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Creating safety: Building respect, resilience and relationships using children’s rights

Children's Children's Rights

National Suicide Prevention Conference 2017

Delivered on Friday 28 July 2017



It’s a pleasure to be invited here today to present at this year’s Suicide Prevention Conference.

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land we gather on today, and pay my respects to Elders past, present and future.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to remember those who have lost their lives to suicide and the ongoing heartache and grief suffered by those affected by it. But also to recognise that through that grief has come a determination to understand and prevent suicide in our community.

My job is to monitor and promote the rights of all children in Australia. I report annually to the Federal Parliament about these matters. To date, I have produced four reports, and I am currently working on my fifth. Each report contains the findings of a major investigation.

My presentation today focuses on building respect, resilience and relationships using a child rights-based approach – the thesis being that respectful, safe environments and cultures constitute a protective factor in preventing self-harm and suicide. In particular, my presentation focuses on the mutually reinforcing relationship between children’s rights and child safe organisations, and the work being done in this space.

But before I begin, I want to first set out how child rights relate to suicide and intentional self-harm, and briefly summarise some relevant parts of my work to date.

Child rights framework

Suicide and intentional self-harm in children are fundamental children’s rights issues. The Convention on the Rights of the Child contains a number of relevant provisions:

  • Article 6 guarantees children the right to life, survival and development
  • Article 19 guarantees children the right to protection from all forms of violence, and
  • Article 24 provides for children’s right to the highest attainable standard of health.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the body responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Convention, has interpreted article 19 to include freedom from self-inflicted violence. The Committee has also made specific reference to suicide and self-harm as health consequences of exposure to violence and maltreatment. The Committee has asked countries to not only report on child deaths due to intentional self-harm, but also provide information on prevention measures.

In 2013, in my first year as the National Children’s Commissioner, I conducted a national listening tour with over 2,300 children and young people, and many of their advocates. From this, I identified five areas of action for my five-year term as the National Children’s Commissioner. They are:

  • the right to be heard
  • freedom from violence and abuse
  • the opportunity to thrive
  • engaged citizenship, and
  • action and accountability.

In particular, freedom from violence means:

  • ensuring safe environments and respect for the dignity of the child
  • specifically making sure that the commitments made in national frameworks are achieved and built upon, through adequate monitoring, resourcing and action
  • encouraging a proactive approach to issues of child safety that places a premium on prevention, through enabling safe communities and environments for children, and
  • building resilience among our children.

I have used these themes to guide my priorities, strategic advocacy and engagement with stakeholders over the years as National Children’s Commissioner.

Children's Rights Report 2014: Self-harm

For my second report in 2014, I investigated intentional self-harm in children.

I spoke in detail about this report at the 2015 conference so I won’t do so again in detail today.

It is, however, important to note that in 2015, suicide was the leading cause of death of children between 5 and 17 years of age. The age-specific rate of suicide in this age group was 2.3 per 100,000 in 2015.

In my 2014 report I recommended that a national research agenda for children be established to reduce intentional self-harm among children. This should involve the direct participation of children, and focus on, among other things:

  • the multiple risk factors and different protective factors central to targeting and supporting children and young people, and
  • ways to encourage children to access appropriate help and support.

The recommendations in my report are anchored in a national public health model, which needs to deliver a full suite of interventions, from broad based resilience building and the promotion of help seeking behaviours, through targeted secondary interventions to at risk children, through to clinical treatments.

Child safety and child safe organisations

For this talk I am focusing on the preventative end and how the concepts of “child rights”, “child safety” and “child safe organisations” can contribute to children’s resilience and help seeking.

At the heart of “child safety” is the well-being of children and the prevention of harm.

A “child safe organisation” is one that creates a culture, adopts strategies and takes action to promote child wellbeing and protection from harm. A child safe organisation consciously and systematically:

  • creates an environment where children’s safety and well-being is the centre of thought, values and actions
  • places emphasis on genuine engagement with and valuing of children
  • creates conditions that reduce the likelihood of harm to children
  • creates conditions that increase the likelihood of identifying any harm, and
  • responds to any concerns, disclosures, allegations or suspicions of harm.

Taking measures to ensure organisations promote child wellbeing and protect children from harm, including self-harm, aims to fulfil our obligations under article 19 of the Convention to protect children from all forms of violence, article 6 to ensure children’s survival and development, and article 24 to protect children’s right to health.

A child safe organisation is one in which a child not only feels physically safe, but also feels that their identity – including their language and culture – is valued. A child safe organisation therefore creates an environment that is respectful, inclusive and welcoming of the child, taking into account the particular needs of children from diverse backgrounds.

This is consistent with our obligations under article 2 to ensure the rights under the Convention to each child without discrimination of any kind, as well as under article 8 to respect the right of the child to preserve their identity.

It is particularly relevant in the context of self-harm because we are aware that certain groups of children who are subject to discrimination, disadvantage and exclusion are more vulnerable to suicide and self-harm, and are less likely to seek help. These include:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children
  • lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) children
  • culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) children
  • children in rural and remote locations
  • children with disabilities, and
  • children in out-of-home care.

It is not surprising then that when all child suicide deaths are combined for years 2011 to 2015, the Northern Territory – with the highest proportion of Aboriginal children per head of population – reported the highest jurisdictional rate of child deaths due to suicide, with 13.6 deaths per 100,000 persons. This compares to all other states and territories with reported rates ranging from 1.6 to 3.1 deaths per 100,000 (New South Wales and Tasmania, respectively). The corresponding rate for Australia for this age group was 2.2 deaths per 100,000 persons. 

Many of the elements of a child’s identity and background overlap and intersect, and it is important that this is recognised and taken into account when creating a respectful and inclusive environment.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, placing an emphasis on genuine engagement with children relates to our obligation under article 12 to ensure that children have the opportunity to participate in decisions that affect them. The right to be heard – which includes hearing directly from children, engaging with them and taking their views seriously – is a core principle of the Convention, and respect for this right is central to respecting the other rights children have.

Ultimately, an organisation cannot build a genuinely protective and supportive environment for children unless they value them as holders of human rights.

Fostering resilience in children is dependent on organisational cultures and environments that place children’s rights and wellbeing at the forefront of their operations. It is in these organisations that children will feel empowered to speak up and seek help if something is worrying them.

I want to highlight some initiatives on child safety and wellbeing at the national level, which are expected to create new obligations and expectations for organisations working with children and young people.

National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children

Where we have seen some of the most potentially significant changes in recent times is under the auspices of the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children.

The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children is a national policy initiative established in 2009, bringing together the Commonwealth, state and territory governments and non-government organisations in a sustained commitment to improving the safety and wellbeing of Australia’s children.

The National Framework is implemented through three-year action plans, spanning from 2009 to 2020. The Third Action Plan (2015–18) focuses on prevention and early intervention and is broken down into three strategies for targeting action. Strategy 3 of the Third Action Plan concerns organisations responding better to children and young people to keep them safe.

From the beginning of my involvement in the National Framework, I have advocated for the inclusion of children and young people’s voices in its development and implementation, along with others such as Families Australia and the CREATE Foundation.

In 2016, the CREATE Foundation and I were asked to facilitate consultations with children and young people about the implementation of the Third Action Plan. The consultations were held in March and April this year, and involved a series of focus groups with 323 vulnerable young people from diverse backgrounds across Australia. They shared their views about their needs, and what makes places and spaces safe and welcoming for vulnerable young people. I want to share with you some of the key messages from these young people.

Consultations with children

While some young people feel safe and welcome most of the time, many feel unsafe or unwelcome in public or private spaces, including at school or while accessing out-of-home care or related services. This was often due to their age or culture.

Here are some things that the young people said:

“A lot of the time it’s not feeling unsafe, it’s feeling unwelcome - it’s the way that people look at you.”

“People look down on me. They don’t like my culture or my country. Or, they don’t want to understand.”

“Some people just have a thicker skin than other people, but the reason why most kids don’t go to mainstream schools, or don’t go to schools, or anywhere really - like hospitals or anything, because there’s a sense of judgment and people who feel judged don’t feel welcome.”

Many young people suggested that increased security and better maintenance of places and spaces; having more mentors in the community; and/or the opportunity to participate in sporting or cultural events might make places feel safer and more welcoming.

As one young person put it, “Just knowing who to go to talk with helps a lot.”

Draft National Statement of Principles for Child Safe Organisations

As you all know, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is due to report at the end of the year after over four years of hearings, research and deliberations. It is understood that the Royal Commission’s final report will include an entire volume on making institutions child safe and recommendations about implementing the child safe elements.

In a pre-emptive move in November 2016, under the National Framework, Community Services Ministers agreed to the development of a National Statement of Principles for Child Safe Organisations.

The National Statement of Principles is being developed over an 18-month period under a phased approach led by me as National Children’s Commissioner, through a cross-sector consultation and engagement, involving everyone from sports to health services, from very small clubs to highly structured businesses. The timing of this development has been designed to take into account the Royal Commission’s recommendations.

The draft National Statement of Principles is underpinned by a child rights approach to building capacity to deliver child safety and wellbeing in organisations, families and communities. The draft Statement of Principles consists of 10 principles largely based on those developed by the Royal Commission.

The first four principles emphasise getting the organisational culture right.

  • Principle 1 - A commitment to child safety and wellbeing is embedded in organisational leadership, governance and culture. A child-safe culture and environment should be developed and maintained through a publicly available child safety and wellbeing policy, code of conduct, governance arrangements, and a risk management framework.
  • Principle 2 - Children and young people are informed about their rights, participate in decisions affecting them and are taken seriously. The organisational culture should encourage children to feel comfortable participating in decisions and communicating their views and concerns. Ultimately, however, the responsibility for child wellbeing in an organisation rests with the organisation and its workers.
  • Principle 3 - Families and communities are informed and involved in promoting child safety and wellbeing. The organisation engages with families and communities about its child safe approach, and families and communities have a say in how the organisation operates.
  • Principle 4 - Equity is promoted and diversity is respected in policy and practice. Recognising children’s diverse circumstances enables an organisation to work in a more child centred way and empowers children from all backgrounds to participate more effectively.

Principles 5, 6 and 7 are about the processes for recruiting, training and supporting staff and dealing with concerns, complaints and incidents.

  • Principle 5 - People working with children and young people are suitable and supported to reflect child safety and wellbeing values in practice. There should be recruitment and staff development policies, training, and appropriate supervision of staff and volunteers to better safeguard children.
  • Principle 6 - Processes for complaints and concerns are responsive, understood, accessible and used by children, young people, families, staff and volunteers. The complaints handling process should be child focused, and be responsive to and understood by children. Training should support staff and volunteers to recognise harm and respond to different types of complaints.
  • Principle 7 - Staff and volunteers are equipped with the knowledge, skills and awareness to keep children and young people safe through ongoing education and training. This emphasises the importance of information, ongoing education and training to ensure staff and volunteers have a contemporary understanding of child development, safety and wellbeing.

The final three principles are about the environment in which the organisation operates.

  • Principle 8 - Physical and online environments promote safety and wellbeing while minimising the opportunity for children and young people to be harmed. Staff and volunteers should identify and mitigate risks without compromising a child’s right to privacy, access to information, social connections and learning opportunities.  
  • Principle 9 - Organisations continuously review and improve implementation of their child safety and wellbeing policies and procedures. Organisations should regularly review and evaluate their child safe practices with the involvement of children, parents and the community.
  • Principle 10 - Policies and procedures document how the organisation is safe for children and young people. This will ensure that staff and volunteers, children, and their families and carers are aware of how the organisation is planning to meet its obligations to create an environment that is safe for children.

Looking ahead

Once finalised, the National Statement of Principles will drive implementation of a child safe culture across all sectors providing services to children to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children across Australia. It is intended that the Principles will apply to all organisations dealing with children, regardless of their location or sector. The Principles are high level so as to be relevant to the broad range of organisations across different sectors and of different sizes.

Finally, as I mentioned before, the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse are due to be released later this year, and will create additional obligations and expectations around making institutions child safe.

Building respect, resilience and relationships depends on organisations, and the people within those organisations, embedding children’s rights, child safety and child wellbeing in their organisational cultures.

A key aspect of this is encouraging and facilitating the meaningful participation of children and young people in the decisions and processes that affect them.

In talking to children and young people about human rights, and their rights in particular, it has become clear to me that rights knowledge is both empowering and safeguarding for children and young people. It strengthens their capacity, agency and capabilities, and engenders respect for the rights of others. It also builds their expectations that adults will help to protect their rights, and that they are able to raise concerns if they are distressed or if their rights, or the rights of other children or young people, are breached.

Equipping vulnerable children and young people with knowledge of their rights, and providing them opportunities to be heard, empowers them to build relationships with trustworthy adults and peers, and promotes resilience and help-seeking behaviour. These factors protect children from engaging in self-harming behaviours.

And while the work I am leading on child safe cultures is currently focusing on organisations, the same principles should equally apply within family and community settings so that children are both protected and empowered in all the spaces and places they inhabit.

This is where we all come in – to be leaders in child rights thought and action, in your own interactions with children, where you work, and in your neighbourhood. In making spaces safe, inclusive and good for children, we will not only prevent self-harming thoughts from arising in the first place, but if they do, we will be in that child’s corner very early on and be able to do something about it.

Megan Mitchell, Children's Commissioner