the matter. Further, investigators require utmost sensitivity and diligence during any investigation. 

Disclosure of abuse

Unfortunately, it is both the subtle, insidious and complex nature of sexual abuse of people with a disability that can prevent or delay the disclosure of the crime in question. The person with the disability may be hampered in their attempts to disclose - either by the nature of their disability or a lack of concern shown by those around them. Staff caring for the individual must therefore be trained and supported in the key steps needed to swiftly and effectively report any suspicions of sexual abuse against vulnerable individuals.

The organisations role

Organisations that are entrusted with the care of persons with a disability have a number of distinct obligations when it comes to the prevention and reporting of sexual abuse. At the heart of these requirements lies an ethic of care that embraces the right of all individuals to live free from harm. 

This inherently includes provision of care services that respect, protect and enhance the lifestyles of people with a disability. Moving outwards from this are legislative and policy requirements for management and professionals working in the care environment, as well as health and safety constraints that protect the welfare of all involved in disability care contexts. 

Yet perhaps the most important role for organisations is the development of robust policies and procedures designed to prevent, detect and act upon complaints of sexual abuse. Training all staff, family, clients and relevant community members in the content and application of these resources is essential to the welfare of those in care environments.  

If concerns have been raised in your organisation and you would like to conduct an investigation into the allegations, contact WISE today. Alternatively if your organisation requires a safe, secure environment to report concerns or complaints, WISE has a Confidential Whistleblower Hotline (Grapevine), enabling insightful management of complaints and the ability to bring about real cultural change and reduce risk. 

What To Do When Faced With Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 22, 2018

In the event of an allegation of child sexual abuse in the workplace, it is essential that immediate steps are taken to ensure the safety of any child allegedly involved. 

Following from this crucial first response, mandatory reports need to be made to the relevant statutory child protection authorities and subject to any police investigation, the allegations must be objectively investigated. The investigation report must be provided to the appropriate authority. 

As a society, we are beginning to understand the true nature and extent of child sexual abuse, including the insidious manner in which this crime can take place. Employers must be swift to report where required, providing all necessary support to various parties throughout the course of the investigative process. 

If in doubt, reporting child abuse allegations to the Police is preferable to inaction.

preying on vulnerability

Child sexual abuse by its very nature is a violation of trust, relying as it does upon the vulnerability of minors. As well as involving criminal physical and sexual acts, emotional abuse 'grooming' and 'crossing boundaries' are now recognised as being part of the matrix of child sexual abuse. 

For example, in an educational setting or community group, crossing boundaries and grooming can involve subtle favouritism from the employee towards one or more children. This can develop into a falsely 'special' connection that can ultimately lead to more tangible forms of abuse. 

For employers, protection against child sexual abuse by employers will require knowing the warning signs of inappropriate relationships and acting swiftly where needed.

Employers' responsibility to report

If an allegation of child sexual abuse arises in the workplace, the first priority for the employer is to secure the safety and welfare of the child/ren allegedly involved. This holds true even if the allegation is speculative or based upon unverified reports. 

Some employers will have mandatory reporting requirements dictated by legislation, which will require the reporting of any activity causing or likely to cause harm to a child as soon as is reasonably practicable in the circumstances. 

Above all, employers who become aware of possible child sexual abuse in the workplace must not delay reporting until a finding has been made. A report needs to be made as soon as the employer becomes aware of the allegation. 

Further, while strong policies around the reporting of child sexual abuse will guide timely and appropriate action, a failure to act cannot be blamed upon the lack of such resources.

Across australia - reporting child sexual abuse

As a nation - and particularly since Australians have become more aware of our institutional failures - we have learned to better protect and support children who are subject to child sexual abuse. 

If an allegation of child sexual abuse arises in connection with employment, there will be subtle differences between the Australian States and Territories regarding the form that a report should take. 

A summary report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) demonstrates that while there are some differences in the size and quantity of State and Territory legislation protecting children, the overall structure is similar - a Child Protection (or similarly named) Act, plus in many cases statutory reporting requirements to a statutory child protection department and/or Ombudsman, or similar body. 

Regardless of which jurisdiction an employer operates in, it is important to remember that procedural fairness must be provided throughout the entire process from allegation through to investigation and reporting. 

internal or external investigation? 

An allegation of child sexual abuse in the workplace will ordinarily be followed by practical steps to ensure the immediate safety and welfare of the child involved. 

Following this, the person or persons alleged to have carried out the abuse need to be informed of the allegation and advised of the next steps to be taken. 

Depending upon the severity of the alleged conduct, a period of immediate leave might be provided. It is vital to ensure that the person accused is given all necessary information about the process. This will include giving an initial outline of the allegation, the nature of reporting requirements and the type of investigation to be undertaken. 

Whether an investigation should be carried out internally or externally is a vital question for employers to consider. In such sensitive cases as child sexual abuse allegations, an internal investigator would need to be knowledgeable and experienced in all facets of objective and fair workplace investigations, be familiar with Child Protection Legislation and be experienced at interviewing children. If a workplace exhibits turmoil and division regarding the allegation, or expertise is simply not available in-house, then it might be best to source external assistance in conducting the investigation. 

When allegations of abuse arise the primary focus must be the safety, welfare and wellbeing of any child who may have been involved in the alleged conduct - or who may be at risk of harm due to contact with that employee. 

If you work with children and want to ensure your practices are current, WISE provides training services, including investigating abuse in care. Alternatively, if you have an allegation of abuse, and are unsure what to do, contact WISE today! 

Guarding the Vulnerable: Reporting Obligations in Focus

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 25, 2018

With the conclusion of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Australian organisations are now on notice in relation to their ongoing child protection reporting obligations.

Mandatory reporting of particular conduct or convictions is a strong means of ensuring that those who care for the most vulnerable in our community, do not slip through the regulatory net.

We examine the nature and extent of these obligations, as an ongoing reminder of the importance of safeguarding children and other vulnerable individuals within organisational contexts.

Different states, different rules 

One of the difficulties that has hampered a national response to child abuse and neglect is that due to Australia being a federation of States, there can be slight differences in the reporting requirements between State jurisdictions. This leads to the possibility of uneven treatment between organisations that are mandated to report alleged child abuse.

As a result, employers should be vigilant in adhering to the reporting obligations applicable to all organisational operations, both between and across State lines. Effectively identifying and reporting the types of behaviour that require mandatory notification is an ongoing challenge across Australia - but certainly a battle that is worth continuing, considering what is at stake.

This article focuses on reporting obligations in NSW. 

Reportable conduct

Under s 25A of the NSW Ombudsman Act 1974, the nature of reportable conduct is clearly set out. Alleged conduct by an employee or prescribed volunteer that involves child sexual assault or misconduct, child abuse and/or neglect must be reported to the Ombudsman as soon as practicable by all agencies covered by the Act.

An employer's knowledge of an employee's prior conviction for reportable conduct must also be brought to the notice of the Ombudsman. Less well-known conduct such as grooming and crossing boundaries by an assailant are also covered, and employers should take care to understand the breadth of the behaviours in question.

Mandatory reporting

Under the legislation, it is mandatory for employers within three organisational types to report any alleged notifiable conduct.

These organisations are defined in the Act as designated government agencies, all other public authorities, and designated non-government agencies (such as schools, childcare centres, out-of-school-hours services and agencies providing substitute residential care).

The latter group provides examples only, and employers should examine closely whether their organisation is, in all likelihood, an entity that falls under this third grouping. Businesses or agencies who are uncertain about their reporting obligations should seek immediate professional advice regarding their status under the Act.

when do obligations arise

It is not necessary for employers to have firm evidence about notifiable conduct prior to contacting the Ombudsman. Any allegation of reportable conduct should be notified as soon as the information comes to hand. Waiting until a clearer picture or more facts can be established before reporting is not advised. There is much more risk in 'waiting it out' than there is in making a premature notification: the safety and wellbeing of children must of course be placed front-and-centre in all deliberations by employers.

Who to report to?

The Ombudsman provides information and reporting advice for NSW employers in relation to mandatory notification of alleged child abuse. If any doubt remains at all in specific circumstances, it is essential that employers seek advice on the extent and nature of their obligations. For those employees who are not at the higher rungs of an organisation, it can certainly be difficult to ascertain who to tell if child abuse or neglect is suspected. Depending upon the circumstances, involvement of Police or the Office of the Children's Guardian might be necessary alongside those mechanisms mandated by the Ombudsman.

internal processes

It is not always the case that business owners or senior management will be aware of child-related reportable conduct that requires immediate notification. For this reason, it is essential that appropriate procedures are put in place to ensure that all employees are aware of mandatory reporting obligations.

Training on the practical requirements for reporting an employee or volunteer should be regularly provided and updated. Child safety is necessarily an organisation-wide issue and time can be essential if an individual finds themselves in a situation where abuse is suspected.

WISE provides Investigating Abuse in Care training which is specifically developed for organisations dealing with vulnerable clients. This is designed to meet the needs of investigators of child abuse in line with the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse. Alternatively, we are highly experienced at investigating reportable conduct matters, through our investigation services.


How to Deal with Bullying in Hospital Environments

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Hospitals - very few people like them, yet many of us will be a resident at one time or another. Even though hospitals can be sources of great joy, places where babies are born, miracles happen and lives are saved, they also represent sickness, injury, death, and some pretty ordinary food! 

The people who work in them - the doctors, surgeons, nurses, aides, assistants, administrators and catering staff - perform difficult work in an extremely stressful environment. Imagine the potential consequences when the added stressor of workplace bullying is added to the mix.

Factors which facilitate bullying in this environment 

Hospitals and the healthcare sector remain a particularly hierarchical environment - carers need to get sign-off from nurses before passing out certain medications, nurses confirm recommended treatments with doctors, doctors and surgeons rely on their own pecking order. 

This hierarchy, and the importance of culture and following rules, automatically puts certain workers in a subordinate position relative to others.

Lateral violence, verbal, physical and psychological bullying among peers, can also be an issue in the health services. 

Combined with the stress of having to deal with time-critical emergencies, becoming involved in physically and mentally straining situations and dealing with the trauma of patients suffering, hospitals are the perfect breeding ground for hostility, anger and frustration.

Prevalence of bullying

Bullying in the healthcare sector is an under-recognised but pervasive problem. Hospitals often have scant or limited resources and staff are under significant pressure, which may contribute to the prevalence of workplace bullying.

The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine surveyed its members in 2017 and found 34% had experienced bullying, 16.1% had experienced harassment and just over six percent had been victims of sexual harassment. A landmark 2015 report commissioned by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons showed that almost half of all surgeons had experienced bullying, discrimination or sexual harassment. 

The Victorian Auditor General Office, in its 2016 report to the Victorian Parliament, 'Bullying and Harassment in the Health Sector', stated 

"The Health Sector is unable to demonstrate that it has effective controls in place to prevent or reduce inappropriate behaviour, including bullying and harassment. Key controls that would effectively reduce this risk to employee health and safety are either inadequately implemented, missing or poorly coordinated." 

However, by its very nature, bullying in this type of workplace can be particularly difficult to detect and manage. 

Consequences of bullying

The potential consequences of bullying are significant. In addition to litigation arising from the bullying and costs associated with worker's compensation or other payouts, a number of issues can arise. These include:

  • High turnover amongst dissatisfied staff
  • Presenteeism - where staff turn up at work, but are unhappy or stressed and perform inadequately, which is particularly dangerous in a hospital environment. 
  • Increased absenteeism
  • A poorly functioning team environment that can adversely affect staff and patients.      

are there solutions to bullying in high-stress environments?  

Key strategies to help solve the problem include:

  • A focus on workplace culture, including by conducting regular cultural audits. 
  • Encouraging a 'mentor' or 'buddy' system (in consultation with unions where appropriate), or otherwise provide a supportive environment whereby staff are encouraged to vent or ask for assistance with any matters they are struggling with. 
  • Facilitating easy access for staff to obtain confidential counselling, or advice services. 
  • Fostering an environment where staff feel comfortable raising concerns and complaints with their peers and management.
  • Having clear zero tolerance policies regarding workplace bullying and harassment, which are easily accessible to all staff
  • Ensure that this zero tolerance policy, is demonstrated by senior management, so there is a top down recognition of adherence to the policy from all staff. 
  • Staff need to be regularly reminded of the consequences of any poor behaviour in the workplace and this should be reinforced during staff meetings.  

Bullying or harassment - in any workplace - is simply unacceptable. Many incidents of bullying or harassment may be unreported for fear of reprisals. All staff should be encouraged to report any incident. 

If your organisation needs any assistance in this area please contact WISE to arrange a no-obligation appointment or otherwise contact us to discuss how we may assist you. Our services include investigation, training, provision of a whistleblower facility (which can be tailored to suit your reporting needs), and review of policies

Aged Care Investigations: A Guide for Reportable Assaults

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The thought that some of the most vulnerable in our society - the elderly - might be at risk of harm in residential aged care facilities is abhorrent. But even with the best of intentions and the proper guidelines in place, there is still potential for abuse and assault to occur. 

Abuse allegations in an aged care setting are highly emotional and challenging for all involved, especially the victims and their families. 

When investigating these allegations, it is essential that procedural fairness and objectivity are paramount.

the two types of reportable assaults

The Aged Care Act 1997 (Cth) sets out the requirements for when approved providers of residential aged care must report matters involving their residents to the police. 

Section 63-1AA of the Act defines 'reportable assaults' as either unlawful sexual contact with or the unreasonable use of force on a resident of an aged care facility. 

Unlawful sexual contact considers situations where the resident does not or is unable to provide consent. In cases where residents have cognitive impairment, it is particularly important to ensure that all allegations are properly investigated.

Unreasonable force is intended to cover situations where elderly residents are treated roughly, causing physical injuries. Given the manual nature of handling aged care residents, it is accepted that occasionally 'innocent' or accidental injuries do occur - however, any physical injuries should be adequately reported.

wHO TO REPORT TO, AND WHEN

The Department of Health oversees aged care facilities generally. The Australian Aged Care Quality Agency (AACQA) is required to assess aged care facilities for ongoing compliance with accreditation standards and reporting responsibilities. 

The aged care provider is required to notify the federal government's Department of Health, either by completing a form or calling the hotline, within 24 hours of a suspected reportable assault. The police must be contacted within the same timeframe. A failure to comply with these reporting requirements may result in sanctions being imposed by the Department of Health. 

Given the serious nature of elder assault, even in circumstances where it is unlikely that a suspicion will be proven to be correct, an aged care provider must undertake the necessary reporting within the required timeframe. 

Staff members who notify their employers of potential assaults are protected in accordance with the Act. This means that their anonymity must be maintained and they are protected from potential reprisals by colleagues. 

the role of the aged care complaints commissioner

Complaints relating to the quality of aged care can also be directed to the Aged Care Complaints Commissioner. 

The Commissioner is tasked with resolving complaints, taking action on issues raised in complaints and helping to improve the quality of aged care. 

Making a complaint to the Commissioner may be a more appropriate avenue for individuals who do not work in an aged care facility, but who wish to report suspect behaviour, such as family members or other concerned residents. 

Other responsibilities for providers

Additional responsibilities imposed on aged care providers include:

  • Requiring staff to notify suspect assaults -  In practice, this means ensuring that staff have sufficient information available to understand their obligations to report, and the methods by which they can inform their employer (or the Department of Health directly if they are concerned about protecting their jobs). They must also ensure staff understand the potential consequences of providing false or misleading information. 
  • Record keeping - Aged care providers are required to keep detailed records relating to all suspected incidents involving reportable assaults. Specific details which need to be noted include the date the allegation was made, the circumstances giving rise to the allegation, and more information surrounding the notification. The records must be available for viewing by the Department of Health or the Quality Agency, if requested. 
  • Privacy - Aged care providers are required to balance their obligations under the Act with all requirements imposed by privacy legislation, including protecting the identities of their staff and residents. 

When is an assault not reportable?

In certain circumstances, assaults need not be reported. These are set out in the Federal Aged Care Act. Broadly speaking, an assault is not reportable if:

  • The alleged person who has committed the assault is a resident who suffers from cognitive or mental impairments (such as dementia, depression or similar conditions) which are likely to have contributed to the assault, and appropriate arrangements are put in place immediately to deal with that behaviour. 
  • The same incidents have already been reported. 

If you or your organisation is responsible for safeguarding the aged, WISE Workplace's Investigating Abuse in Care skills-based short course will assist you in investigating claims of abuse and reportable conduct, in line with the legislation applicable in your state.