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.