25th May, 2022 10:10 am
Child advocacy campaigners want teachers to get compulsory abuse recognition training and to sharpen the Children’s Act so that it is “feared” like health and safety laws.
Stuff approached a number of leading child advocates, political figures and people involved in the education sector after revealing that teachers and daycare staff have no legal obligation to pass on their fears to agencies.
That gap in the law was revealed in the wake of the appalling deaths of two 5-year-olds, Malachi Subecz and Ferro-James Sio.
* Two murdered children, two daycares who knew of abuse – but no law to report it
* All Government departments under review after murder of 5-year-old Malachi Subecz
* Children’s Minister Kelvin Davis wants answers from Oranga Tamariki over murdered 5-year-old
In both cases the abuse that later saw both children murdered was known about by a daycare and Kohanga Reo respectively.
Safeguarding Children chief, Willow Duffy, said that while mandatory reporting “can seem like an effective solution”, it’s not that simple.
“It can create a deluge of reports that do not constitute abuse,” she said.
“The reality is that without an effective and well resourced system around mandatory reporting, Oranga Tamariki could become so overwhelmed that cases could go unaddressed for long periods of time, potentially leaving the children at risk or in a more vulnerable situation than before.”
According to both Duffy and Child Matters chief Jane Searle, a more effective strategy would be training teaching staff to more accurately spot the signs of abuse.
Searle said that not only are New Zealand teachers not obliged to report concerns, “they do not have the training to detect it”.
“Legislation requiring mandatory reporting and training for teachers and other professionals who are working with children, would remove the confusion and help increase the number of professionals who know how to respond appropriately,” she said.
“There are many factors that contribute to child abuse and many of them are not easy or quick fixes.
“The introduction of mandatory training and reporting would be a simple and effective change to implement to help protect our most vulnerable tamariki. The Government needs to listen and work quickly to close this gap in legislation.”
Duffy said part of the problem was the Children’s Act 2014, “a weak, forgotten piece of legislation that could seriously contribute to the prevention, recognition and response to child abuse and neglect”.
She said for that legislation to help ensure children are safe, it needs to “become as relevant and feared by organisations as the health and safety legislation”.
“Currently, there is no carrot and no stick,” she said.
“I am calling for a full review of The Children’s Act to ensure it includes mandatory child protection training for anyone who provides services for children and young people.
“It is mandatory training for anyone, not just early child education teachers, who works or volunteers with children rather than mandatory reporting that will make the difference.”
Duffy said their organisation has provided training to more than 35,000 people on how to recognise and report child abuse, and that their survey of participants sheds some light on the issues at the frontline.
She said that over 12 years they hear the same concerns raised ahead of the training: Fear of getting it wrong, fear of making it worse for the child, concerns over losing their relationship with the child and family, fear of breaking the law, getting into trouble at work and fears for their own safety.
“When we survey people after the training the top response is that “nothing would stop me,” she said.
“Crucial to preventing and intervening early in child abuse is mandatory training. The sad fact is that due to the partnership between Safeguarding Children and Sport New Zealand is that there are lifeguards on the beaches of New Zealand who have had more child protection training than teachers, doctors, nurses and social workers in our country.
“We have to do more. Our children deserve better, as do their families and the people who work with them. Vitally, mandatory training should be repeated regularly, just like first aid training. It also should be part of the registration process of any professional working with children, and definitely part of any government licensing or funding process.
“Currently this is not the case, this is a failure of The Children’s Act once again, which has become a “tick box” compliance mechanism to achieve funding. A “tick box” approach will never protect anyone.”
Searle also said Child Matters’ has trained teachers and daycare staff, but that legislation requiring mandatory reporting and training “would remove the confusion and help increase the number of professionals who know how to respond appropriately”.
“The introduction of mandatory training and reporting would be a simple and effective change to implement to help protect our most vulnerable tamariki,” she said.
“The government needs to listen and work quickly to close this gap in legislation.”
Whether political will, or understanding of the issue, exists is a moot point, however.
Education Minister Chris Hipkins declined to answer questions about mandatory reporting or teacher training, citing a reluctance to “comment further or make assumptions until we have more information”.
He did, however, say the safety and wellbeing of children and young people in education “is an absolute top priority for educators and the Government”.
Oranga Tamariki Minister Kelvin Davis’ office told Stuff he had no further comment to make as “he would prefer to wait for the outcome of the Chief Social Worker’s investigation [into Malachi Subecz] first”.
National’s Children/Oranga Tamariki spokesperson Harete Hipango also declined to comment, again, and a promised response from Green Party spokesperson for children Jan Logie also failed to materialise.
The Office of the Children’s Commissioner also declined to comment, as did the Kōhanga Reo National Trust, New Zealand Principals Federation, Youth Law and The New Zealand Post Primary Teachers’ Association.
ACT Party children’s spokesperson Karen Chhour said anyone aware of child abuse had a moral obligation to report it, but said “adding a legal obligation could be challenging for people in situations when they’re aware of abuse, but also vulnerable to it themselves”.
Chhour also inadvertently highlighted the confusion around the issue, telling Stuff “currently all teachers involved in childcare are expected to undergo training for this once every two years and provide proof to their employer they have done so and ACT supports this”.
“That is wrong,” said Searle.
The president of the New Zealand Education Institute, Liam Rutherford, told Stuff “Schools/centres take seriously the requirement to keep children safe and regularly engage Oranga Tamariki and other agencies where they have concerns”.
“Children would be better protected in the current system though if schools and centres were all resourced with professional training and better support to work through the best outcomes for children in these situations,” he said
“Schools and centres also work hard to develop relationships of trust with parents and families and so mandating reporting could create some perverse consequences that would need careful consideration.”
Duffy also told Stuff there is some good news on the subject, with the Ministry of Education commissioning a partnership between Safeguarding Children and Te Rito Maioha Early Childhood New Zealand to develop a child protection eLearning course specifically for the ECE sector.
“This was launched in 2021 and is and available to all ECE providers and their staff. We urge everyone working in the ECE sector to complete this course,” she said.
Safeguarding Children also launched a petition last year to call for an urgent review of the Children’s Act 2014.
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