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Embedding children’s rights into children’s services

Children's Rights

YMCA 2015 National Children’s Services Conference
Moonee Valley Racing Club, Victoria
Saturday 21 March 2015
 

Introduction

Good morning and thank you for the introduction.

I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I’d like to thank YMCA for the invitation to provide this keynote address today.

As the National Children’s Commissioner, my role is to champion and monitor the rights and wellbeing of all children in Australia. So today I want to bring a child rights perspective to the conversation about the promotion of engagement, inclusion and sustainability through children’s services.  

For example, the themes of Engagement and Inclusion connect with the right of children to play, to learn, to participate, to be safe, and to have their voices heard. This includes all children from all backgrounds and cultures.

And the theme of Sustainability relates closely to the importance of having a plan to implement the rights of children, and to regularly monitor, review and be accountable for our actions towards children.

Children as rights holders

While the idea of children having rights is likely to be a widely shared sentiment today, it is nevertheless, at least in the European context, a relatively new concept.

So, when the UN Convention on the Right of the Child came into force in 1990, children were recognised as rights-bearers for the first time in international human rights law. The Convention recognises that children have the same basic human rights as adults, while also needing special protection due to their vulnerability as children.

Apart from its ethical and moral force, the Convention is a legal document which sets out standards, and assigns responsibility for ensuring these standards are met. By ratifying the treaty, Australia has obligations to realise the rights in the Convention for children.

Children’s rights relevant to YMCA children’s services 

There are many opportunities to uphold and fulfil the rights of children through the services run by the YMCA, including your holiday programs, before and after school care, and occasional care and early learning services. 
Children’s rights that may be obviously relevant to your work include:

  • the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts. (article 31);
  • the right of the child to education and development (article 28); and
  • the right of the child to benefit from child-care services (article 19).

The UN Convention explains that one of the fundamental purposes of education is the development of the ‘child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential’ (article 29(a)).

Early learning and care is especially important to the life chances of children from disadvantaged backgrounds or with a particular vulnerability. The 2010 Benevolent Society report ‘Acting Early, Changing Lives’ presented evidence that early intervention programs have far-reaching social benefits for children and their families, especially those most disadvantaged.(1) These include higher rates of academic achievements and levels of literacy, higher rates of school graduation and more stable housing environments.

The Convention also talks directly to the issue of inclusion of children from all backgrounds and abilities. Non- discrimination is a core principle of the Convention which should be applied to all rights. Children’s rights must be respected and ensured regardless of ‘race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status’.

Article 29 specifically states that education should encompass respect for the child's ‘cultural identity, language and values’.

Article 23 affirms the right of children with disabilities to ‘enjoy a full and decent life, in conditions which ensure dignity, promote self-reliance and facilitate the child's active participation in the community.’

The right of the child to be heard – set out under article 12 of the Convention – is also a core principle and arguably the gateway to all other rights. This right when realised, is simultaneously empowering and safeguarding for children.  Article 12 establishes the right of every child to express their views and to have those views seriously considered. We have a lot of work to do to make this a reality for many children and I’ll be discussing this issue in more detail shortly.

The Convention also contains obligations specific to children’s safety, which no doubt affects you all as educators and managers. These obligations include:  

  • Article 3 - making the best interests of the child the primary consideration in all actions. This means that institutions, services and facilities responsible for the care or protection of children must conform to ‘standards established by competent authorities, particularly in areas of safety, health, in the number and suitability of their staff, as well as competent supervision.’(2)
     
  • Article 19 and Article 34 – taking measures to ensure that children are protected from violence, abuse and neglect, including sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. These protective measures, should, as appropriate, include programs that provide necessary support for the child and those who care for the child, and systems for identification, reporting, referral, investigation, treatment and follow-up of instances of various forms of child maltreatment.(3)

Vulnerable children and access to children’s’ services  

Looking back through the evolution of children’s rights, it is undeniable that we have come a long way. As well as acknowledging that children have rights, we are also increasingly valuing childhood a critical time for ‘education, recreation, growth and discovery’ - not simply a ‘transition state between infancy and adulthood’.(4)

Despite this recognition, in Australia, as you all know, there are still many vulnerable children who continue to experience exclusion and situations where children’s rights are violated.  In particular, there remain significant barriers to the accessibility, affordability and appropriateness of early learning and care services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, children with disabilities, and children who are refugees and asylum seekers.

Children who are socio-economically disadvantaged have relatively low rates of participation in Australian-government approved education and care services. These lower participation rates can be explained by factors such as cost, limited care options, inflexibility and lack of cultural safety.(5)

The Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Care (SNAICC) has identified that to be effective for Indigenous children, early education and care services must be integrated with health, social and emotional supports for children and families; incorporate identity and culture; build on existing family and community strengths; foster Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership and ownership; have a whole of community approach and address access barriers such as high costs and lack of transport.(6)

The inclusion of children with disabilities in children’s services is also a challenge. The Productivity Commission has noted that children aged 0–12 years with disability had a lower representation in child care services in 2013 (3.0 per cent) compared with their representation in the community in 2009 (6.6 per cent).(7)  A review of the Disability Standards for Education released in 2012 highlighted the lack of funding to support children with disability, inadequate specialist support staff and limited training for teachers in relation to disability, amongst other issues.(8)

The recent Forgotten Children report by the Australian Human Rights Commission outlined concerns about the right play and education for children in immigration detention centres. The report found that: ‘many children and their parents described the boredom and frustration of the detention environment with few opportunities for recreation or education.’ (9) As part of the Inquiry I visited a number of detention centres and interviewed both children and parents. The deleterious impact of poor play environments, limited early learning opportunities, and regular school attendance on children’s development and wellbeing in these institutional settings could not have been clearer.   
  
Realising rights for these children needs to work on two main levels -making sure national, state and territory policy and program settings are focused on removing the barriers to inclusion, as well as fostering inclusive, safe and accessible organisations that respect and support all children.

There is increasing evidence that integrated early childhood services may also have the potential to contribute to better outcomes for young children, especially for vulnerable children, by facilitating ready access to a range of supports. Typically these co-locate early childhood education and care, child and family health services, parenting programs, housing and centrelink advice, play groups and other services that cater to a range of parental support and child development needs.

Integration of children’s rights in early learning and care

One very positive recent development is the integration of children’s rights in the 2012 Australian Early Years Learning Framework – which provides curriculum guidance for early childhood education and care and which has as a stated aim that “early childhood educators will reinforce in their daily practice the principles laid out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

This development contributed to some recent work I have undertaken with Early Childcare Australia to develop a Statement of Intent on Children’s Rights in Early Childhood Education and Care.

This Statement, which will be released at the end of April, is a practical tool designed to help support teachers, educators, the community, families and children understand Australia's obligations to children and to implement child rights in early childhood education and care services.

The Statement of Intent is based on an analysis and review of both the UN Convention and the Early Years Learning Framework. Consultations with children were led by ECA and their views helped to identify areas for action. Other foundation documents were:

  • The Education and Care Services National Law (2010), the national legislative framework for early childhood service delivery; and
  • My Children’s Rights Report 2013, which was tabled in Parliament in December 2013. This was my first report to Parliament in my role as National Children’s Commissioner. It detailed the findings from the Big Banter, a national listening tour which I conducted in order to hear the views of children and young people, and their advocates, throughout Australia.

Through the Big Banter I met with well over 1,000 children face-to-face, and heard from a further 1,400 children online and through the post. I also heard from hundreds of children’s advocates. In each consultation, I asked children and young people, and adults, about the issues that were most important for children and young people, and how I could best engage with them in my future work.

Through the information I received from the Big Banter, I identified five key themes for progressing better protection of children’s rights in Australia:

  1. A right to be heard;
  2. Freedom from violence, abuse and neglect;
  3. The opportunity to thrive;
  4. Engaged citizenship; and
  5. Action and accountability.

The themes I identified have formed the basis for my ongoing work plan as Commissioner, and have been adopted as the headline action areas for the Statement of Intent.

A key issue that was raised time and time again by children I consulted with on the Banter related to their personal safety.  In fact, in the survey I conducted the right to be safe was the top issue for older kids and the second top issue for younger kids, and the second rated issue overall.

Children and young people also draw the link between being able to be heard and being safe. This message is being reinforced at daily hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. 

Last year, on reflecting on the experiences of children who had been abused Justice McClelland said “The respect paid to and the unquestioning acceptance of the authority of those in charge allows offenders to exploit their position of trust and abuse children. The child is defenceless to the advances made to them and unable to report it. They believe that if they report they will not be believed.”

It was the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan who said: "There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children. There is no duty more important than ensuring that their rights are respected, that their welfare is protected, that their lives are free from fear and want and that they can grow up in peace."

The essential elements of establishing a child-safe organisation

The work of the Royal Commission and the Human Rights Commission’s recent Report into children in immigration detention are also teaching us that no matter what the intention may be, wherever you have institutions, especially where you close the doors and windows - so others cannot look in - there are heightened risks of human rights abuses occurring. 

And while the kinds of institutions of the past thankfully no longer exist, modern institutions and organisations serving children still carry risks to child safety if this is not the absolute focal point of service delivery. The reality is, we can never take our foot off the safety pedal where children are concerned, and we need to be forever vigilant.

Against this background, the work of the YMCA in developing their new national policy for child protection, Safeguarding Children and Young People, is both critical and timely.

As the YMCA’s policy reflects, being a genuinely child safe and child friendly organisation requires both cultural and operational shifts. A child-safe and child-centred organisation is one that embraces all three of the themes of today’s conference - inclusion, sustainability and engagement. 

Perhaps most importantly it requires strategies and initiatives to implement children’s rights and to foster a culture of openness, where there is a willingness to engage children and invite their input as normal practice. Some of the key elements are contained in this slide, and include: 

  • A Code of Conduct outlining the values of the workplace, and reflecting a commitment to child rights
  • Rigorous recruitment and selection practices, including assessing a person’s ‘suitability’ to work with children
  • Building child safety into staff support, training and performance management
  • Risk management plans and strategies relating to child safety and well being
  • Clear guidelines for dealing with complaints and disciplinary proceeding
  • Child-friendly feedback and complaint systems
  • Strategies for the participation of children and their families in governance and service review
  • Continuous adaptation, innovation and  improvement

Leadership is also vital to delivering a child-safe organisation.

Management in such organisations facilitates the empowerment of staff to take responsibility for children’s rights and is proactive in developing strategies to continually meet child-safe standards.

It is also important that risk management strategies cover the full range of harms that could occur. Unlike inter-familial perpetrators, perpetrators of abuse in organisational settings create ‘opportunities’ to offend against children; they take advantage of situations and manipulate environments, in order to abuse children.(10) As such, it is important for organisations to assess existing facilitators and barriers within the organisational environment to reduce or minimise situations where children may be abused.

As well as the risk of sexual abuse to children, other forms of harm can occur to children, for example: a child being lost, being emotionally or physically abused through reckless or deliberate action by adults or other children, or neglect of a child’s medical, physical or emotional needs.

Working with Children Checks are, of course, an important part of the recruitment process and ongoing monitoring. However, these cannot be a standalone measure in the protection of children, and organisations should guard against checks fostering a false sense of security.  A check cannot screen out offenders who have never been caught, or those who may offend in the future. A criminal check only tells you someone is allowed to apply to work with children under the law, it does not actually tell you whether someone is suitable to work with children and will do a good job - this will always remain the employer’s responsibility to determine.

It is also crucial to provide staff with ongoing training and education of staff in child rights, mandatory reporting obligations, child-safe practices and child awareness.

While Standard 2.3 of the National Quality Standards on safety requires staff awareness of their roles and responsibilities to respond to every child at risk of abuse or neglect, it does not elaborate on the important role that training plays in this awareness. Workers’ understanding of child safety is a central part of ensuring a quality care environment.(11)

This includes any responsibilities in respect of mandatory and other reporting. In relation to sexual abuse, educating employees and volunteers about early warning signs, indicators of grooming or child abuse, and knowing what to look for, help to engender individual responsibility for creating and maintaining protective practices for children in organisations.(12)

Cultural competency is also an important element of quality care in education and care services, and is essential to ensuring the appropriateness and accessibility of services to children from culturally and linguistically diverse communities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Another important component is the staff responsibility for engendering a culture, and putting in place mechanisms, where children’s views are taken seriously. One of the key elements in establishing ‘child safe organisations’ is to make sure that children’s views and concerns are heard and acted upon.

Respecting the views of children

Earlier I mentioned article 12 of the UN Convention, and I now want to emphasise just how important it is that we get better at using mechanisms that allow children and young people to participate in the decisions and processes that affect them. This is one of the essential ways that we can help children to be safe; to realise their potential; and to live full and happy lives.

Children and young people frequently told me during The Big Banter about the importance of them having a say in decisions which affect them, and for their views to be taken seriously. For example, they said:

Life would be better for children if we had a say in what changes
Primary school student, Tasmania

Letting Australian teenagers have a bigger say in how their schools are run would be a fantastic thing to do
14 year old, Victoria

Life would be better for children if adults and older people were more open to our ideas and thinking
12 year old, NSW

Child rights advocates also said Australia should be better at facilitating children’s voice. While there are some great examples of child participation, for example in individual schools and early learning centres, when it comes to respecting the views of the child as a matter of course we can do a whole lot better.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has emphasised that as holders of rights, even the youngest children are entitled to express their views, which should be ‘given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child’.(13)

Processes to facilitate the views of children should be accessible, inclusive and meaningful to children and take into account the evolving capacities of children and their best interests at all times.

As is the case with many sectors of the population vulnerable to disadvantage, too often we make the mistake of shaping environments for them, rather than with them. In fact, often the casualty of recognition of people’s vulnerabilities is a failure to acknowledge their agency. While this may be a particularly complex balancing act when contemplating issues relating to children, it is nevertheless essential to acknowledge that children can and should participate in decisions which affect them.

What’s more, children’s innate understanding of fair play and equal treatment has a lot to teach the adult world about the promotion of human rights and, certainly, recent years have seen much said about the importance of listening to and respecting children’s voices.

It is also important to foster a commitment to inclusive and empowering language and culturally safe spaces, and strategies that empower children by giving them an opportunity to share their concerns and to easily make complaints.

Encouraging the views of children is also a foundation for educating children about their rights and responsibilities in a practical way. I have found that when children find out that they have rights, it is a profoundly empowering moment for them. And the knowledge that adults have a responsibility to ensure their rights are realised serves to safeguard them and builds their sense of self-worth and agency. A child who understands their rights also respects the rights of others. As this wise young person said:

Children need better education on topics that matter. Education is knowledge and knowledge is power. And all children should have the chance to use their power to better our country.
17 year old, Victoria

Third optional protocol

To improve the right of children to be heard, I am also advocating for the Australian Government sign on to the Third Optional Protocol to the UN Convention. This protocol would permit children to make complaints about breaches of their rights to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, when domestic systems have been exhausted.

While I do not expect this will result in large numbers of complaints from Australian children to the UN, what it will do is ensure that domestic complaints and redress systems are in place, visible, accessible and used by children.

A universal framework for child safe organisations

I also believe that we need to consider a national voluntary or mandated accreditation system for ‘child safe organisations’ to assist us to build child-safe and aware communities. A visible assurance that an organisation is implementing child-safe policies and procedures, to a certifiable standard, is likely to be an incentive for organisations to comply with requirements and a reassurance for children and young people, parents and carers.

Conclusion

In conclusion, bringing a child rights perspective to the work of children’s services allows us to think in a holistic way about children’s wellbeing and their place in society and in the services designed to support them. It enables us to recognise that children have agency as rights-holders and that we all have a role in providing them with safe and rewarding education, learning and care experiences. 

It is never too early to start educating ourselves and children about their rights. As you know children’s learning experiences shape their thinking and values, and children who grow up knowing they are human rights holders will carry the messages of respect and dignity that accompany this knowledge into adulthood. 

You have come to this conference to learn and exchange wisdom, information and experiences about what is possible and what can be achieved. I hope that you will leave today feeling energised and excited about how children’s rights can be further embedded in the work you do.

Thank you

 

References 

  1. See for example Moore, T.G & McDonald, M., the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project in The Benevlonet Society, Acting Early, Changing Lives, Appendix B and section 5.1. At: http://www.benevolent.org.au/act/join--a--campaign/acting--early--for--kids--and--communities.
  2. UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, art 3.
  3. UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, art 19.
  4. Australian Human Rights Commission, Information for Students: Children’s Rights (2014) http://www.humanrights.gov.au/commission-website-information-students-childrens-rights.
  5. One definition of cultural safety is ‘a ‘safe environment’ where there is ‘no assault, challenge or denial’ of people’s identity, of who they are and what they need. It is about respect, shared meaning, shared knowledge and experience of learning, living and working together with dignity and truly listening’. For a discussion on cultural safety see Brennan, D., Joining the Dots: Program and Funding Options for Integrated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Services, 2013, p 4. At: http://www.snaicc.org.au/_uploads/rsfil/03244.pdf.
  6. Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Care (SNAICC), Early Childhood Education and Care: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Needs, Fact Sheet 1 (2014). At http://www.snaicc.org.au/news-events/fx-view-article.cfm?loadref=32&id=1346 (viewed 17 March 2014).
  7. Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, Report on Government Services 2014, Volume B: Child care, education and training. In 2009 the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that 290,000 children aged 0-14 years have a disability: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Social Trends, June 2012. At http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features30Jun+2012 (viewed 17 March 2014).
  8. Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, Report on the Review of Disability Standards for Education 2005 (2012).
  9. Australian Human Rights Commission, The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (2014). At: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/asylum-seekers-and-refugees/publications/forgotten-children-national-inquiry-children, viewed March 2015. 
  10. Irenyi, M. Bromfield, L. Beyer L. Higgins, D. Child maltreatment in organisations: Risk factors and strategies for prevention, 2006, Child Abuse Prevention Issues No. 25, Australian Institute of Family Studies, pg 12. At http://www.aifs.gov.au/nch/pubs/issues/issues25/issues25.html.
  11. See Element 2.3.4 in Quality Area 2 - Children’s health and safety in Australian Children’s Education and Care Authority, National Quality Standards. At: http://www.acecqa.gov.au/Childrens-health-and-safety (viewed 13 March 2015).
  12. Australian Children Foundation, What prevents children from being protected?. At: http://www.safeguardingchildren.com.au/the-program/why-are-children-not-protected.aspx (viewed 17 March 2014)
  13. UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No 7, para 14.
Megan Mitchell, Children's Commissioner