Ms RYALL (Ringwood) — I rise to speak on the Working with Children Amendment Bill 2016. I note that the opposition does not oppose the bill. Essentially the main provisions broaden the definition of direct contact with children and also essentially remove the exemption from the working with children check scheme of supervised contact with children, which implements recommendation 9 of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The bill gives powers to the Secretary of the Department of Justice and Regulation if a person actually fails to provide the required information. It also provides for additional powers — or a new power, if you like — for the secretary so that the required information and the relevant information for monitoring compliance can be compelled to be provided.
In addition to that, from a kinship carer perspective — and we have just heard about that — family members will apply for and undergo volunteer checks in terms of those already conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services where family members have been given the care of children in that kinship role.
In returning to debate on the Working with Children Amendment Bill 2016, I say that the highest priority of any government and certainly the highest priority of members of Parliament is community safety — the safety of the people in Victoria. Up there with that is the safety of children. In terms of working with children checks, that really is going and has gone to the heart of trying to create a situation where children are protected, and rightly so. Sexual offences against children are the most abhorrent and disgusting offences. All children are vulnerable. They are trusting, they seek guidance and advice, love, comfort and engagement from adults. What they do not know about and what they do not expect are offences and abhorrent behaviours from those adults that they trust.
Working with children checks have always had the child’s rights and the child’s safety and the child’s protection at the forefront, and trust is therefore needed. This bill goes further towards strengthening that. I think as parliamentarians, as legislators, our job is always to look, to listen and to identify areas where we can strengthen legislation that protects people and most certainly protects children.
In terms of implementation of the national model for strengthening legislation around working with children, obviously the Parliament of Victoria, in terms of the government and the opposition, would be interested and keen to make sure that we fit in with that national model, as is the requirement for us and as is the requirement for other states and territories. Also, for issues such as where kinship comes in — in any care situation where people are involved in caring for children, in working with children — making sure that those checks are implemented for these people as well is obviously important.
I think in a changing world, in a changing society, we see obviously a much greater emphasis on technology, electronic communication and communication with children that is not person‑to‑person in reality but may be person‑to‑person through technological means and electronic means. Therefore in making sure that our children are secure and safe when interacting online with those that are teaching or interacting with them in a professional capacity as well, and in a caring capacity, be it online or through technology, making sure that those people also go through the working with children checks is vital because we live in a world where, whilst electronic technology is fabulous — it enables us to do amazing things — technology can also be used for evil, and that evil can be predatory behaviour towards children. Therefore, in the same vein as person‑to‑person contact, whether that be teaching, at creches, at kindergartens or at kids groups or organisations where interaction with children occurs, we need to make sure that those safeguards are in place for people who are interacting with those children in a professional capacity through technological and online means.
The other thing is, I think, the enforcement. Having come from a healthcare background myself originally but also as an auditor of organisations across the board and certainly organisations that impact children, knowing that those checks and balances are in place is often an assurance and an insurance for children. But I guess something that I have wondered about from time to time is the adequacy of those checks in their ability to delve further as needed on those checks — to make sure that there is possible identification of someone who may be a predator or, as may be the case, may be involved in suspicious behaviour or activities where others may be concerned. The ability to compel further information to be provided, I think, is a positive step absolutely in terms of making sure any further inquiries and further assurances can be provided in the name of safety and protection of our children.
Being a mother, you always try to see the good in people. Certainly with those people who teach your children, who provide care to your children and who interact with your children, as a parent you want to be sure. You want to know that the people who are interacting with your child are actually pure in the sense of not having any ulterior motives in that. Whilst we give other people the benefit of the doubt, I guess what you are always looking for is some protection, and I think as legislators it is our job to make sure that vulnerable people are protected in that sense and are, if you like, firewalled from the behaviour of those who might actually seek to harm their kids.
The scars that people endure we certainly saw through the Betrayal of Trust report and certainly through the hearings of that inquiry, and I expect it is similar with the commonwealth royal commission. There are heartbreaking stories of children who have been exposed to those who have groomed them or to those who have offended against them sexually and have perpetrated horrid and abhorrent crimes upon children. Children need protection. Our job, where society is not always able to offer protections, is to actually step in and legislate and to step in in a proactive way, from a preventative perspective. Certainly working with children checks have been put in as a preventative program — as a preventative check and balance to make sure that those who may interact with children are actually vetted properly beforehand.
I guess one thing that has also not concerned me but that I have queried in my mind are the ongoing checks. In between those working with children checks, if there is an opportunity or if a person has undertaken an abuse of a child or an abuse of trust in any circumstance, how does that information then actually come back to the employer? I guess it is one of those conundrums that we look at and say, ‘Okay, for a period of time, when you need to report, as well as producing further evidence that there have not been any wrongs in the first place, we must make sure that anything might be picked up in a timely manner’. At the end of the day, as I said earlier, prevention is what we aim for. Working with children checks are about prevention, and we must protect our children.