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.


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.

Crossing the Line: Flirting vs Sexual Harassment

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The recent media attention on sexual misconduct in Hollywood is a turning point; what may have been considered 'innocent flirting' in the 70s and 80s is increasingly being called what it is - unwanted harassment. The public condemnation of film mogul Harvey Weinstein's conduct has emboldened people to come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against other celebrities, in what some have described as the 'Weinstein ripple effect'. 

There has been a significant shift in recent years in the way the criminal justice system conceptualises consent, and this has likewise affected the perception of harassment. 

Although the Hollywood allegations are of a serious nature, with some amounting to sexual assault and rape, they have also cast the spotlight on work relationships in journalism, entertainment, politics and the everyday workplace -'the office'. The question arises: what constitutes sexual harassment in 2017?

legal definition of sexual harassment in australia

Although many assume that sexual harassment must occur between a man and a woman, in Australia this is not the case - it can take place between persons identifying with any sex or any gender. 

According to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), 'sexual harassment' includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or other conduct of a sexual nature - the key element being that the behaviour is not welcomed by the recipient. 

The conduct needs to be assessed from the viewpoint of a reasonable person and whether the reasonable person would consider, in all the circumstances, that the recipient might be 'offended, humiliated or intimidated' by it. 

Even more seriously, sexual assault includes a person being forced, coerced or tricked into a sexual act against their will and without their consent. If the victim is a child, it's sexual assault regardless of any apparent consent. 

In cases where sexual assault is alleged in the workplace, the complainant needs to be advised that they can make a complaint to the Police. 

Should the conduct involve a minor, it may constitute 'reportable conduct' - which is required to be reported in accordance with the relevant state legislation, as well as to the Police. 

SO, is it flirting - or harassment?

Many interpersonal interactions between employees are, particularly in their early stages, subtler and more ambiguous than clear examples of harassment. Smiles, winks, compliments, sexual innuendo and humour, suggestive glances, or even a touch on the arm or shoulder could be seen by some as innocent flirting - but perceived by others as harassment. Recipients of such behaviour may wonder whether these comments and behaviours are friendly or sinister in nature, intentional or accidental, a one-time event or likely to persist. 

When determining whether behaviour might be sexual harassment, it can be made clearer by answering some important questions, such as: 

  • Does the recipient seem uncomfortable or fail to respond to comments or discussions?
  • Is one person involved in the conversation in a position of authority?
  • Could the person making the overtures impose real professional consequences on the recipient if they were turned down?

the role of touching in sexual harassment

It is clear that engaging in unwanted touching is an even more serious offence than making offensive or inappropriate comments or suggestions. For this reason, many employers consider it prudent to ban physical contact in the workplace beyond simple handshakes. Of course, this can also have an impact on how friendly the workplace is perceived as being, so depending on your workplace, it may be more appropriate to closely monitor physical interaction rather than ban it outright. Generally speaking, however, those in positions of power such as managers or supervisors should avoid physical contact where possible. 

the role of power and status

Interestingly, studies have revealed that some men in positions of power find their roles inextricably linked to sex - meaning that they struggle to differentiate between women (or other men, if that lines up with their sexual orientation) who are sexually responsive, or who are simply being friendly. For many reasons, not least to protect a business against potential claims of harassment, employers must do their best to minimise the potential for any inappropriate conduct to occur between managers and supervisors and staff. 

So what should employers do?

Employers have a duty of care to their employees to make sure that they are safe and protected while at work. Employers must have clear policies in place on what types of behaviour are considered to be sexual harassment, and how complaints can be made. Policies should be well communicated to all staff, and staff should be educated on what is expected of them regarding behaviour in the workplace. 

In order to protect your business and staff against flirting going too far and turning into sexual harassment, contact WISE Workplace today for expert assistance with workplace investigations, anti-sexual harassment training and assistance with reviewing or drafting your policies.  

When Gender is Irrelevant: Male-On-Male Workplace Harassment

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Sexual harassment and predatory behaviour can happen to anybody. When most people think about this type of conduct, it is generally in the context of male-to-female harassment or, perhaps more rarely, female-to-male harassment. However, this is simply not the case - sexual harassment can be perpetrated by anybody towards anybody. 

A recent decision of the Civil and Administrative Tribunal of NSW highlights the potential for employees to be victims of sexual harassment and victimisation in the workplace, regardless of their gender. 

The decision in Kordas v Ruba & Jo Pty Ltd t/a Aztec Hair & Beauty also affirms the entitlement of workers to financial compensation when they have been subjected to sexual harassment. 

Inappropriate behaviour

In Kordas, the worker complained about various instances of inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment during his employment as an apprentice hairdresser working for the respondent. 

The behaviour complained of by the worker included:

  • Being told by his employer that workers were similar to racehorses because 'they need a pat on the bum to go faster'.
  • Having his supervisor tell clients that he and the worker were similar to a gay couple and that they were very 'close'. 
  • Being followed into a private area, slapped on the buttocks with a ruler by his trainer and being asked to smack him back because the trainer 'like[d] being slapped on the bum'.
  • Humiliation by the trainer when he threw a hair clip onto the ground, in the worker's opinion, because the employer wanted to see him bend over. 
  • The trainer complaining that the worker had incorrectly clipped a cape onto a client
  • Feeling harassed when the worker asked the trainer if he felt they got along and the response was yes, because 'you're my bitch'. 
  • Upon complaining to his employer and asking why he was referred to as the salon 'bitch', being told 'I used to work in a restaurant. All the boys used to grab me by my boobs'. 
  • Being grabbed around the waist and physically moved by his supervisor instead of being asked to move out of the way. 
  • Having his palm stroked in a flirtatious manner by his employer when he was handed money for errands. 

The worker had initially complained to his boss, who was also the director and owner of the business running the hair salon, about being victimised. But no action was taken, and the worker was ultimately dismissed. 

The history of complaints

The apprentice stated that he had not complained initially about the inappropriate behaviour because he had wanted to keep his job. 

However, in February 2015, the worker finally complained to the employer about various issues he was experiencing, including very low wages, ongoing harassment and feeling that he was being sabotaged. Although the employer initially promised that everything would be sorted out, he then made the above mentioned comment, likening hairdressers to racehorses. 

At this time, the worker demanded changes in his treatment, but the employer denied ever having received any complaints or personally witnessed any harassment. 

The employer then advised the worker that there were no senior staff available to continue his training and dismissed him. The stress and emotions suffered by the worker as a result of this treatment ultimately caused him to leave his chosen profession of hairdressing, working instead as a barber. 

Findings of the tribunal

Upon hearing the complaints, Tribunal Senior Member Scahill and General Member Newman commented that although the harassing behaviour was not the worst they had ever seen, it had clearly impacted upon the apprentice in a very significant way and had caused him to change his future career plans. 

The nature of some of the inappropriate behaviour was found to be sexual harassment, particularly the physical contact and comments regarding being a 'bitch' and a 'gay couple'. Moreover, the significant disparity in power between an employer or senior employee and an apprentice was such that the worker was reasonably and clearly intimidated, humiliated and harassed. 

The employing business was also held vicariously liable for the conduct on the basis that it had failed to ensure a workplace free of harassment and had failed to appropriately respond to the worker's complaints. 

The worker was awarded compensation comprising:

  • $5,000 in general damages for the sexual harassment by the employer
  • $10,000 in damages for the trainer's sexual harassment
  • $15,000 for victimisation

As this case demonstrates sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct can occur in any workplace, and between any gender. If you are concerned about a case of potential harassment at your organisation, contact us for assistance. We offer both supported and full workplace investigation services. 

How Medical Evidence Supports an Unbiased Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 01, 2017

When claims of abuse in care come to light, strong emotions can arise for all concerned. It is not surprising that when an unexplained injury is uncovered, family members, care staff, and employers will want immediate answers. 

However, it is vital that employers maintain clear thinking and remain objective when investigating allegations of abuse in care. 

Engaging an external workplace investigator can be helpful in maintaining neutrality, and conducting a detailed, unbiased investigation. Medical evidence is also highly relevant in these situations as it is collected in a scientific manner, without bias towards a particular party.

zero bias when investigating assaults 

In emotionally charged situations, family and friends may understandably demand immediate answers about the cause of a loved one's unexplained injury. When abuse appears to have occurred against a vulnerable individual, it is a disturbing thought for all involved. 

Workplace investigators understand that despite - or perhaps because of - such high emotions, the investigation must be coordinated and managed with an extremely steady hand. 

An experienced investigator will be acutely aware of the rules of evidence and how important the accurate collection and management of the evidence will become, should the matter be taken on review. Accordingly, from the very start of an investigation, it is understood that all information, statements, workplace documents, interviews and clinical data is to be gathered with a view to fairness, objectivity and clarity.

assessing medical evidence

Family members of the vulnerable person affected by the unexplained injury may not be aware of the detail of the circumstances of the injury. 

Factors such as the site of an unexplained injury, medical history and medications, client age, frailty and demographics, unique aspects of accommodation and access, care routines, staffing variables and medical documentation - to name a few - will all form part of the complex medical evidence matrix when evidence is being assessed. 

Delays in getting the victim medically examined or a delay in reporting incidents can often mean that the medical expert may need to rely on descriptions provided by witnesses or photographs taken of the injury. This will significantly diminish the quality of the medical evidence. Poor quality photographs and descriptions will make it even more difficult to obtain any reliable medical evidence. 

The standard of proof in investigations such as these is on the balance of probabilities. The case of Briginshaw v Briginshaw (1938) 60 CLR 336 is generally regarded as authority for the idea that on the balance of probabilities, if a finding is likely to produce grave consequences, the evidence should be of high probative value.

In cases of alleged assaults in care, professional investigators will ensure that all evidence - medical and general - is collected and reported on with utmost care. This approach ensures that irrelevant factors are not given weight. 

When the medical evidence is combined with overall procedural fairness across the investigation, the resulting investigative report into an alleged assault will be of high quality and robust in terms of the weighing of the evidence and findings.

    why an impartial investigation is important

    When investigating abuse in care, the standard of evidence obtained is a crucial factor. By including sound medical evidence, the investigator brings an unbiased and highly detailed viewpoint to the allegations of assault. This expertise can mean the difference between a fair and objective investigative report and one that is tinged by the emotionally charged nature of the situation. 

    Should the matter be taken on review, the court will apply the 'reasonable person test' to the facts and evidence available. If the investigation is not fair, clear and comprehensive, then the court may find the resulting report does not meet this standard. 

    If your organisation requires a workplace investigation into an unexplained injury, our team can assist with either full or supported investigation services. WISE are highly experienced in the complexities of investigating unexplained injuries in care settings, including the assessment of medical evidence.

    When the Line Blurs: Restrictive Practices vs Assault

    Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, June 14, 2017

    It is well-known that certain industries, particularly those involving disability or aged care services, have a higher than average level of client-facing risk. This is in part because consumers of these services generally have higher levels of physical needs, and may also have difficulties expressing themselves clearly or consistently.  

    As a result of these unique care requirements, occasionally situations may arise where restrictive practices are necessary either for the client's own safety or to protect another person. 

    However, employers and care workers must ensure that their actions do not exceed reasonable restrictive practices and slip into behaviours or acts, which could be considered assault.   

    WHAT ARE RESTRICTIVE PRACTICES?

    According to the Australian Law Reform Commission, the definition of 'restrictive practices' are actions which effectively restrict the rights or freedom of movement of a person with a disability.

    This could include physical restraint (such as holding somebody down), mechanical restraint (for example, with the use of a device intendend to restrict, prevent or subdue movement), chemical restraint (using sedative drugs), or social restraint (verbal interactions or threats of sanctions). 

    Restrictive practices are intended to used in situations where a person is demonstrating concerning, or potentially threatening behaviours. In the disability services context, this may involve people with significant intellectual or psychological impairments, but no or limited physical impairments, meaning that threats of violence could be credible and have significant effects.

    Although restrictive practices are currently legal in Australia, according to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) factsheet, they do not currently constitute 'best practice' for disability support.

    KEY CONCERNS WITH RESTRICTIVE PRACTICES

    As with any situation where the personal liberty of people is affected, the use of restrictive practices can blur into the use of inappropriate levels of force and potentially even expose the disability worker to accusations of assault. 

    While the greatest concern with restrictive practices would be the possibility of disabled persons being intentionally abused, it is very easy for the line between restrictive practices to be unintentionally blurred. 

    Although assault is defined slightly differently in each Australian state and territory under criminal law legislation, broadly, the offence involves circumstances where intentional and unwanted physical force or contact is used against another person. It can also include verbal behaviours, which are considered threatening. 

    While the line between the use of restrictive practices and assault may not be immediately clear, conduct is unlikely to be considered to be an assault if it can be demonstrated that the actions taken, even if they involved the use of physical force, were necessary to avoid violence or any risk of harm.

      WHAT IF AN ALLEGATION OF ASSAULT DOES ARISE?

      The provision of disability services is a challenging industry at the best of times. It's important to ensure that your team is using restrictive practices appropriately and in the right circumstances to avoid any allegations of assault. 

      Any employers who are advised of accusations of assault must undertake a full workplace investigation in order to fulfil their dual obligations to their employees and to their clients. 

      At WISE Workplace, we have experience in the disability and aged care sectors, and our team can assist in all aspects of workplace investigations.