Sports and the new child safety laws

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It is vitally important for sports bodies to be aware of the changes and the practical steps they can take to ensure compliance with Child Safe Standards and amendments to the Working with Children Check regime.

Among the harrowing case studies referenced in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, it emerged that not only is sport not immune, but had experienced systemic failures of its own. Subsequent to the Royal Commission, Victoria has been at the forefront of implementing statutory changes which, in the interests of protecting children, have potentially significant implications for sporting bodies from the national, state and down to club level.

Statutory changes to the Child Wellbeing and Safety Act and Working with Children Act

The two pertinent Victorian statutory changes (to date) in this area involve the implementation of Child Safe Standards under the Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2005 (Vic) and amendments to the Working with Children Check regime under the Working with Children Act 2005 (Vic). While each change alone is not a cure-all solution to preventing and avoiding child abuse, the Victorian government has taken steps to address the problem in a manner that applies to, and involves, sports organisations.

As Victorian initiatives, these changes have the potential to impact national sports organisations based in the state, the various state sports associations, down to associations and clubs operating throughout the community. While ideally more stringent statutory compliance requirements in the child safety space will lead to a reduction in child abuse, they are only effective if applicable organisations are aware of their obligations, and organisations comply with the relevant requirements. For this reason, it is vitally important for sports to be aware of the changes, and the practical steps they can take to ensure compliance.

The Child Safe Standards requirements and Working with Children Check

The Child Safe Standards1 which have applied to Victorian sports organisations since 1 January 2017, are a set of seven requirements that look to improve the level of child safety within organisations that provide services for children. There are principles for compliance, including that entities are responsible for continuously improving ways in which the safety of children is promoted, child abuse is prevented and allegations of child abuse are properly responded to.

The Standards relate to child-safe policies, the adoption of a code of conduct, implementation of screening and supervision, processes for responding to suspected child abuse and strategies to identify and reduce risk of child abuse. While some of the Standards require a particular document to be in place, others may be complied with by implementing strategies or ensuring the entity carries out certain procedures.

Similarly, changes to the Working with Children Check (WWCC) regime commenced in Victoria on 1 August 2017. The definition of “direct contact” was updated to include oral, written or electronic communications with children, while the supervision exception was removed, requiring a person to hold a WWCC whether or not they are supervised by another person holding a WWCC.

Knowing your obligations

Practical benefits for the community will only arise where the obligations are known and met. In the federated sporting context, this can be particularly challenging where the national sport organisation (which may not be based in Victoria) has resources (both financial and human capital), but in many respects is furthest from on the ground feedback.

It is common for sporting participants to engage directly with their local club, association or league. It is therefore these organisations, many of which are incorporated associations with limited or finite resources, that are most heavily impacted by the child safety changes, and have the most to gain through correct implementation of the new requirements.

There are boundless examples where well-intentioned conduct at the club level, while risk-free for most individuals, may cause issues for a small minority. Take for example the coach of a club’s u/15 team who privately messages the fixture to each player. While this may have occurred for years with no reported issue, there are certainly a number of red flags that arise under today’s regulatory framework, and having renewed knowledge of common first steps or “warning signs” in child abuse cases.

This is but one example evidencing how, without proper information or guidance from national sports organisations, government departments and sports industry bodies, clubs and associations at the grassroots level not only risk breaching their statutory obligations, but exposing their child participants to unnecessary risks.

What steps should clubs and associations take?

The first step, for any club and association representatives is to check with your committee to ascertain whether your organisation is aware of the changes, and the practical steps necessary to comply.

For national and state sports bodies, the top-down approach must clearly articulate the responsibilities of clubs and what steps they can put in place to comply with their requirements. It is imperative that sports take responsibility for ensuring the grassroots is aware of how to achieve the positive intentions of the recent child safety reforms.

1 See Part 6 of the Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2005 (Vic)

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