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Lawyers can be real change agents

To create a positive social impact it is imperative that lawyers in child safety innovate their service delivery model to become change agents in this space.

In Australia, 1 in 7 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused as children. This statistic doesn’t even take into account neglect, physical or emotional abuse. Now, with the finalisation of a number of state based commissions and the Royal Commission into Institutionalised Responses to Child Abuse, Australia must make a change in how it protects children to stop abuse from occurring in our society.

Whilst changes need to happen at a systemic level, the law makers are putting in place a number of preventative measures in a bid to stop abuse. We have seen legislative changes to our ‘Working with Children’ regime, a beefing up of our criminal legislation to ensure mandatory reporting for suspected / actual child abuse and a raft of legislative changes when it comes to grooming, sexting and online stalking. For a full review of the complex state and territory laws across Australia you can download our free Child Protection Toolkit here which includes a national compliance framework of the laws and obligations.

But rather than just focussing on strengthening or fixing broken regimes, legislators have cleverly called on organisations that provide services to children to change their culture. Indeed they have demanded it by statute. For example, in the Victorian Child Safe Standards, Standard 1 requires that organisations “embed an organisational culture of child safety, including effective leadership arrangements”.

In a practical setting, this means that leaders are now required to ensure that the strategic direction, vision and mission statement of the organisation include messages about the importance of child safety. It also requires organisations to provide induction and ongoing training in recognising and responding to child abuse (including for all personnel at a leadership level). It means appointing an appropriately trained child safety officer/champion and building responsibility for child safety into performance arrangements and position descriptions for senior and front-line staff. It also means that the organisation has to develop programs within a child-centric model (putting the interests of the child first and ensuring best-practice when it comes to the empowerment of children).

However, these laws and expectations around cultural change have not only affected the leadership within organisations. They have also had an impact on legal practitioners working in the child safety space. By properly understanding the law and its intentions, we have learnt that we can be most effective in helping our clients comply with the laws (to prevent abuse) by becoming change agents facilitating cultural shifts - often of some magnitude.

For example, we have worked with many religious organisations that at first, struggled with the change of methodology and focus when providing redress to survivors of child abuse. Gone are the days when our clients can commence an investigation and cross-examination process. Our new laws and directives from the justiciary encourage us to move immediately to a redress process with careful collaboration with the survivor about how redress looks for them and their family members. Often, survivors of child abuse require an individual representative of the organisation to provide an apology to sit alongside financial compensation. In relation to financial compensation, Australia is about to see the introduction of a compensation scheme, which will provide a much more conciliatory approach for survivors but also a framework to assist organisations provide redress and work through that difficult process.

These new frameworks and changes in process necessitate a shift in how we, as child safety practitioners, deliver value to our clients and effectively create positive social impact in our communities.

Over the last few years we have had to learn many new skills and innovate our service offering to ensure that we are actually helping those that are now required to bring about change in their organisations. These changes have not just been felt amongst our child safety team, but also across multiple practice areas in our firm. For example, our family lawyers have been called on regularly for their expertise in intervention and protective orders. Our estate planning experts have been relied on for their help in setting up trusts and estates in the best interests of the family as a whole (including families with children living with disabilities). Our commercial lawyers have been helpful in ensuring service agreements are updated in line with child safety compliance when it comes to the engagement of transport companies and other third party providers. Our workplace relations experts have increased their work in investigations and ensuring the right documents are in place to emphasise responsibilities and expectations when it comes to dealing with children through the delivery of services. We have all had to alter our thinking and mind-set when it comes to helping organisations with deep concerns about the safety of children and guiding them to support the child – always a central element of our work.

In upscaling and changing our service delivery model, we have focussed on the following key areas:

  • Change management: In order to be able to assist leaders set a vision for change and then guide the communication to stakeholders we have had to embrace change management methodologies to ensure serious buy-in and commitment from the leadership to the front-line staff;

  • Data: to ensure that our work is creating an positive impact, we have had to better understand the power of data so we help clients assess the problem on the ground and the programs and solutions that will best meet their goals ;

  • Depth in our service offering: We have had to build depth in our service offering to include professional development and training programs . For example, we now run a training arm of our business and have engaged a social worker who specialises in working with children to ensure that our products are effectively delivered and tailored to the audience (who are sometimes teenagers or younger children);

  • Better utilise our marketing resources so we can gain traction in new sectors ripe to create real change and improve the lives of children;

  • Project manage teams of people, some of whom are not working internally with us (eg. app developers and content creators);

  • Get out of our comfort zone and away from our desks, spending a lot of time learning from survivors about how our clients can better provide redress and hearing from our clients to better understand their concerns and daily responsibilities (which has drastically improved our ability to ensure real cultural shifts).

It’s a privilege to be able to reflect on our learnings in this context, as the more we define what success means, for both our clients and the broader community, the more it will enable us to create a positive social impact in this space. Lawyers can be real change agents. Let’s keep rising to the challenge of law reform and with ingenuity, lead the way to create a positive impact in our communities.


About the author

Catherine Brooks is a Principal and the Workgroup Leader of the Not-for-Profit and Workplace Relations teams at Moores. She is accredited as a specialist in Workplace Relations by the Law Institute of Victoria.Catherine provides strategic legal advice in the areas of industrial relations and employment law to not-for-profit organisations such as charities, independent schools, disability organisations and faith-based organisations as well as social enterprises.

Catherine is also an expert in child protection laws and was one of the key authors of our national Child Protection Toolkit.

Catherine is a member of the Board of the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation, a charity based in Melbourne, which was formed to support literacy projects across the world for both children and adults that benefit the community in which they are delivered.

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