Everyone has a role to play in keeping children and young people safe from harm.

Parents are usually the most important adults in a child’s life, but they are not the only adults who are responsible for children’s safety. Children should be safe in all the places that they live, grow, learn and play. This includes the home, the family, the community, the school and the services and places they visit and attend.

Children will be safest if everyone they encounter is committed to keeping them safe from harm. It is a shared responsibility.

Research and practice have found that community partnerships can help to keep children safe. These partnerships include other family members, friends, those that work with and encounter children and young people, and children and young people themselves. The responsibility for keeping a child safe from harm is shared with all these people and the institutions that they belong to and work for.

Building a network of committed and caring adults and children that look out for each other and give special attention to the protection of each child is probably the strongest guarantee of safety. Keeping children safe involves talking about safety with each child and every adult in their lives.

Preventing child sexual abuse involves strong measures that safeguard children and young people from harm and keeping them safe. Safeguarding is the process of preventing children’s exposure to and involvement in sexually abusive behaviours and environments. It helps prevent harm to a child’s physical health and development, and mental wellbeing.

Child safety and protection from sexual abuse came under the spotlight during the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that began in 2013. In the findings released in 2017, the Royal Commission stated that organisational leaders—CEOs and bishops, principals, managers, ministers or priests, team leaders and other practice leaders—must drive cultural change that improves safety, and better manage situational risks. It also highlighted the need to support the participation of children and young people in institutions, including by listening to what makes them feel safe or unsafe.

Need for cultural change

Preventing child sexual abuse requires the cultures of organisations to change. Sustainable change can occur when attitudes such as the following change: victim-blaming, lack of clarification of acceptable and unacceptable behaviours of adults, ignoring or tolerating breaches, and power imbalances where children and young people feel unable to speak up about abuse or concerns.

Prevention strategies can help address abuse in institutions. They can also address abuse within families, a risk factor in sexual, physical and emotional abuse, family violence and neglect. Different forms of abuse can all benefit from a public health approach that includes providing supports for parents and carers in a variety of settings and that combines universal and targeted positive parenting interventions to support and protect children.

All of us, including children and young people and their parents, need to understand the impact of authority, power and influence on decisions about relationships. This is particularly important for the decisions that we make involving intimate and physical interactions.

It is a myth that children who are knowledgeable of the mechanics of sex are more likely to be engaging in sex. Research tells us children who are well informed and comfortable in talking about sexuality with their parents are less likely to have intercourse when they are adolescents. In fact, lack of information poses greater risks.


Strategies to improve child safety

There are a range of strategies an organisation can employ to limit opportunities for grooming behaviour and child sexual abuse.

Helping children understand their rights

Every child is different and measures to keep them safe need to be appropriate to their age and stage of development. It is never too early to be thinking about child safety, and conversations need to continue right through childhood into adolescence and often adulthood. Adults can start to help children and young people build knowledge and awareness about their physical growth, their sense of safety and comfort.

As well as understanding how their bodies work, children and young people also need to know how power can influence their decisions about relationships. This is especially necessary for relationships involving intimate and physical interactions.

Foster child-safe organisational cultures and governances

To foster a culture and governance processes that are child safe, an organisation needs to move from a ‘reporting’ culture to a ‘responding’ culture. The aim is to foster an organisational culture where all adults take an active role in identifying and responding to risks to children’s safety (Irenyi et al., 2006).

A whole-of-organisation approach is needed to keeping children safe, with mechanisms that support—and respond appropriately to—disclosure of inappropriate behaviour, not just sexual abuse or grooming. Some of the practical steps can include:

  • Sharing clear definitions and understanding of child sexual abuse
  • Making the consequences of offending very clear
  • creating and publishing clear policies and procedures that are victim-centred (with regular training, review, monitoring and evaluation)
  • modelling behaviour from staff and workers that demonstrates how to set boundaries and raise concerns
  • responding appropriately to disclosure of abuse
  • addressing the consequences of offending
  • offering education programs for workers, children and families
  • providing education on the long-term impacts of sexual assault (Higgins et al., 2016).

Create safe environments

Child sexual abuse will often occur in situations where a would-be offender is able to spend time with a child alone and without the prospect of anyone else interrupting. By creating safe environments prevention of child sexual abuse is possible.

Safe environments that limit opportunities to groom and harm a child can prevent child sexual abuse. These measures, referred to as ‘situational crime prevention’ are an important role in keeping children safe. They prevent would-be abusers from grooming behaviour.

Educate staff

Adults (including teachers) who work with children and young people can play an important role in educating them on topics about respectful relationships, the mechanics of sex, inappropriate or sexualised behaviour, and how to prevent sexual abuse. Adults who respect and value children and young people create opportunities to teach them to respect and value others.

Adults need to be confident in their knowledge about a range of factors that can prevent child sexual abuse:

  • how to respond when a child discloses something
  • understanding grooming behaviour used by would-be abusers
  • understanding the protection offered when children and young people are in groups
  • value of role modelling behaviour in respectful relationships, consent sexual and gender expression
  • organisational policies and code of conduct.

Related articles

Organisational leadership

Protecting children from abuse in organisations needs leadership and cultural change.

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Children's views about safety

Organisations need to listen to children and young people about their safety concerns.

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It's leaders who are failing children

Organisational leaders need to learn from the past and implement safeguarding strategies revolution.

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Situational Crime Prevention

It’s not just about ‘weeding out’ potential offenders, it’s about the response of the whole organisation.

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This portal is aimed at people working in youth-serving organizations to help them better prevent and respond to harm to children.

If you would like to talk to a trained professional about what you’ve seen on the Portal, or need help, please call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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Further information

For further information on crisis responses and reporting child abuse and neglect, see: Australian Institue of Family Studies website.

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