Second Reading: Education and Training Reform Amendment (Child Safe Schools) Bill 2015

Mr HIBBINS (Prahran) — It is with a sense of great responsibility that I speak for the Greens on the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Child Safe Schools) Bill 2015. This bill represents one of the final steps in enacting the recommendations of the Family and Community Development Committee report entitled Betrayal of Trust — Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Non-Government Organisations

This step enacts in law the ability of the Minister for Education to make a ministerial order setting child-safe standards as a requirement of a school's registration. It also empowers the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority (VRQA) to not register a school or to suspend or cancel a school's registration should it not meet the requirements, enhances the VRQA's ability to conduct a review into a school's compliance with registration standards and allows the VRQA to impose conditions on a school's registration so as to enable it to meet registration standards.

This bill stems from recommendation 12.1 of the Betrayal of Trust report:

That the Victorian government review its contractual and funding arrangements with education and community service organisations that work with children and young people to ensure they have a minimum standard for ensuring a child safe environment …

It is also derived from recommendation 16.1:

That the Victorian government review the current Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) procedures for responding to allegations of all forms of criminal child abuse within all Victorian schools and identifies a benchmark that could be applied more broadly to non-government schools.

I note that in the second-reading speech for the bill the Minister for Education acknowledged the further work that is to be done to fully implement these recommendations, including further consultation on the ministerial order.

This bill and the Betrayal of Trust report and recommendations are part of Victoria's response to one of the great outrages and scandals of our time — that is, the sexual abuse of children, the neglect, the cover-up and the inadequate response by individuals and organisations which were trusted to care for children. As stated in the report, the sexual abuse of children has always been considered a crime and abhorrent in our society. The abuse committed by individuals in positions of trust and power in these organisations, the actions taken by organisations that allowed this abuse to occur, the cover-ups and protection of the offending organisations' narrow interests and the failure to uphold justice, society's values and the rights of victims have damaged lives, damaged families and damaged our society as a whole. By hearing the stories of victims, by giving them the opportunity to share their stories, by holding these organisations to account for their actions and by shining a light on this outrage, we will go some way to healing the damage caused.

Victoria's implementation of the recommendations of the Betrayal of Trust report and the enacting of laws to protect children from sexual and physical abuse will go a long way to ensuring that such systemic abuse does not occur again and that the protection of children is made paramount. Our schools should be places where children are safest, but this has not always been the case. Society places trust in the organisations and people that run schools, including the teachers, principals and staff, but it has been within schools run by religious organisations where child abuse and cover-ups have occurred. Through submissions made to it the committee found that 39 per cent of reported abuse occurred in schools. As the report states, the committee heard accounts of cruel physical and psychological treatment perpetrated by members of a number of religious orders in Catholic schools. Victims reported abuse to members of the religious organisations, but either no action was taken or the victims were physically punished. The abusers had the confidence to continue abusing without being held to account.

This bill recognises that all schools must have policies in place to protect children from abuse and that all schools have a duty to protect children. The inquiry's report states that currently in Victoria there is no legislative requirement for non-government organisations to comply with their duty of care to protect children by establishing preventive policies. This bill will assist in remedying this situation in respect of non-government schools.

This bill also addresses the importance of recognising child abuse and reporting allegations to authorities. Currently we have an unacceptable situation whereby Catholic or independent schools could investigate an allegation of child abuse but be under no compulsion to inform the police or handle the allegation in a way that is consistent with best practice or community standards.

A key authority the government has over independent and Catholic schools is in regard to registration. This is a vital safeguard and check of school standards. This law will assist in ensuring that all schools are required to act in the best interests of children and the community.

As with previous bills that have come before this Parliament in response to the recommendations contained in Betrayal of Trust, these laws will go a long way to ensuring that children within schools and institutions are safe, that such widespread sexual and physical abuse does not occur and that organisations do not cover up, dismiss or enable such abuse.

I place on the record the Greens' acknowledgement of the victims and families who came forward to tell their stories, often for the first time. In having the courage to come forward, they spoke for many who could not and in doing so have helped to change the law to protect children from the abuse they suffered — a protection they did not have.

I also acknowledge the members of the 57th Parliament's Family and Community Development Committee whose work has made this report's recommendations and now laws possible. The Greens support this bill and wish it a speedy passage through the other place.