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.


Professional Distance and Conflict of Interest at Work

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 20, 2017

During the seventies and eighties, organisations started to realise that the improper use of power and authority and undeclared and/or ineffectively managed conflicts of interest, posed a significant risk to their integrity and public trust. 

The requirement for ethical business dealings focuses the spotlight on conflicts of interests and the factors involved in creating the perception of conflicts of interest in the workplace. 

It can be difficult to maintain a suitable professional distance with colleagues, subordinates and suppliers, particularly if a significant friendships have been formed outside the workplace. There is an increased risk when managers, employees and co-workers communicate on social media. Employers must also be vigilant about the risks of inappropriate levels of professional distance with clients or colleagues, especially in circumstances where such behaviour may lead to, or can be perceived as, grooming of vulnerable persons. 

When it comes to conflicts of interest, it is best to completely avoid any behaviour, which may result in the creation of a real or perceived conflict of interest. For this reason, many professions address this specifically in their Codes of Conduct or may draft specific conflict of interest policies, which set out expected and appropriate standards of behaviour. 

In our planned six-part series we'll unpack the key elements of professional distance and conflict of interest, from maintaining professional boundaries to determining the difference between a lapse of judgement and grooming. 

breaching professional boundaries   

According to Dr. Anna Corbo Crehan, from the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne, questions of professional distance occur when two or more people involved in a professional relationship also have an additional relationship, such as one based on love, attraction, friendship or family. "So then, professional distance is the space a professional must keep between their professional relationship with another, and any other relationship they have with that person. By keeping this space, a professional can fulfil their professional and personal obligations, and be seen to do so, in a way that is impartial and/or non-exploitative in regard to the other in the relationship", she says. 

Breaching professional boundaries can also refer to the failure to manage conflicts of interest. A particularly close relationship between co-workers, especially those involving persons in a position of authority, may create the perception (whether real or imagined) of inappropriate work-related benefits or advantages being bestowed on a close associate because of the friendship. 

The most common types of conflict of interest are financial, such as where a monetary advantage is bestowed or a financial saving made, and personal, where a clear benefit is provided to the recipient such as a promotion or an opportunity for advancement or training and development. 

The best way to avoid perceived conflicts of interest is by maintaining clear professional boundaries, especially by those in a position of power, such as employers, supervisors, managers, or instructors. In extreme circumstances it may be prudent to completely avoid forming any relationships with colleagues outside of work.

codes of conduct and different professions 

Many professions abide by specific Codes of Conduct, which set out and govern acceptable standards of behaviour in their specific industry and provide comprehensive guidelines as to what is considered appropriately maintained levels of professional distance in that industry. 

For example, an inappropriate level of closeness may mean one thing in the context of a school teacher, and another thing in the context of a physical therapist. Professions such as nursing, teaching and social work need to have an additional emphasis on protecting vulnerable persons (such as children, the elderly, the disabled, of the mentally ill) from unscrupulous persons of the effects of inappropriately close relationships. 

In other professions, such as aged care or legal services, it is vital that professional distance is maintained to avoid any perception (whether actual or imagined) of financial abuse and conflicts of interest, when a client confers excessive financial benefits on the service provider. 

One recent example of a breach of an industry specific Code of Conduct involved a police officer who sold confidential information and provided accident locations to a tow truck driver, who gained a financial advantage from arriving on the scene ahead of competitors. 

On many occasions, a failure to maintain an appropriate professional distance occurs inadvertently or without any intentional wrongdoing. While it is beneficial for colleagues to develop good relationships with their co-workers, it is important for all employees to be able to maintain a perception of professional distance so that it does not appear as though they are incapable of making impartial business related decisions. 

professional distance and social media 

In the modern workplace, social media has become a virtually omnipresent phenomenon. With the advent of many different types of social media platforms, including LinkedIn and Facebook, there are many opportunities for workers to remain connected. 

Most employers recognise that social media is a platform that is both complimentary to, and additional to, other methods of communication and engagement used by them. Most employers also understand the beneficial networking functions of social media, particularly in the case of LinkedIn, however there is a far greater risk of boundaries being crossed or lines being blurred when communicating through social media. 

There can be particular difficulties in utilising social media when dealing with vulnerable people such as students, the disabled or persons with mental health issues. As a general rule, it is inappropriate for work colleagues or employers to share overly personal information or material on social media. Most workplaces have a clearly set-out social media policy. It is important that employees are made aware of its contents and application and are encouraged to use social media in a responsible, reasonable and ethical manner, in accordance with the employer's Code of Conduct. 

Broadly, if content is critical of a colleague, affects his/her reputation, is personal, hurtful, potentially embarrassing to a co-worker, or otherwise inappropriate, it could easily breach the requirements of professional distance.   

determining grooming, or an error of judgement. 

An important aspect of maintaining professional distance involves taking steps to avoid situations where it could be perceived that 'grooming' is taking place. This is essential not just in the context of children, but other people who are deemed to be vulnerable, including the elderly, those with disabilities, or those involved in situations where there is a power imbalance. 

The act of grooming is a criminal offence in many Australian states. It is a term which generally refers to deliberate and sustained contact with a vulnerable person in order to obtain their trust and prepare them to participate in the groomer's intended purpose, which may be sexually, financially or otherwise motivated. 

As a responsible employer, if somebody reports concerns about potential grooming, or you observe the possibility of such behaviour occurring, it is important that a workplace investigation is conducted to determine whether the contact is in fact grooming, or merely represents a lapse in judgement.

Dealing with a breach of boundaries 

The best litmus test when assessing appropriate levels of professional distance between managers and employees, between co-workers or between employees and clients, is whether there could, in the view of a reasonable person, be a perception of inappropriate behaviour, conflict of interest, favouritism, nepotism, or even grooming. 

If there is any possibility that such assumptions could be made, then it is likely that professional boundaries are being crossed. 

If you have doubts regarding a potential conflict of interest or breach of professional distance, then it is best to get an impartial third party to investigate. Our services include full and supported workplace investigations and training. Contact WISE Workplace today to find out how we can best be of assistance.

ACT Launches Reportable Conduct Scheme

Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, June 07, 2017

If there's one thing that's been made clear from the recent Royal Commission, it's that the protection of children and the reporting procedures around child abuse need to be improved. 

In August 2016, largely in response to the commission, the ACT Government passed legislation designed to cast a 'wider net' when it comes to the scrutiny of child abuse and the protection of children within certain organisations.

The ACT Reportable Conduct Scheme will take effect from July 1 2017. The scheme is designed to ensure that there are processes in place for allegations of employee abuse of children, and that these allegations are independently reviewed. 

In essence, it provides a mechanism for employers to report employee misconduct in relation to children, with the ACT Ombudsman acting in the role of independent oversight body.   

WHICH EMPLOYERS DOES THIS APPLY TO?

Certain types of employers that work with children will be covered under the scheme, including health service providers, foster care and out-of-home services, residential care providers, schools and educational services. 

In general, religious organisations (other than schools), instructional services (such as teachers of sports and music), scouts/guides and universities will not be included under the scheme. 

The term 'employee' in this instance refers not only to workers but also to contractors and volunteers within the relevant organisation, whether or not they work directly with children. This means conduct may be reported even if it is of a personal and non-professional nature.  

WHAT ABOUT OTHER REPORTING PROCESSES? 

It's important to be aware that the scheme will not override other reporting obligations - such as that of suspected crime to the police, or mandatory reporting of serious abuse or neglect of children to the Child and Youth Protection Services (CYPS). However, it does cover a wider range of behaviours in relation to children, and also provides a mechanism for employers to report conduct not covered under other mandatory reporting programs. 

WHAT EMPLOYERS NEED TO DO

ACT employers covered by the scheme will need to notify the Ombudsman within 30 days of suspected or actual misconduct by an employee in relation to children. These acts of misconduct include neglect, mistreatment, psychological harm, sexual misconduct or inappropriate discipline. 

Employers will also need to:  

  • Perform investigations into alleged reportable conduct and provide a written report to the Ombudsman. 
  • Report to other bodies as required - including the police, the human rights commission, CYPS and others. 
  • Review and amend their organisational policies and procedures where necessary.
  • Inform and educate employees regarding any new or amended policies and responsibilities. 

THE OMBUDSMAN'S ROLE

The scheme is designed to go beyond just reporting misconduct. For instance, the Ombudsman's role in regard to this is also to monitor and analyse trends, share information with other authorities as required, provide guidance to organisations regarding child protection, and monitor the practices of employers in relation to child safety and prevention of abuse.

WHERE TO FROM HERE?

WISE Workplace provides independent investigation services for organisations into reportable conduct, and training on how to respond and investigate allegations. 

Child Sexual Exploitation & Trafficking Conference Insights

Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A wrap-up of the Children, Justice and Communication Conference at Portsmouth University, May 2017.  Last week, I had the privilege of attending the Children, Justice and Communication Conference at Portsmouth in the UK.  The conference is hosted by some of the world’s leading academics and practitioners working in the areas of child sexual exploitation, trafficking, child abuse, incest and more.  

Opened by Professor Ray Bull, the conference featured the work of Professor Becky Milne, Dr Julie Cherryman, Dr Lucy Akehurst and Professor Penny Cooper to name but a few. 

The audience, mostly police officers from the UK, represent those forward-thinking agencies and officers who want to make a change for the good and tackle some of the most challenging crimes. The number of police officers with higher research degrees is particularly impressive, and is having a massive impact on the quality of policing not only in Britain, but around the world.

Tackling challenging issues across the globe

Some of the issues covered on the first day included the conundrum of obtaining evidence from teenagers who have been exploited and trafficked but consider their actions to be consensual and complicit in the activities. How do we empower these individuals to become witnesses rather than to take on the persona of victim? 


Dr Brian Chappel, a senior police intelligence expert, spoke of the use of juveniles as critical intelligence sources necessary to infiltrate youth gangs. Interestingly, his research showed that the 10 informants who participated in his study were themselves free from any police intervention up to a year later. 


Dr Shaleve-Greene addressed the issues for agencies in handling or identifying the 10,000 unaccompanied migrant minors that go missing across Europe every year. This was another statistic to get my head around – this number reflects only those we know about who are missing and vulnerable to traffickers and exploitation. There are also tremendous challenges to local safeguarding children boards, such as the one operating in Kent on the south coast of Britain. 


Dr Sue Gower spoke about the services and educational needs of their staff when they take on responsibility for the children from their own county, a similar number from neighbouring counties, and then double the number to account for the unaccompanied immigrant minors arriving from Europe. 

How intermediaries are working successfully overseas

Professor Penny Cooper hosted a panel of experts who presented on a range of issues connected to the use of intermediaries who support and assist children and vulnerable adults to communicate with police, and courts. 


The NSW Department of Justice is currently trialling the use of intermediaries, so it was great to hear the many ingenious and fantastic ways these experts have of working with children to help them communicate. Convictions have been secured with the use of evidence from children as young as three-years-old. These presentations also addressed the increasingly common needs of children with autism spectrum disorder. 


As practitioners, it’s so important to stick our heads above the partition wall and have a look at the fantastic work going on around the world. 


WISE Workplace offers consulting and investigation services to assist and support workplaces in conducting fair and efficient investigations and developing comprehensive complaints processes.

Contact one of our offices to talk to an advisor about a free consultation.

A Perplexing Problem: Protecting Children Overseas

Harriet Witchell - Thursday, April 20, 2017


Every year billions of Australian dollars are provided to fund aid projects overseas. The money is targeted to assist developing countries with education, housing, health and community projects. Naturally children are a prime target group for these aid programs.  The majority of these organisations are funded by the Australian public via donations and government funding provided to not-for-profit organisations, many of them faith based organisations.

International rules and expectations govern the protocols for handling and responding to allegations related to child protection, however, enforcing these laws is a tricky business often involving multiple jurisdictions and multiple agencies who may disagree around responsibilities and liabilities.

Policies and procedures are not enough to protect children who are by definition amongst the most vulnerable in the world.

Small operations, voluntary management and high dependency on the goodwill of front end service delivery mitigate against strong child protection regimes. Poor oversight due to long distance, remoteness and cultural differences are also key features of this problem.

Funding bodies in Australia are expected to have high quality child protection systems and policies in place to gain government funding but the challenge of enforcing or even providing adequate training in the expectations to the end providers of the service can be beyond reach.

Now that we know that we cannot unquestioningly depend on the nature of goodly people to act without harming children, what cost do we place on the need to provide secure safe environments for children receiving charitable services?

Documents provided to the Guardian relating to the level of abuse within detention centres on Nauru demonstrate the abject failure of outsourced government funded programs. How then do we expect small voluntary projects to be faring against these standards?

It is clear that policies and procedures are woefully inadequate yet how much of the donated money do we want spent on compliance when it comes to protecting children?

WISE Workplace is regularly requested to undertake investigations of allegations made against staff overseas who are working or administering charitable projects. The work requires a high level understanding of the environment, the agency, funding requirements, boards and community management structures, and the local culture and cultural background of staff and service recipients. The work remains some of the most challenging to investigate. Weak employment relationships can lead to inconclusive outcomes and an inability to enforce any restrictions on volunteers in the field.

For those organisations with managers in Australia trying to manage complaints or allegations arising from activities overseas, using the support of experienced investigators can be a godsend melding the investigative skills of experienced child protection investigators with the cultural and service delivery expertise of the coordinators working for the agency.

Our top 10 list of must do’s if you are a coordinator of a charity funded project overseas:

  1. Nominate a single contact person with responsibility for dealing with complaints related to child protection within your agency

  2. Have clearly articulated Child Protection Standards and Guidelines

  3. Have clearly articulated procedures for dealing with complaints

  4. Understand the criminal law in the country of service delivery

  5. Understand the employee relationship between the funding body and the service providers on the ground

  6. Know your legal obligations under your primary funding agency agreement

  7. Respond quickly to complaints

  8. Conduct a risk assessment and take protective action if necessary

  9. Identify a suitable contact person on the ground in the foreign country to be a liaison pain

  10. Seek specialist help when complaints are serious or complex to investigate.

WISE Workplace runs regular training programs on the principles of undertaking workplace investigations. Our facilitators have extensive experience and expertise in managing all kinds of challenging investigations including running operations overseas via Skype using local contacts. Our unique Investigating Abuse in Care course provides valuable skills in how to assess complaints, reporting obligations, drafting allegations, interviewing victims and respondents, making decisions and maintaining procedural fairness. Book now for courses in May 2017.

The Key Warning Signs of Grooming and Sexual Manipulation

Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, March 22, 2017

warning signs of grooming

As the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has painfully revealed, our most trusted institutions have at times mishandled some of the worst cases of child abuse imaginable.

It is becoming clear to us as a nation that the trust given by children and other vulnerable people to individuals in positions of power is boundless. And it is this trust that can become hijacked via the insidious tactics of grooming and sexual manipulation.

Standing outside of the abhorrent situation, we might ask – how on earth could this happen? Wouldn’t a sexual predator be immediately visible to an employer in a child-focused setting? However, grooming and sexual manipulation work in such a subtle way that even other adults close to the situation can be lulled into a false sense of security.

The new NSW legislation on Reportable Conduct has commendably included grooming as a distinct behaviour that must be reported in child care contexts. It is therefore essential that all child-related employers become aware of the warning signs of child grooming and sexual manipulation in the workplace.

Warning Sign 1: The special relationship

Grooming behaviour can manifest as the slow development of a special relationship between a worker and a particular child or children in care. This might involve the giving of privileges, compliments or treats that might be held back from other children. The child can develop a strong sense of trust and even enjoyment from this relationship, particularly if fun and friendship appear to be the key drivers. Such children might previously have been at the less-confident or lonely end of development, with the perpetrator appearing to have commendably ‘drawn out’ the child.

Warning Sign 2: Returning favours

Once a seemingly trust-based relationship is in place, the perpetrator of child abuse will often connect their special gifts and words with requests for touching and/or emotional favours from the child in return. At first this might not seem like an unpleasant or abusive situation in the mind of an innocent child – after all, they have identified this adult as a friend to be trusted. Observers might in fact see a child drawn to a particular carer quite intensely. It can be heartbreaking to think that this could be the middle stages of a targeted grooming strategy.

Warning Sign 3: The conflicted or ‘acting out’ child

When behaviours gradually move into sexual talk, touching or more overt acts, the perpetrator of child abuse can take a more sexually manipulative stance against the child. The child might resist the abuser, but can be manipulated into continuance of the inappropriate relationship through emotional blackmail. One of the earlier favours granted to the child such as gifts, treats or special games might be threatened or recalled. The child can then become anxious and in some cases will actively seek to appease the sexual abuser. Observers of the situation might see contradictory signs between the once-friendly employee and child. Behaviourally, the child could lash out at others or experience a regression in development.

Make knowledge your strength

Thankfully there is now so much research occurring around grooming behaviours and sexual manipulation in care settings. Further, Australian legislatures are slowly but determinedly developing laws to protect children and to enable the effective reporting of inappropriate conduct in the workplace.

Child sexual abuse tends to arise not from some caricature of an evil villain but in fact via a subtle conflation of grooming, manipulation, child vulnerability and institutional ‘blind spots’. Codes of conduct and training on professional boundaries are just some of the methods that can assist employers in combating the scourge of child sexual abuse by carers.

We actively investigate and advise upon issues within child-focused workplaces. In addition, we have handled grooming complaints between remote student teacher networks, top sporting organisers and athletes, elderly residents in a mixed care facility, bus drivers and passengers, disabled individuals and in-home carers. Every case requires skill, sensitivity and an unbiased examination of the evidence.

Join us in our enduring quest to make workplaces safe for all concerned - not just owners and workers, but for those precious Australian children who inherently trust the adults around them. We are proud to be presenting purpose-built training on Abuse in Care in coming months. Give us a call for further details.

Does the NDIS Complaints System Have Enough Reach?

Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, March 08, 2017


For those vulnerable people across Australia living with disability, the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has been heralded as a much-needed security net. And for those caring for disabled individuals, the NDIS provides a framework for sustainable care arrangements. 
 
In many ways, the introduction of the NDIS is the ultimate ‘good news’ story. Essential services and funds for disabled individuals can now be accessed. Particularly, the types of care that exhausted families have provided around the clock can now be augmented by paid carers under the scheme. 

Yet such a vast and complex scheme necessarily requires safeguards against unfortunate phenomena that can arise in care environments, such as child abuse, elder abuse or other forms of abuse by carers. 

A responsive and effective complaints system is an essential adjunct to the NDIS, which will eventually sustain some 460,000 disabled Australians under the age of 65. As at February, 61,000 Australians have been brought into the scheme.

How the NDIS complaints system operates

The NDIS complaints system is intended to help participants in the scheme provide feedback, or make complaints about their own experiences or the system in general.   

There is some concern, however, that the complaints system is a somewhat toothless watchdog. Individuals suffering with a disability can lodge a formal complaint about a care provider, for example, but the care provider can at most be removed from the list of scheme-approved providers. There is no mechanism under the system for more significant sanctions.    

This may be appropriate in circumstances where the care provider has simply provided poor treatment or has an unpleasant manner or clash of personalities with the recipient of care, but falls far short of the mark in circumstances where, for example, there is abuse or unexplained injury.  

On such occasions, the scheme participant may have to look to other procedures to try and address any serious grievances.

What other mechanisms for complaint are available?

In NSW, if a person living with a disability in a residential facility suffers a reportable incident at the hands of a care service provider, that incident must be investigated and reported to the appropriate Ombudsman, in accordance with the Ombudsman Act 1974.

A reportable incident includes the commission of sexual offences or misconduct (including those committed in the presence of the person suffering the disability), assault, fraud or financial abuse, and ill-treatment or neglect by a carer. Unexplained injuries also fall within the same category of reportable incidents.  

However, this only covers those clients who are living in residential care – and misses the many participants of the NDIS who rely only on in-home services.  Similarly, there is no legislation which provides any requirement for a ‘suitability to work with disability services’ check, unlike the child protection legislation now effective in NSW, the ACT and Victoria. 

Those utilising aged care services are able to rely on national reporting schemes, but regrettably even a carer who has been conclusively found to be abusive or otherwise guilty of misconduct is not restricted from being able to obtain employment with another care service provider in the future.
 

Effectiveness of the system still uncertain

Given the potential risks of abuse within the system of allocating a carer to a disabled Australian, it is essential that the NDIS is paired with an effective and efficient complaint and resolution scheme. 

Ultimately, the current NDIS complaint service has significant room for growth before it can be considered to be effectively safeguarding the rights of disabled Australians. True improvement will play out most importantly by imposing greater penalties and consequences on carers who are found to have transgressed against their clients in any serious fashion. 

As the NDIS matures as a scheme, it is to be hoped that many teething issues with the complaint management system will be ironed out naturally.  

However effective investigation of incidents relating to abuse as soon as they are reported or otherwise come to light will remain the most important safeguard of the rights of disabled Australians, along with general prevention of potential abuse or misconduct by carers through a strong governance and policy regime.   Contact us about our specialised Investigating Abuse in Care training courses.  

Abuse by Carers - Defining a Sad Reality

Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, March 01, 2017

It is quite clear that employers in aged, disability and other care environments do their best to keep staff and clients safe, yet one dark phenomenon that can raise its ugly head in care contexts is abuse by carers. For many complex reasons, vulnerable people such as the aged, children, and disability clients, can be abused by the very people who are entrusted with their wellbeing.

‘Abuse’ is a broad term that has developed multiple sub-definitions in recent decades. We have seen the basic idea of physical abuse making room for more complex forms such as emotional abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse and disability abuse. As Australia has witnessed via the recent Royal Commission, child sexual abuse has a truly distressing history. 
When an allegation of abuse by a carer arises, investigating the abuse objectively becomes a number one priority. Reportable conduct legislation is now developing across all states and territories; it is essential to understand definitional issues as reportable incidents arise.

Physical acts and omissions

Assault is perhaps the most common of the physical offences experienced in care environments. Rough handling of a client or patient can occur in any number of scenarios such as moving, changing, bathing, providing medication/ injections and feeding. And omissions such as failing to provide food, warmth, medication or post-fall assistance can also amount to offences of neglect. We often see this neglect as a form of abuse of the disabled or elderly. Feeding and changing neglect can also occur as a form of child abuse in care environments. Establishing what is truly accidental versus what is indisputably abusive is a very difficult task indeed.

The question of intent is certainly difficult, and investigations of abuse must weigh the elements involved in defining reportable conduct. For example, what appears at first glance to be abuse might turn out to be an accident or one-off omission.

Sexual abuse and manipulation

It goes without saying that children are one of the most vulnerable subsets of society, particularly in care situations (whether due to disability or family circumstances). Children are also frequently the target of sexual abuse or its precursor, grooming.

In almost all occasions of longer-term sexual abuse, the perpetrator undertakes a grooming process, designed to obtain the trust of the intended victim.
These behaviours can include paying undue attention to one specific care client, engaging in keeping secrets, purchasing gifts or trying to establish independent communication channels.

Once the grooming has taken place, and the abuse has commenced, the child or adult care client may act out, which is demonstrated by either an overtly hostile relationship with the carer (such as avoiding them or engaging in public conflict with them) or an unnaturally close relationship, which may be based on an attempt by the client to appease or satisfy the abuser.
 
The above red flags, identified by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, must be understood by workplace investigators in order to ensure that the most vulnerable potential victims are best protected.

Non-physical abuse by carers

Due to changing values in both public and private settings, the term ‘abuse’ now has a wider and more complex scope. Psychological, financial, and emotional abuse at the hands of carers is now a real hazard across multiple industrial contexts.

Some paid and unpaid carers of the aged, older children and the disabled have been known to trick, steal and/or cajole financial benefit from their charges. This can of course provoke angry and emotional responses from all parties involved, not least of which can be outrage from loved ones. One difficulty that investigators face is gathering material from a shaken and, in some cases, infirm victim. It is essential that specialist investigative expertise be employed in such cases.

High evidentiary standards

In the criminal realm, the evidentiary standard is quite high in cases of alleged criminal assault and/ or neglect by carers. Up-to-date legal advice on these and related issues is essential if a reportable incident is suspected.

For many employers who are made aware of alleged abuse by a carer, it can be hard not to react swiftly against this individual. However, all parties are entitled to be heard in a fair and unbiased way.
For example, an unexplained injury might not signify abuse by a carer, but an undiagnosed medical condition.

The ‘culprit’ might be assumed to be a carer who sees the elderly, disabled or young client each and every day. Yet transitory people in carer environments such as cleaners, aides and kitchen staff must also be carefully vetted whenever allegations of abuse surface during a workplace investigation. Investigators must resist the temptation to draw inferences or assumptions throughout the investigation.

Understanding the way abusers work and the nature and pressures on carers are critical for investigators. Knowing how to define and classify behaviour is a crucial component of determinations over abuse allegations.
These details and advice on what evidence to collect, and how to evaluate evidence are all covered in our new Investigating Abuse in Care course. Positions are still available for courses in March and May 2017. Book now to secure a seat! 

Investigating Complaints of Abuse by Carers

Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, February 22, 2017



When vulnerable individuals in our society are subjected to abuse by their carers, our response as a community is understandably one of outrage. It seems beyond belief that this could happen.But the sad reality is that some individuals within aged care facilities, disability care contexts, at home or in childcare centres can face abuse from the very people with whom they should feel entirely safe.

It is clear to us that employers and individuals within the care and community space want to know the best ways to identify, prevent and deal swiftly with allegations of abuse by carers. Accordingly, we closely examine definitional issues, NDIS implications, criminal factors and‘red flag’ phenomena such as unexplained injuries in care contexts. The often sinister and exploitative manifestations of financial abuse will also be placed under the spotlight.

As an organisation, Wise Workplace is passionate at about deploying our investigative, training and advisory resources for the purpose of enhancing work and community places. In this and upcoming articles,we’ll examine some of the complex challenges faced by investigators when allegations of abuse by carers arise.

Defining abuse, common offences and likely culprits 

Physical abuse can certainly be one of the more visual and confronting forms of abuse by carers. However, other less-obvious forms of abuse can be just as damaging and terrifying for the client involved.

Psychological and emotional abuse by carers can include violent anger, emotional manipulation and control strategies. And when discussing financial abuse by carers, the murky waters of ‘gift versus theft’ can be extremely difficult to traverse. Sexual abuse and manipulation also casts a shadow over care environments and the carer/ client relationship. As we have seen with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Australian children have historically suffered terrible assaults at the hands of so-called carers.

In terms of the more common offences, these can include common physical assaults such as rough-handling or scalding, misuse of restricted practices, and excessive and humiliating discipline. Less visible yet still horrendous acts of omission can amount to criminal negligence by a carer, such as threatening or failing to provide fluids or food. Yet despite the subject matter, investigators must take care to remain objective and fair throughout the entire course of an abuse investigation. 

NDIS complaints system 

We certainly all hope that the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) will ease some of the financial suffering and lifestyle challenges for disabled individuals. The vision of the NDIS has always been strong and simple – to enable Australians with a disability to curate what we all aspire to: an ‘ordinary life’.

Complaints connected to the newly-fledged system were of course inevitable. The NDIS complaints system enables participants to voice concerns both with their individual situation andthe broader scheme. Yet how effectively the NDIS complaints scheme works for individual situations is still somewhat uncertain. Certainly, those with a disability can lodge an NDIS complaint about a provider of care, but the most that can currently happen is the removal of the provider from the scheme list. 

In NSW, reportable incidents affecting a person with a disability in a residential facility are required to be investigated and reported to the Ombudsman for oversight. The legislation does not cover in-home services and does not come with a national or even state-based ‘suitability to work with disability services’ checking system, like the sister child protection legislation now effective in NSW, the ACT and Victoria. 

There are national reporting schemes in place for aged care service providers, but these have limited scope and there’s no effective mechanism for preventing a carer found to have been abusive from finding further employment as a carer. 

Ultimately while the system is improving, protection will come from prevention through good governance and policy, and effective investigation of incidents when they come to light. 

Criminal conduct – likely conviction in children’s services, aged and disability sector 

Many relationships within the children’s services, aged care, and disability sectors can develop unique complexities that arise as a result of dealing with dependence.Stress and isolation are just two issues that can affect both people with this vulnerability, and their carers. Yet it hardly follows that criminal conduct on the part of a carer can be excused due to the stressful nature of the job. Assault, fraud and theft can and do arise.

Not only is abuse grossly under reported by vulnerable people due to the relative power imbalance of the carer/client relationship, fear of reprisal, not being believed and the very real possibility of the service being removed, but their reports are not treated as being equal to those of their non-dependent counterparts. 

Significant challenges are faced by the young, elderly and disabled when trying to communicate their story, and in being believed. 

When faced with a complaint from a client of abuse or abhorrent conduct by an employee or carer,employers are often forced to confront the unbelievable.The first reaction can be disbelief, and this is swiftly followed by the search for some rational acceptable explanation for the report, injury or loss. 

When matters are reported to the police, the justice system is constrained by the requirement of a high standard of proof and convincing verbal evidence to be provided to support the physical evidence, if there is any. 

While this approach can be very effective at conviction where serious criminal offences have left unquestionable physical evidence, the myriad offences where very little or no conclusive physical evidence is left leaves the criminal justice system rather lacking. 

For the safeguarding of the vulnerable and the safety of carers, a skilled independent investigation of complaints by the service provider is paramount.

Grooming and sexual manipulation: identifying the warning signs

Recognising the hallmarks of grooming can radically increase the opportunity for service providers to eliminate sexual and financial abuse in care situations.
 
The inclusion of grooming as a set of behaviours in the NSW Reportable Conduct legislation is no accident. 
Common behaviours of grooming include showing special attention to one client over others, buying gifts and establishing often secret private communication networks. Tapping into our most basic human need to be loved, adults and children alike are vulnerable to this tactic. 

The aim of the abuser is to establish a perception of a special relationship that facilitates the request of favours that would otherwise be denied. These favours may be sexual or financial. 

Clear policy guidelines, recurrent education of carers about professional boundaries and the important role of bystander observation are all critical in preventing grooming in care situations. Often only possible in high trust relationships, grooming and abuse can flourish when alternate support and social systems are degraded through loneliness or isolation. 

The investigation of breaches of professional boundaries or grooming behaviour requires an intimate knowledge of this behaviour and careful consideration of the communication systems in place. 

Investigating unexplained injury in care facilities 

It goes without saying that injuries occur in all workplaces, not just the community sector. Yet there are certain injuries that can arise in care environments that understandably cause warning bells to ring for employers and loved ones alike.

Bruising to the head and upper body can be a clear sign that all is not well. Unexpected bed sores, scalds or unusual abrasions can also indicate that the ‘care’ in care facility might need immediate attention. 

Yet like the collection of any evidence, workplace investigators must be extremely careful not to jump to conclusions when an unexplained injury arises.

If we see a vulnerable individual with an injury, it is essential that facts be collated with a clear head. With the right investigation tools,careful and informed analysis of expert medical and other objective evidence,valuable decisions can be made.

Financial abuse: what does it look like?

For both professional and volunteer carers, there is no doubt that the task of caring can be rather thankless. As a result, the temptation to use power inappropriately for financial gain can be all too real. Minors can also be taken advantage of financially.

Financial abuse of those in a care situation can take on a number of forms. A Power of Attorney might be deployed in a manner that sees unexplained money disappear from a patient’s bank account. Aged, disabled and/or child clients can also be cajoled or tricked into signing documents that place their finances in peril. Sometimes a carer will suggest they ‘look after’ the patient’s sizeable home and then send them to live in poverty. 

At a more basic level, we sometimes simply see valuables and cash removed from rooms, or heavy-handed tactics being used on pension day to allow ATM access.  Emotional weapons are often deployed.

Abuse by carers – a fair investigation is crucial

Whether you need to inquire about the investigation of suspected abuse by a carer, want training around the issue, or are seeking advice on your safeguarding processes, Wise Workplace can provide a suite of solutions designed for your situation. 

Abuse against vulnerable children, the elderly and/or people with a disability unfortunately persists across society. However,safeguarding and investigation of alleged abuse by carers is an area of strength for us – give us a call.

What Does Child Protection Look Like in 2017?

Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, February 15, 2017

There is no doubt that the sobering outcomes of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse have caused Australian organisations to take stock of their child protection strategies. Investigating and preventing abuse in care has become a non-negotiable priority issue for many citizens and institutions across the nation. So what is the current state of play?

Abuse in Care: NSW initiatives

We reported in 2016 that the NSW legislature had made considerable headway into strengthening the state’s response to allegations of child abuse. NSW was the first state to draft and implement Reportable Conduct laws, which set out details of the types of events, behaviours and history that require reporting. This can include the insidious phenomenon of grooming conduct, whereby children are encouraged to trust a person who later engages in child abuse. Boundary violations are also one of the many behaviours that employers now must monitor. Last year, we also saw the powers and involvement of the NSW Ombudsmen gain traction, with better coordination of information around reports of child abuse in care

Child protection developments nation-wide

As we head into 2017, we are seeing some further promising action happening in other Australian states and territories. The ACT is leading the charge to stamp out child abuse, with the introduction of its own Reportable Conduct legislative scheme. Working off the NSW model, the ACT is embedding similar mandatory reporting mechanisms into the fabric of the territory government’s business-as-usual practices, yet as with NSW, there are inevitable challenges around information sharing across agencies.

Victoria has begun its own task of developing and implementing a range of up-to-date laws dedicated to fighting child abuse in care environments. The state is not as far advanced as the ACT in these initiatives, but there are positive signs that the state government will do what it can to improve information sharing within the bounds of privacy requirements.

Protecting against abuse in 2017 and beyond

The work ahead is considerable. As we can see, not all states and territories are currently on board with the necessary structures to counter child abuse. Yes, it is certainly a considerable task – to implement new legislation on reportable conduct, to link agencies more effectively and to update enforcement knowledge and skills. And for those employers investigating child abuse, any uncertainty around legal requirements can create unique investigative challenges. 

As the Royal Commission has painfully shown, no work is too arduous when it comes to protecting Australia’s children from abuse – and indeed protecting any vulnerable individual such as the elderly or disabled in institutional settings.

Harmonisation of anti-child abuse measures

One major outstanding task is the harmonisation of child protection legislation and policies around Australia. There is little hope of tightening the system if alleged perpetrators can simply cross borders into ‘’more relaxed” jurisdictions. COAG has ear-marked this coordination of child abuse responses as a priority area in 2017. We are hopeful that the council will show the necessary chutzpah to pull the states and territories into line on this urgent task of protecting children against abuse.

Even if the federal nature of Australian government makes Commonwealth measures difficult to implement in this space, harmonisation of separate schemes is far from impossible. There are many precedents demonstrating that the states can unify when the subject matter is sufficiently pressing. Surely this is perhaps the most pressing issue imaginable?

Investigating the abuse of children and other vulnerable people

At Wise Workplace, we help employers to monitor and investigate alleged abuse at the ground level. While various governments around Australia are doing their best to learn and act from the Royal Commission, we are determined to give every employer the opportunity to establish the strongest possible strategies against child abuse that they can – right now.

Whether you are seeking advice on workplace audits, workplace investigations into abuse of children or others, the current legal state-of-play on reportable conduct – or indeed all of the above, then please do not hesitate to give us a call.

We’re also excited to announce our first training offerings in NSW and Victoria on the particulars of the abuse in care schemes, successful investigations and some important steps to take in every workplace. We can’t emphasise how important this is for all employers to take on board. Make sure you book in soon, as numbers are limited. Hope to see you there!