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

Ms GRALEY (Narre Warren South) — It is a bittersweet pleasure to rise to speak on the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Child Safe Schools) Bill 2015. But it is a pleasure to follow in the footsteps of so many members of Parliament who have spoken on this bill so eloquently and with a passion to improve the lives of so many people who have been or will be — and I hope it will not be so many people in the future — affected by the heinous crime of child abuse.

It was especially important to hear the words of the new member for Oakleigh in relaying his passion for this cause, because he has followed in the very big footsteps of his predecessor as member for Oakleigh, Ann Barker, who worked arduously and doggedly to make sure these issues of child abuse were heard by many members of this Parliament.

The then Premier — and I acknowledge the words of the member for Burwood, who said it was former Premier Baillieu who established the inquiry — took her advice in establishing the inquiry, although maybe it was not what she thought it would be in the first place. However, the committee brought to the Parliament an amazing report in the Betrayal of Trust report.

In case members have not read it, it makes for disturbing reading and it just shows all of us that when you come to this place as a member of Parliament what important work you can do as a member of the government or otherwise in making legitimate, important and hopefully effective changes to legislation that result in child abuse being diminished.

Sadly I do not think it is ever going to go away, but we can provide a legislative framework that can be effective in reducing the amount of child abuse occurring in our community.

The hallmarks of this bill are that it is both comprehensive and inclusive. It deals with only two recommendations from the Betrayal of Trust report. As my friend the member for Broadmeadows mentioned, many recommendations were made in the Betrayal of Trust report that was tabled during the 57th Parliament, and action on them all needs to come to this Parliament as soon as possible. We should not be dillydallying with this stuff; action on all of the recommendations needs to come before us. I note that this bill is in many respects a version of a bill that lapsed at the end of the last Parliament. It is good to see that on the 103rd day of this government we are debating this bill in the house.

As I said, this is a comprehensive and inclusive bill. The Minister for Education said that the aim of these reforms is to get every school to ask what it can do to reduce the risk of child abuse occurring in its organisation. I say again that this bill is comprehensive. For me, abuse is abuse. It can take all sorts of shapes and forms, but abuse is abuse. The Betrayal of Trust report notes the multidimensional character of child abuse. On page 128 it says:

… the national data produced by the AIHW for 2011–12 … indicates that approximately 12 per cent of all substantiated forms of harm that occur are child sexual abuse. Emotional child abuse and neglect occur at higher rates, with criminal child physical abuse occurring in approximately 21 per cent of all cases. In Victoria specifically, the incidence of child abuse with substantiated notifications in 2011–12 was:

sexual abuse — 10 per cent

physical abuse — 29 per cent

emotional abuse — 54 per cent

neglect — 7 per cent.

The statistics are appallingly high. It just shows you the multidimensional character of this abuse.

Accordingly this bill covers a broad range of conduct and behaviours which by any standards are unacceptable and very much unappreciated by community members. Even if some of this stuff is on the borderline of lawful or unlawful behaviour, if there is any doubt at all, we should just say no; we should send a very clear message by saying no.

I would also like to comment on the fact that this bill applies to all schools, both non-government and government. I note that recent hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse have made a very similar finding to that of the Betrayal of Trust report about the historical prevalence of abuse in educational institutions.

As a number of speakers have said, when you drop your child at the school gate you expect them to be able to go in there and get a great education in a very safe, supportive and loving environment. We must make sure that when any one of us drops our kids off at school we are not putting them into the hands of somebody with some awful and disgusting plans for them that day.

The royal commission has noted that the highest prevalence of historical abuse allegations have occurred at faith-based educational institutions. I know there are members of this Parliament who send their children to faith-based institutions thinking that they are safer there than elsewhere because the staff have strong religious beliefs of some description. However, the fact of the matter is that overwhelmingly these are places where children have been unsafe. That is a terrible thing to have to put on the record, but it is the fact of the matter.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has also cited research that states that up to half of the non-government schools surveyed had no guidelines in place for dealing with allegations of abuse involving school employees. This is why this bill is so important: it makes sure that all non-government schools, as well as government schools, are compliant. The minister will have some oversight to make sure that all schools have guidelines and practices in place so they are the safest places possible.

We all know that if a child is abused, the effect of that abuse does not just disappear. They wear and bear it for a very long time. Sadly, for some that time is short because the pain and angst of that experience is so terrible. We also know that children who are abused are often overrepresented in mental health facilities and prisons. This bill is about making sure that we stop children being abused in the first place so we do not have to look further down the track and ask how we can deal with their problems, because often it is too late.

I want to finish by saying that overwhelmingly schools are safe places and they are great places. I was a student welfare coordinator and the hardest thing I ever had to do was to report students to the then Department of Human Services. I remember sitting there thinking, ‘Should I do this? What will be the repercussions of my decision to report this poor child and their family to Human Services for investigation?’. But in the end, as I think all members in this house would agree, it is the child who must come first. I think this legislation takes a very good step in the right direction. But I agree with the member for Broadmeadows that there is more to come, and I hope it comes quickly.

With this legislation we are taking a very good, productive and historic step — and I gather that all members agree on this — towards making sure that every child who goes to school in Victoria is in the safest, most loving hands and can learn and grow up to fulfil their potential in life and become a great citizen of Victoria.