It is one of society’s great shames that our most vulnerable individuals are often open to abuse by those entrusted with their care. However, it is somewhat edifying to know that stringent legal and regulatory measures are in place in Australia to ensure that employers and others act quickly when allegations arise of abuse in care.
In the case of issues involving children, organisations such as the Ombudsman mandate that ‘reportable conduct’ must be swiftly acted on by employers. In particular, a thorough investigation must be made into the situation to determine whether allegations of abuse in care have been substantiated.
It is also important to note that organisations involved in regular contact with children are required to have proactive and preventative measures in place. After all, there is no more important issue in society than the protection of vulnerable individuals.
what is reportable conduct
Across Australian states and territories there is general uniformity in the way in which ‘reportable conduct’ is defined and applied. Section 25A(1) of the Ombudsman Act NSW defines reportable conduct as:
- Any sexual offence or sexual misconduct committed against, with or in the presence of a child – including a child pornography offence.
- Any assault, ill-treatment or neglect of a child.
- Any behaviour that causes psychological harm to a child – even if the child consented to the behaviour.
It is apparent that the legislation targets all manner of abuse, including sexual, physical and psychological. The net is wide and for good reason: any employee or other associate of an organisation who crosses the bounds of propriety and trust with a child should and will be held accountable for their actions. The legislation also covers situations of alleged consent by the child to the behaviour. There can be no doubt that the imbalance of power inherent in these situations is taken into account under the legalisation.
substantiating reportable conduct
While it is essential that inappropriate conduct be reported, facts must first be verified. Upon being notified of allegations related to child abuse, employers must ensure that a professional and objective investigation takes place. If there is insufficient expertise to carry out this serious task, expert advice and investigative services should be sourced externally.
Once the workplace investigation has concluded, the employer will be provided with a report which indicates whether reportable conduct has in fact been established.
Report to which body?
For employers it can be a little confusing to know which conduct to report – as well as who exactly to report issues to. This is in part because Australia has clear distinctions between states, territories and the Commonwealth, and in the field of reportable conduct there are subtle changes to be aware of. The Australian Institute of Family Studies has compiled a Resource Sheet that explains the different reporting requirements across jurisdictions, including the right body to approach in the context of an employer’s place of business.
Discipline and internal procedures
Once there is a finding that reportable conduct has in fact occurred, attention then turns to the questions of what disciplinary measures might be appropriate in a given context. These will vary in strength and reach. For example, conduct that is substantiated but is of a lower gravity – such as slapping a child’s hand for example – might be met with a requirement for training and/or a reprimand by the employer. More serious abuse of a child could lead to the dismissal of the employee and/or criminal charges being founded.
It is crucial that employers within child-related areas train their staff on the nature and consequences of reportable conduct, in addition to having robust procedures in place for dealing with such unfortunate situations. Some larger organisations such as the Department of Education will have quite extensive material and processes in this area. Yet for smaller businesses and organisations, it is vital to understand reportable conduct and to educate staff around this pressing issue. There are serious legal consequences for an organisation and its staff concerning the failure to identify and report child reportable conduct.
WISE provides Investigating Abuse In Care training, which is specifically developed for organisations dealing with vulnerable clients. Alternatively, we are highly experienced at investigating reportable conduct matters, through our investigation services.