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The Importance of Canberrans Understanding Their Obligation to Report Suspected Child Abuse

Thank you, Madam Speaker, and I thank Mr Petterson for raising this matter of public importance in the Assembly today. This matter refers specifically to the new legal obligation, effective from 1 September this year, that anyone over 18 years old in the ACT who reasonably believes that a sexual offence has been committed against a child must make a report to the police. This is a consequence of a recent amendment to the Crimes Act, with section 66AA now outlining this offence and providing for a maximum penalty of imprisonment for two years.

I and the Canberra Liberals supported this amendment and others that have been devised based on recommendations made by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. We have supported these amendments, Madam Speaker, because we are fully committed to the protection of children and young people in this territory.

Speaking personally, I believe that my record when it comes to matters of child protection should be abundantly clear. I raised concerns in this chamber that this government’s Family and Personal Violence Amendment Bill may not adequately protect children. I asked the minister to work with nationally recognised and accredited organisations in order to provide all first-time parents and other primary caregivers with information packets that address how to recognise and protect against child sexual abuse – something she hasn’t implemented despite supposedly agreeing in principle. On many occasions, I have raised concerns about the safety and wellbeing of children and young people in youth detention and in residential care homes.

And I have repeatedly called on this government to implement measures that would strengthen the quality of decision-making in the care and protection system by allowing for external review of decisions affecting some of the territory’s most vulnerable kids. I raised this issue again just last Wednesday. The importance of getting this area right is underscored by the fact that the single greatest cohort that contacted the Royal Commission to report having experienced sexual abuse were those who had been abused in some form of out-of-home care.

And now with the legislation having gone into effect three weeks ago, it is important, as Mr Petterson has noted, that all adult Canberrans understand their obligations to report if they reasonably believe that a child is experiencing sexual abuse. The responsibility of the ACT Government to make this understanding happen is enormous, as noted clearly in the Analysis Report prepared by the Honourable Justices Julie Dodds-Streeton and Jack O’Connor and released in January this year.

First, though, it is important to point out that Canberrans overwhelmingly want to do the right thing when it comes to reporting abuse. The Analysis Report states that, quote, ‘Stakeholders, including ACT Policing and the Community Services Directorate, have informed us of the ACT community’s general willingness to report and the high level of compliance with mandatory reporting obligations’.[1] This includes ACT Policing’s finding that, quote, ‘religious institutions … are now very proactive in reporting and responding to child sexual abuse’.[2] I wish to take this opportunity, Madam Speaker, to sincerely congratulate and thank Canberrans for their eagerness to comply with child safety measures. No doubt they are also prepared to comply with the new requirements as well once they understand what their obligations are.

This is actually a central point in Justices Dodds-Streeton and O’Connor’s analysis. As the report points out, the ‘“failure to report” offence is the only scheme that potentially requires a person who may not be professionally or occupationally qualified or in a managerial position, to report’.[3] Consequently, it becomes essential that, quoting again, ‘such an obligation to report be clear and readily comprehensible. The wide range of persons subject to potential criminal liability would be entitled to clarity as to its preconditions’.[4] If this obligation is not made clear, some people may not understand their obligations. An opposite risk is that some will misunderstand their obligations.

This second risk was raised with the justices by both law enforcement and the CSD. I again quote from the Analysis Report: ‘ACT Policing, and the Community Services Directorate all referred to the problem of over-reporting, which was increasing’.[5] Over-reporting occurs when people who do not clearly understand their obligations become, in the words of ACT Policing ‘hyper-vigilant’[6] and, to quote the CSD, begin to ‘panic’,[7] choosing to lower the reasonable threshold for when a report is actually called for. Such a situation can result in an exaggerated number of frivolous reports that deteriorate the quality of information and end up diverting limited resources from genuinely needy areas of child protection.[8]

For this reason, ACT Policing recommended that this new legislation be accompanied by, quote, ‘adequate resources and education packages to reduce confusion’.[9] In a similar vein, the Community Services Directorate, and I quote again, ‘noted that education will be very important in addressing problems in this context’.[10] The justices went on to point out that existing education resources within the directorate ‘could mitigate over-reporting, but they would need to be revised’ in order to fulfil this purpose.[11]

What this all means, Madam Speaker, is that if Canberrans are to ‘understand their obligation to report suspected child abuse’, as raised by Mr Petterson, this is a responsibility that rests fully with this government. What remains to be seen is whether the Barr Government can be trusted to engage in the education campaign that this new law demands. My strong suspicion at this point, Madam Speaker, is that very few adult Canberrans understand what is now required of them in the way that Justices Dodds-Streeton and O’Connor, ACT Policing and the Community Services Directorate have all warned is necessary.

The language used by Mr Petterson today already suggests that he in fact may not understand the new legislation. He has suggested that Canberrans have a legal ‘obligation to report suspected child abuse’, but the threshold of suspicion was rejected in the Analysis Report specifically because of the risk it posed for engendering hypervigilance and panic, and section 66AA of the Crimes Act has been drafted specifically to avoid this risk. The Canberra Liberals will certainly be watching for evidence that those opposite have taken seriously the warnings and recommendations in the Analysis Report and that they are fulfilling their responsibility to educate the public with the necessary clarity.

Another necessary component of Canberrans understanding their obligations, Madam Speaker, is their ability to trust this government to respond correctly when reports are made. This is a matter that is raised in the 2016 Glanfield Inquiry. In his report, Mr Glanfield noted, quote, ‘one issue that arose repeatedly during the Inquiry’s consultations was the lack of feedback provided to mandated reporters’.[12] In the absence of appropriate feedback, people – rightly or wrongly – assume they haven’t been taken seriously. This can result in either a reduction in reporting or an increase, where people continue to report the same matter on the assumption that nothing is being done.[13] In the past, Madam Speaker, this has been a problem that has faced only mandated reporters, but with all adults in the territory now required to report, it will be increasingly important that this problem of feedback be fixed.

Finally, Madam Speaker, I note in a very serious way that a government that expects its citizens to report the abuse of a child needs to be seen as capable of dealing with those reports. As we are all to aware, there have been instances in this territory where parents, step-parents, educators and others have raised concerns that have failed to protect a child. It is my deepest wish that this government put into place the mechanisms necessary to, as far as possible, eliminate the possibility of this happening again.

In conclusion, Madam Speaker, I again thank Mr Petterson for bringing this matter of public importance before the Assembly today. It is indeed important, and I look forward to seeing the Barr Government fulfil its responsibility to make sure that Canberrans clearly understand the law that has come into effect and can act in a way that will genuinely protect children. Thank you.

[1] Julie Dodds-Streeton and Jack O’Connor, ‘Analysis Report: implementation of Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recommendations regarding the reporting of child sexual abuse, with implications for the confessional seal’, 14 Jan. 2019, p. 21.

[2] Ibid., p. 49.

[3] Ibid. p. 17.

[4] Ibid., p. 77.

[5] Ibid., p. 17.

[6] Ibid. p. 21.

[7] Ibid., p. 70.

[8] Ibid., p. 21.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 70.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Laurie Glanfield, ‘Report of the Inquiry: review into the system level responses to family violence in the ACT’, Apr. 2016, p. 67

[13] Ibid., p. 70.

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