The framework for protecting children in the UK is firmly rooted in legislation, policy and principles and there are people employed throughout the public sector to ensure that the law is adhered to and policies are implemented. However, as leading child protection expert Moira Murray said, as she opened up the discussion, safeguarding children is everyone’s responsibility.
Safeguarding children and vulnerable people is not just about preventing sexual or physical abuse: it is multifaceted covering the creation of a safe environment and ensuring that a child’s health and development are not impaired. For a corporate organisation, while avoiding harm should be the primary motivation, it should also be part of a company’s risk assessment process to prevent possible litigation and reputational damage.
A number of key steps were outlined. Organisations should:
- Assess whether the right policies are in place and where there are gaps, ensure that appropriate procedures are developed.
- Ensure that there is a culture of awareness amongst staff and managers of the importance of being committed to implementing these policies and to abiding by them – this is everyone’s responsibility if children and vulnerable people are to be kept safe.
- Ensure that safeguarding sits at the heart of the organisation so there is a real awareness of what is going on. If safeguarding is put in the HR function, it is separated from the operational areas where the risks exist.
- Ensure that staff are trained in recognising safeguarding concerns and what to do, who to speak to, if they occur.
- Ensure that appropriate and suitable people are recruited to the organisation. This was discussed at length in the debate as the recent changes to the threshold for DBS checks mean that businesses feel they are not be able to check all the employees who could pose a threat.
- Consider complex issues such as the use of children’s images in marketing and communication, parental consent, data protection as these should all be included within the safeguarding policy area.
Safeguarding children is a dynamic issue. The current safeguarding reviews and in particular the forthcoming Review of Historical Abuse, will almost certainly lead to statutory changes requiring a higher level of vigilance on the part of corporates.
Reporting child sexual abuse could become a mandatory responsibility. Such laws already exist in a number of American states and Canada, while in Australia, care professionals are required to report such concerns and failure to do so will result in a criminal prosecution. Last November, Keir Starmer, the former DPP made a call for similar legislation in the UK. It is expected that the forthcoming Dame Janet Smith Enquiry and the Review of Historical Abuse will support any such legislation.
If there is information about abuse, not knowing what to do will no longer be considered good enough. The logic of protecting employees against false accusations is particularly challenging. There is an overriding assumption that child protection trumps all other concerns and therefore the corporate’s instinct should be to report and investigate any allegations, while also protecting employee confidentiality.
Clear guidance and training so that people in the workplace know what to do is essential, but it is equally important that there is a proper understanding of the real risks so that the practices put in place are proportionate.
The majority of organisations felt that they still had more to do to ensure that their child protection and safeguarding procedures were in place.
The following areas were discussed:
Staff should be empowered so they know what the issues are and how to report any concerns. Young people should also be given a voice so they understand what is right, feel comfortable within the organisation and know how to raise a concern if they have one.
At the very least organisations should ensure that there is a knowledgeable person in the organisation who is clearly signposted and who must be informed in the case of any concerns about the well-being of a child. That person should ensure that they have the appropriate contacts with the statutory authorities.
Reporting channels must be seen to be appropriately responsive; issues raised must be treated seriously and carefully to ensure that there is confidence that the right actions will be taken if a concern is raised.
Having confidence that the policies are being properly implemented is crucial. Internal or external audits of policy implementation are recommended; there must be careful scrutiny of internal assessments to ensure accurate governance assurances are being given. Relying on a paper policy is inadequate and organisations must be checking that written policies are working in practice.
Some organisations, IT, technology and telecoms businesses for example, proactively work with schools to teach children how to protect themselves and stay safe. All organisations should at least consider the on-line risks for children that they interact with and ensure that they consider these risks and put in place good education for employees and directly to children, where appropriate.
Where third parties have any interaction with children, the adequacies of their safeguarding policies should be checked before entering into any agreement.
While enforcement may be hard to put in place, organisations should ensure that systems are implemented which will enable incidents to be properly dealt with and sanctions imposed where necessary.
Where organisations have employees with unsupervised contact with children that come above the threshold, the DBS screening systems are working. However the frustration is clear that many employees with infrequent or possible contact with children cannot be screened by the DBS. Criminal records checks may give a false sense of security and organisations should not be overly reliant on them.
The current focus on child protection in many high-profile cases in the UK is forcing corporates to consider whether they have adequate safeguards in place. Organisations need to start with a risk assessment to consider all the ways they might interact with children and ensure that they put in place policies which are proportionate and respond directly to the risks identified. Organisations should ensure that procedures and controls are put in place and monitored. However developing a good culture is key. Employees should be encouraged to take personal responsibility for the wellbeing of children they come into contact with. They should have a clear process to raise concerns and questions about child protection.
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