Creating a culture of safety for children and other vulnerable people
There is no question that protecting children and vulnerable people is everyone’s responsibility, but how does that translate into practice?
According to Sarah Lim from BBSafe, services can get caught up in the bureaucracy of reporting and compliance through implementing policies and procedures. However, she believes the most effective way to make a difference to safety and protection from abuse is embedding safeguarding practices into organisation culture.
“Throughout the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and also the Royal Commissions into Disability and Aged Care, there are examples where organisations were technically compliant, but the culture was undermining the policy and procedure that was in place,” says Sarah.
She should know, having worked with many survivors of abuse in her capacity as lead in responding to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on behalf of one of the largest community services agencies in Australia. She is now the national lead for redress for a large Church, working with survivors of abuse, as well as the co-founder of BBSafe.
What is BBSafe?
Sarah is deeply committed to working with organisations, boards, businesses, families and communities to improve cultures of safety, which drove her to establish BBSafe.
“I started BBSafe to really try to bring a different lens to the space of safeguarding,” explains Sarah.
“If we focus on the culture – where we’re all focused on putting safety as the priority – the compliance will take care of itself.”
BBSafe works with all levels of the organisation, but particularly with boards and management committees, to try to help them understand their specific responsibilities as directors and what organisations might need to do to have that cultural focus to really make a difference on the ground.
Sarah’s team also work with not-for-profits, sporting clubs and schools.
“We do a lot of pro bono work and free webinars because we want to issue the challenge to organisations to really think about how they are going in this space.”
BBSafe works not only with organisations working with children, but also those working with vulnerable adults.
Why is it important to create a safeguarding culture?
Sarah has seen firsthand how organisations can tick the right boxes to meet legislation and principles but still miss the mark.
“The Royal Commission gave us a lot of examples of where there was technical compliance, policies and procedures requiring certain things to be done or prohibited, certain behaviours, but they weren’t living, breathing documents.”
One example she cites had several people stating they had seen red flag behaviours by a perpetrator, but no one felt safe to come forward.
“We all know from a common-sense point of view how to put safety first and elevate the priority of safety and safeguarding over the interests of an organisation, and over the interests of adults in organisations,” explains Sarah.
“But a culture which looks at safeguarding should elevate all of those things so that we’re not undermining the purpose of the policies and procedures that are in place.”
Sarah also says that when we rely solely on documents to govern our response to safety, people can get hung up on technicalities such as definitions and reporting processes, and get lost in trying to respond to individual Child Safe Principles while losing sight of the whole.
She asserts this approach needs to be flipped on its head.
“We need to put people at the centre of all we do. Then everything else sits around that. If we get hung up on the technicalities, such as who do we need to report this to and in what timeframes, we might miss the impact on the person who’s been harmed or at risk of harm.”
The importance of a top down approach
As with any culture change, Sarah believes that embedding a safeguarding culture in an organisation needs to start at the top.
“I hear a lot of boards pushing this to be operational issue but it’s my contention that until this is really embedded in an organisation’s culture, the board needs to be driving it and have visibility on it,” says Sarah.
“As a director from a governance point of view, I would want to be thinking about whether I could confidently say that we’ve done everything reasonable to prevent abuse in our organisation.”
This begins with getting a board to think about how they are making decisions to support a safeguarding culture. Resourcing, accountability and a strategy focused on safe delivery of service are all important areas of consideration.
“Organisations are sending messages about the importance of safeguarding (or not) based on how visible it is to those engaging with the organisation. Sending clear messages that it is a priority has a strong deterrent effect.”
Where should organisations start?
Sarah says there are four key areas of consideration which she calls the “building blocks” of safety. These provide a basic framework for talking about safety within an organisation and include:
- Leadership – The board, executive and management need to demonstrate a commitment to safety at all levels to drive the safeguarding culture they want create, and making this visible to staff and clients at every opportunity – websites, participant material, and of course policies and procedures.
- People – Starting with values based-recruitment, thorough background checks and proactive use of a strong code of conduct, through to ongoing awareness and training activities.
- Environment – Looking at the context specific risk that applies in an organisation. Organisations can do a lot to control risks – but risk looks different in every organisation depending on the type of services being delivered, the relationships of trust that are required and the opportunities that are available to be away from others.
- Response – What are the initial reporting processes, including for low level concerns that could be indicative of grooming? How do we support and respond to the individual? How does the organisation use complaints, feedback and incidents to learn and have an open culture of continuous improvement?
Sarah says this framework helps organisations to think about their culture through the lens of safeguarding.