I want to use my opening statement today to speak about a matter of great importance to all of us– the safety of our children.
As Members will be aware, there has been significant community concern and public angst quite rightly – over recent matters that have come to light where historically children have not been safe in our Government institutions.
The vast majority of people who work, or have worked, in our Government Agencies – in these positions of great trust – do the right thing and place children’s safety as their highest responsibility. Unfortunately, there have been occasions when that trust was breached.
My Government has taken decisive action and is progressing three investigations that have relevance to child sexual abuse. Each Department involved is responding to different historical issues and circumstances:
- The Attorney-General, and the Minister for Health, implemented an independent investigation into the systems (including legislation, policies, practices and procedures) of the Tasmanian Health Service, Department of Health and other relevant Government Agencies in relation to the management of historical allegations of child sexual abuse particularly in the matter of deceased former nurse James Geoffrey Griffin;
- The Minister for Education commissioned an independent inquiry to examine whether the legislation, policies, practices and procedures (‘systems’) utilised by the Department of Education now, operate in a way that minimises the risk of child sexual abuse within Tasmanian Government Schools; and
- The Department of Communities became aware of historical allegations of abuse against current employees of the Ashley Youth Detention Centre through information provided to the State under the National Redress Scheme for people who have experienced institutional child sexual abuse (and / or through a common law negligence claim). This material identified issues with three staff who have been stood down pending investigation.
It’s very unfortunate that since these three separate bodies of inquiry have been instigated, on Friday last week I was briefed on further cases of historic allegations of child sexual abuse involving current Government employees.
I want to be very clear that the allegations are historical. They involve a teacher at a Northern school who has been stood down and charged; and a Statewide Mental Health services staff member who has been stood down subject to the outcome of criminal proceedings relating to an historic allegation that did not occur in the work environment.
Furthermore I expect that as more claims for redress are progressed there will be more shocking examples come to light.
It was expected that the National Redress Scheme established as a result of the Royal Commission could provide redress to up to 60,000 people nationally who are estimated to have been abused in institutions. It has been forecast that Tasmanian claims for redress could be around 2000 people of which around half are expected to relate to Tasmanian Government institutions.
Already more than 200 Tasmanian survivors of abuse have been offered payments of redress under the national scheme. Tasmanians must be aware and we should brace ourselves, that unfortunately we will see more examples of historic allegations of abuse relating to children come to light. This is the system working and we should welcome the fact that after so long a light is being shined on our unfortunate past.
I have great faith that our current processes and practices ensure higher safeguards and swifter action than was historically the case. Over a number of years significant systems have been implemented to protect our children and young people, for example in Tasmanian Government schools, including:
- Introducing the Registration to Work with Vulnerable People Registration Process and requiring all people who work in the Department of Education to hold a valid registration.
- Requiring teachers to be registered with the Teachers Registration Board, with teachers only gaining (and retaining) registration if they are of good character and fit to teach.
- Introducing legislative amendments to child safety legislation that provides all Department of Education employees with mandatory reporting obligations.
- Introducing a policy of reporting all allegations of inappropriate sexual activity with children and young people in Tasmanian Government schools to the Police, with staff under investigation being suspended from duty, pending the outcome of the any investigation.
Under section 14 of the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1997, ‘Mandatory’ reporting requires reporting to the Secretary of the Department of Communities Tasmania or a Community Based Intake Service. This applies to teachers, principals and any State Servant that provides health, welfare, education, child care or residential services for children where a reasonable suspicion or belief is held that a child has been or is being neglected or abused.
We have already undertaken a number of significant law reforms, such as implementing a new crime of failing to report child abuse; and we have changed the law to make sure organisations will be held vicariously liable for perpetration of child abuse by individuals whose relationship to the organisation is ‘akin to employment’.
In response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, this Government is progressing a range of work to ensure Tasmanian institutions (both Government and non-government) are Child Safe.
Of the 409 recommendations in the Royal Commission, 281 were relevant to state governments, and this Government accepted (either completely, or in principle) the majority of those recommendations – and in some cases we have diverged because we believe they should go further to protect children.
The Department of Justice in association with Communities Tas established the Child Abuse Royal Commission Response Unit to manage Tasmania’s implementation of the recommendations. The Unit works across three priority areas: a three-year Pilot Witness Intermediary Scheme, to assist children and vulnerable adults through the criminal justice process; implementing all legislative reforms arising from the recommendations of the Commission; and developing a Child Safe Organisations legislative framework.
The Attorney-General is overseeing the development of this Child Safe Legislative Framework for our State. It will incorporate the implementation of Child Safe Standards and a Reportable Conduct Scheme, and the first tranche of the Framework will be put out for public consultation in the coming weeks.
The Government reports on implementation of all recommendations of the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse annually. A further progress report is scheduled for release on 15 December 2020.
Despite these and other significant efforts across Government, I am concerned that as the number of allegations coming to light continues to grow we must take every step necessary to ensure we identify any systemic gaps and put in place measures to fill them.
This situation is nothing short of terrible and we must take further action. I believe one of our greatest responsibilities is to learn from the past, and commit to not repeating its mistakes.
I have spoken to Her Excellency, the Governor and informed her that I intend to recommend that she establish a Commission of Inquiry under the Commissions of Inquiry Act 1995 to investigate the responses of Tasmanian Government Agencies in relation to the management of historical allegations of child sexual abuse. The Inquiry will, commence in early 2021.
One of the key reasons I have come to the decision to recommend the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry, is the power of that Inquiry to compel witnesses to provide evidence.
This Inquiry will complement, not substitute, the work of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The Agency-specific investigations currently underway will continue until the Commission of Inquiry is established. All information gathered will then be rolled into the Commission of Inquiry. Discussions with the three eminent people who head up the current Health and Education inquiries will be held this week in relation to a transition to the Commission of Inquiry.
I will be taking advice on the Terms of Reference for the Inquiry over coming weeks and will be recommending final Terms of Reference and the names of the Commissioners to Her Excellency in due course. I expect the Commission will take approximately twelve months to complete.
There is no more important task for any Government than to ensure the safety and well-being of our children and while I cannot change the past, I am committed to my Government making a difference for the future.
Chair, members of the Committee, thank you for your indulgence while I have spoken about this vitally important matter. I look forward to sharing more details publicly once I have spoken to her Excellency once again.