HON NICK GOIRAN (South Metropolitan) [1.10 pm]: I move —

That this house implores the government to —

(a)  abandon its current policy which sees some victims of child sex offences attending school each day knowing they may be confronted by their abuser; and

(b)  inform the house of what it is and will be doing to protect these children and young people.

Comments and speeches from various members

Amendment to Motion

Hon SUE ELLERY: At this point, it is appropriate that I move the amendment of which I gave notice earlier. I move —

To delete all words after “house” where it first appears and substitute —

(a)  notes with concern incidents of children and young people charged with harmful sexual behaviour;

(b)  calls for all policies related to managing the education of victims of children and young people charged with harmful sexual behaviour to put the safety of the children and young people first and ensure no further harm is caused to the victims by ongoing contact with the alleged perpetrators; and

(c)  calls for the government to inform the house of what it is and will be doing to protect these children and young people.

Comments from Hon Sue Ellery

HON NICK GOIRAN (South Metropolitan) [1.50 pm]: I rise to indicate that in principle I support the amendment moved by the Leader of the House, ……………………..

Comments from Hon Nick Goiran

If my amendment to the amendment, which will be to delete “victims of” where it appears at (b), is supported, the final version of the motion would read —

That this house —

(a)  notes with concern incidents of children and young people charged with harmful sexual behaviour;

(b)  calls for all policies related to managing the education of children and young people charged with harmful sexual behaviour to put the safety of the children and young people first and ensure no further harm is caused to the victims by ongoing contact with the alleged perpetrators; and

(c)  calls for the government to inform the house of what it is and will be doing to protect these children and young people.

I move that amendment, accordingly.

Comments and speeches from various members

HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [1.55 pm]: I rise to indicate that the Greens—although, we ordinarily do not support messing around with other people’s motions too much—will absolutely be supporting a change to the motion that is in front of us today. I am pleased to hear that there appears to be agreement across the house to try to ensure that we have a motion that is not unnecessarily inflammatory and perhaps is going to reflect, more appropriately, the complexity of this deeply emotive issue. It is really important that this chamber takes this issue very, very seriously and is appropriately sensitive to the matters that we are going to be debating. I obviously have a much broader contribution that I wish to make on this very important issue, but it is very significant that we ensure that we have an alternative motion in front of us that is more appropriately sensitive.

In terms of the foreshadowed amendment put forward by Hon Nick Goiran, I point out from the outset that we are talking about two different children who are being affected by these policies. One of the children has been identified— indeed, as is written in front of us—as a victim of “children and young people charged with harmful sexual behaviour”. We are talking about a distinct group of children—namely, those who have been perpetrated against by other children. We are also talking about children and young people charged with harmful sexual behaviour. Therefore, I want to ensure that this Council recognises that when considering the needs of children, we are indeed talking about two lots of children who have extremely sensitive needs. I thought I would put that out there because I am not quite sure that even the foreshadowed amendment to the amendment necessarily recognises that.

Comments and speeches from various members

Amendment on the Amendment

HON NICK GOIRAN (South Metropolitan) [2.04 pm]: I move —

To delete paragraph (b) and substitute —

 (b) calls for all policies related to managing the education of children and young people charged with harmful sexual behaviour and their victims to ensure the safety of the children and young people first and ensure no further harm is caused to the victims by ongoing contact with the alleged perpetrators; and

I feel that that amendment will make it clear we are talking about managing the education of both the perpetrators— that is the children and young people charged with harmful sexual behaviour—and the victims. I do not believe anyone intended to suggest that it was the victims who had been charged with harmful sexual behaviour.

HON SUE ELLERY (South Metropolitan — Minister for Education and Training) [2.05 pm]: I am happy to say that I agree with the changes proposed by Hon Nick Goiran. For members who do not have the proposed amendment in front of them, it will effectively change where certain words are placed so it is clear that it is about managing the education of perpetrators and their victims in such a way that the safety of children is the priority. That is the effect of the change in the words.

Question (amendment on the amendment) put and passed. Amendment, as Amended

Question (insertion of words) put and passed.

Motion, as Amended

HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [2.06 pm]: I rise to indicate that I am pleased that the house has made the decision to debate this issue in a more appropriate way. This is a very sensitive issue and it is absolutely essential that the Legislative Council treats it with the utmost sensitivity. This issue is not only important, but also very complex. It is essential that we ensure that we are never framing it as a black-and-white issue and that we never frame it in terms of “children who are victims are good” and “children who abuse are bad”. I think that is pretty unrealistic and would be a pretty abhorrent approach to take because it does not recognise what is happening for these children. It is really important that we also consider the evidence around this issue. Children who sexually abuse other children do not ever engage in this type of behaviour in a vacuum. The Commissioner for Children and Young People has been doing some really good work around this. The commissioner released a 2018 discussion paper on harmful sexual behaviours. In that paper, the commissioner said —

... children who show these types of behaviours have often experienced multiple types of harm or cumulative harm to their development. They are more likely to have been sexually abused than children who have not engaged in these kinds of behaviours and are more likely to have experienced other forms of abuse and neglect.

It is really important to recognise that the children who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviours have also been absolutely failed. When public policy is made in this space, it is critical that we are very careful not to set up a dichotomy between worthy victims and unworthy victims. I will never agree that if a child has engaged in harmful sexual behaviours, they have automatically forfeited any right to an education. It is far more complex than that. I point out to members that some of the children who engage in harmful sexual behaviours can be really young; they can be six years old and younger. They may not even have begun to lose their baby teeth.

I have mentioned before that in my previous life I worked with children at risk in community development settings, working with children who were subject to the child protection system. I was working specifically with children aged between four and 13 years old and I dealt with some really complex cases of children who were engaging in harmful sexual behaviours. A lot of the time they have no understanding of the nature of their behaviours and why they do it, and that is precisely why we need complex responses to these issues. It is clearly a very challenging space. I go back again to the sorts of things the Commissioner for Children and Young People has been speaking about. I think this is a really helpful quote, which states —

Children and young people who display HSB are, first and foremost, children. They require treatment that accounts for their age and capacity as they have varied needs and come from diverse and complex backgrounds. As such, a one-size-fits-all approach to responding to these behaviours is insufficient.

Recent research into what is, effectively, a decade’s worth of Western Australian child protection data has found that just over half the substantiated child sexual abuse allegations against children were abuse by a family member, with about a quarter of the children having been abused by a sibling. Another third was perpetrated by so-called friends or neighbours. Of the substantiated child sexual abuse allegations, 7.2 per cent were against children under the age of 10, while an average age of children believed to be responsible for abuse was 13 and a half years. We are talking about a very broad range of children, some of them extremely young.

It is very important that we talk about the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse because some very important recommendations have come from it. This royal commission dedicated a 233-page volume of its final report to the specific issue of children who engage in harmful sexual behaviours. As has been said by the minister, I encourage members to read this. If they want to talk about it in an informed way, it is the starting point. They need to read it. The royal commission’s work was quite incredible. I have spoken about it before. Over five years, more than 1.2 million documents were examined and more than 1 200 witnesses gave evidence. We know the royal commission was needed precisely because our institutions were not protecting children from abuse, were not responding effectively to complaints and did not provide adequate support and intervention to children either harmed or exhibiting harmful sexual behaviours. The royal commission report quite clearly articulated the many ways individuals, our government and our institutions horrifically failed child victims of sexual abuse over a very long period. There were 409 recommendations from that work. According to the royal commission, the impacts of harmful sexual behaviour by children resemble the impacts of sexual abuse perpetrated by adults. I know Hon Nick Goiran cares very deeply about the long-term impacts of sexual abuse, because we know it can include immediate and long-term adverse effects for victims. We know they can impact on their physical and psychological health, their neurobiological development and their interpersonal relationships, as well as their connection to culture and, indeed, their entire sexual identity. It is a very, very serious issue and one that we must make sure we are getting right.

Some of the key problems identified by the royal commission’s responses to incidents of harmful sexual behaviours in children included not identifying when the behaviours are occurring, which has been a problem in the past; minimising the behaviours rather than recognising them as serious matters that require intervention; and not communicating appropriately with the affected parties. I am really pleased that work is being done to address these problems. As has already been said, under the previous government, no protocols were in place to help schools respond to students who were exhibiting harmful sexual behaviours. I, for one, appreciate that the current Minister for Education and Training has acted swiftly to address this gap. I am really pleased that that has occurred. I welcome that the current protocols are multi-agency. It is really good that they are flexible. They need to be flexible. We need to recognise that harmful sexual behaviour in children can encompass a range of behaviours and circumstances. That means that our response needs to be tailored to the circumstances of individual cases. Despite some positive changes—I am sure the minister will be the first one to acknowledge this—there are still significant gaps in the way we respond to the spectrum of harmful sexual behaviours in children. This is just the beginning of this important work. We still have a lot to do. The royal commission identified a lack of over-arching coordinated approaches to this issue and recommended applying, as has happened here, a public health model encompassing three tiers of intervention. It talked about the need to have primary, secondary and tertiary interventions. The primary interventions need to be community-wide interventions that aim, importantly, to address in a non-stigmatising way the widespread lack of understanding of children’s harmful sexual behaviours—it is really poorly understood—to give children clear guidance on what peer and adult behaviours are wrong and where they can seek help. It also needs to take into account their gender, their age, the cultural context and their disability.

The secondary interventions are to focus on early intervention to prevent children’s problematic sexual behaviour from escalating to the point at which they might harm other children. Secondary interventions are directed to children at higher risk of displaying harmful sexual behaviours and seek to ensure that institutions have clear policies on how to deal with harmful sexual behaviours in children. The sorts of risk factors for children that were identified were adverse childhood experiences; intellectual impairment and learning difficulties; unfortunately, being in out-of-home care; and institutional cultures. It is interesting that hierarchical or those considered to be hyper-masculine cultures exist in some sporting clubs, male boarding schools or Defence Force settings. I want members to think about that because it might challenge some of their preconceived notions of the sorts of risk factors that might bring about the concerning sexual behaviours we are discussing now.

The royal commission said that tertiary intervention was a key area and that included child protection and criminal justice responses, as well as therapeutic assessment and interventions. This is, effectively, what we are talking about today—those tertiary responses. As I said, I acknowledge the work being undertaken by the Commissioner for Children and Young People incorporating child-safe standards across WA institutions and organisations working with children and young people. I think this important work forms part of the primary and secondary interventions, which we need, to make sure we are adequately addressing harmful sexual behaviours.

With regard to the provision of tertiary interventions, the royal commission developed some best practice principles for therapeutic interventions. I will not go into the detail of the principles because I do not have enough time, but my goodness, this is important and I wish I did. However, it is worth acknowledging that the commission outlined the importance of overarching safety planning that includes services, home and school. The principles also note that children need to be supported to acknowledge and to take responsibility for their behaviours and that for interventions to be effective, they should take account of a child’s whole environment and, again, include family, neighbourhood and community supports. As pointed out by the royal commission, it is critical for children with harmful sexual behaviours to have access to quality assessments and therapeutic intervention. A wide range of research demonstrates that children are more likely than adults to respond to rehabilitation and therapy. That is the good news. We know there can be very positive outcomes for these children. As such, diversion and deterrence are particularly important and particularly effective. If children are provided with an appropriate assessment and an appropriate therapeutic response tailored to their particular needs, background and situation, the behaviours are more likely to cease.

I note the McGowan government has undertaken some welcome work responding to the recommendations of the royal commission and I look forward to the next report that will outline the progress that the government has made towards acting on these recommendations. That said, I will speak about some of the serious gaps that remain in the provision of services, which I mentioned before.

The royal commission identified that therapeutic services across Australia have inadequate resources and demand is outstripping capacity. There are inconsistent treatment options for children under the age of 10 years and a lack of training for staff to work effectively with children who have intellectual impairment, learning difficulties or emotional behavioural disorders, including conduct disorders, who are over-represented in our therapeutic services. There is a lack of specialist services in regional and remote communities, a lack of expertise in culturally safe services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and a lack of clear referral pathways. The Commissioner for Children and Young People recently undertook a program to map service provision across WA and found that 50 per cent of respondents identified insufficient service availability, 24 per cent had inadequate funding and 20 per cent had issues with workforce capacity. I also note the ongoing lack of investment in research and in program evaluation to strengthen the evidence base and inform practice. It is absolutely essential that we address these gaps. When we have these sorts of gaps, it raises the obvious question of how are schools supposed to address adequately the issue of children with these behaviours if individuals and families do not have adequate access to assessment and therapeutic interventions.

The motion that we are discussing at the moment specifically refers to what is happening in our schools. However, as recommended by the royal commission, we need to look at a whole-of-government response to harmful sexual behaviours in children and young people, including justice. It is important always to go back to the stated aims of the Young Offenders Act. I remind people that it is about integrating into the community young people who have committed an offence. The principles of juvenile justice detailed in the act also include —

... punishment of a young person for an offence should be designed so as to give the offender an opportunity to develop a sense of social responsibility and otherwise to develop in beneficial and socially acceptable ways ...

I am not convinced that we have identified an overwhelmingly positive commitment to those particular principles and objectives. I remain concerned that detention is not always the last resort that I think it should be, but that aside, I want us to remember that that is what the legislation is meant to do.

I also note the current inquiry by the Standing Committee on Environment and Public Affairs into children and young people on the sex offenders register. I made a submission because I feel really strongly about this issue. As evidenced by the submissions, the inquiry topic has raised a range of issues about sex offending in young people. The vast majority of individuals and organisations submitting to the inquiry have said that they are in favour of a more flexible and proportionate response than that which is available to children and young people under the Community Protection (Offender Reporting) Act 2004. Many of the concerns that have been raised in that inquiry are relevant to the motion before us. If we marginalise children and young people for behaviour characterised under legislation as sex offending, but representing low-level offending such as touching over the clothes, behaving in an impulsive, inappropriate manner or experimentation with a peer, we will prevent those young people from joining in age-appropriate activities and that has potential long-term impacts. I particularly note the concerns that were raised by the President of the Children’s Court regarding our approach to harmful sexual behaviour in young people with complex diagnoses. He said —

It is counterproductive to isolate these young people by making them reportable offenders because it is likely to restrict their ability to understand appropriate social boundaries and to limit their social development. The court obtains expert specialist reports in respect of young people prior to sentencing. Any risk factors are identified and will be addressed in the court order that is imposed. If the young person’s disorder or impairment has not been previously diagnosed then youth justice can assist the young person’s family to ensure that a referral to NDIS occurs. In many cases this is the more appropriate way to address community safety.

As the Australian Centre for Child Protection noted in its 2017 paper —

Children over 10-years displaying harmful sexual behaviours are subject to prosecution and potentially life long consequences if help is sought, and this can become a disincentive for their families or professionals to put them forward for treatment.

A public health approach with appropriate disability services or a child protection response when that is required is far more appropriate. We also need to consider a more discretionary response, including introducing diversionary therapeutic treatment orders, as they are available to children and young people in Victoria. No-one’s interests will be served by taking a nondiscretionary approach to harmful sexual behaviour in children, especially if it serves only to marginalise, isolate and deprive those children of community membership and education opportunities. The evidence tells us that this will be bad for them. Social isolation is a risk factor for offending, so it does not make sense to make it a blanket response.

It is important never to minimise the serious nature of this issue. We know that we need to maintain a flexible approach to how we are addressing this issue. It simply will not always be appropriate to remove children from a particular school. I feel confident that, with the protocols, the needs of the victim who was perpetrated against by the other child are always taken into account as part of the overall plan.

Comments and speeches from various members

Question put and passed.


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