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Child Protection in Sport 

Introduction: Kids playing sport safely - that’s what we all want and it’s what the Australian Sports Commission and the Australian Childhood Foundation is working towards to ensure all children are protected appropriately. This has been done through the National Safeguarding of Children in Sports Strategy which is a plan for improving existing policies as well as an opportunity to create educational tools and programs to help all sports at all levels improve their approach to child safety. In this ASC podcast the ASC’s Director of Culture and Leadership in the Sports Governance and Business Capability Team, Merrilee Barnes is talking to Dr Joe Tucci, the CEO of the Australian Childhood Foundation and they’re talking about the importance of getting the safeguarding of children right.

Merrilee: Hi Joe, thanks for joining us today.

Joe: Thanks, Merrilee.

Merrilee: First of all, let’s start with a pretty overarching question. Why do you think safety for children is so important in sport?

Joe: Well, I think that safety for kids is important because it’s what they need as the basis for anything that they do. If kids aren’t feeling safe and aren’t actually safe then they can’t learn, they can’t engage with other people in relationships; they’re not at their best and I think what sport is about is trying to maximise children’s potential. It’s trying to get them to participate in an activity, to challenge themselves, to learn how to be part of a team. Often all of those sorts of elements of sport that we love and that we believe that children benefit from all start with children’s own sense of safety and that safety is in the relationships around them and if kids aren’t feeling safe then they’re not really able to fulfill sports ambition of helping them to grow and develop so for me, sport is at its best when it’s also keeping children safe.

Merrilee: Why do you think it’s important for the Sports Sector to review and revise its child safety policies and processes?

Joe: Well, I think that sport like any other kind of major cultural institution has had to face the reality of the fact that children over the last 50/60/70 years have been heard by adults that have used the activity or the institution itself to build relationships with children and their families in such a way that they’ve gained access to kids and so on one level what we’re seeing in the community and in the media is this kind of ongoing reporting about the impact in particular of sexual abuse on children as a result of adults who have managed to exploit the program, the activity, the institution that they’ve worked in or volunteered in and have ended up getting access to children so we’re seeing that reporting and we’re seeing the damage that it’s caused to children so for me sport has a challenge. It already has a lot of great things about it in relation to the way that it engages children and families but it also needs to understand that there are probably more risks than it has been aware of in the past and that those risks need to be addressed and you can’t just address risks by looking to fix problems. You’ve got to have an eye to the kind of culture that you want to develop and promote that culture in a way that then supports you managing or addressing the risks that you have identified in your environment so to me the idea around creating a child-safe sport to strengthen sporting organisations so that they’re more child-safe than what they are is really about engaging or starting on a process of strengthening a culture and a commitment to children that should never stop. It starts from where it starts but it keeps going and I think that’s what we’re trying to do in the project that we’re working on with the ASC, with you Merrilee is trying to have a long-term vision about the way that sport can strengthen its protectiveness of children and realise the safety that children need in order to participate in sport fully.

Merrilee: Just while we’re on that subject about the strategy, what’s the Australian Childhood Foundation’s role in the National Safeguarding of Children in Sports Strategy?

Joe: We’ve had this wonderful role of being able to work with the national sporting organisations, with the State Sport Departments and other kinds of stakeholders including the Sports Commission itself so we’ve had this wonderful set of conversations and discussions over the last probably three or four years now where what has been the focus of that conversation is how do you create a child-safe sport culture and the project that has continued to evolve has really firstly benchmarked what Australia is doing in relation to child-safe sport compared to what the rest of the world is doing so that’s one of the things that we did.

We’ve tried to also understand where we’re starting from so that we can tell as we make changes, as the sporting community makes changes over the next few years how that change is going; whether we’re actually achieving the goals of creating this culture of child-safe sport and strengthening it so we need to know where we are now so we’ve done a project that has set the baseline for that so we can track it over a period of time and then more recently and probably the most exciting part I think for sport is the development of what we’re calling a toolkit that will enable all sport, those sports that are well on their way to developing the culture that’s going to be effective in protecting children and those that are still starting in the early stages of that process, we’ve developed a toolkit that will support them through all the stages, all of the strategies that they need to put in place to get to the end point where they can say, “We’re now on our way to being a child safe sport” so what are the policies and procedures that we’ve got in place? Do people in our sport know what they are? Are they living and breathing them? Do children and families have a say in the way that our sport is run? Do we as a sport commit ourselves to child protection? Have we got an understanding of the screening approaches to making sure that we know the backgrounds of people who are volunteering and working in our sport? Do we have a code of conduct that is really clear about the expectations that the adults that are involved in junior sport – do we have a code of conduct that’s really clear about what kind of behaviour is acceptable and what’s not acceptable? That’s all part of this toolkit and it’s a step by step process that will enable any sport to check what they already have, strengthen the things that they do have, build the things that they don’t have and in the end be able to evaluate for themselves just how well they’ve done the process and what they need to do next and I think that’s probably one of the most significant initiatives in this ambition to build a community of sport around children that is going to make sure that they’re always safe.

Merrilee: It is a very ambitious project I guess but it’s a necessary one and something that we need to have in place. What difference do you think the strategies are going to make at the end? I shouldn’t say the end because it’s actually an ongoing process and it will evolve over time. It’s a change management process but if we look five years down the track, what difference do you think we’ll see?

Joe: Well, I think that what we’ll see is that the sports themselves and the adults in particular who are involved in the running of junior sport and the thousands of volunteers and parents that are involved in junior sport like me - my son plays Aussie Rules and I can see every week just how many people it takes to get a team of 15 and 16-year-old boys onto the park to play a game so what we’ll see is that those people, all these adults that are in and around junior sport will feel confident. They’ll have the knowledge and the confidence about what they need to be doing and understanding that makes their sport safe for children. They’ll know what it is that they need to be looking out for if there’s someone who they have some concerns about in relation to the way that they’re behaving with children. They’ll all have signed a code of conduct that makes it really clear to not only the people involved in their sport but also to the broader community who are looking at that sport and making decisions about whether their kids for example are going to play that sport. This code of conduct will say to them, “Do you know what? This is how seriously we take child safety” and they’ll know that that code of conduct is in place and it will be guiding their behaviour and I think ultimately what we’ll also see is that kids themselves will feel far more connected to the knowledge that if they’re worried about something, that if something’s going on that’s not making them feel right that they will have someone to talk to about it and that that someone will take what they say seriously and act on it. I mean if we see those changes then I think we’ll know that what we’re doing now is working.

Merrilee: Yes, so I guess that comes back to awareness. How do we get that mass awareness? We’ve got the Royal Commission that’s currently being conducted. That’s generated lots of awareness of this issue particularly in sport as much as other sectors. Everyone is aware of that but once the Royal Commission hands down its report at the end of the year, how do we keep this on the agenda? How do we keep the awareness up and I guess child abuse takes many forms and a lot of us are instantly drawn to the kinds of abuse we see highlighted by the Royal Commission but there’s quite a broad range of definitions I guess to child abuse and that I think is key to generating awareness so Joe, what are some of those things that sit on the child abuse spectrum that’s not just what we hear in the Royal Commission? There’s actually more subtle areas as well.

Joe: It’s a very good question. You know I think what sport needs to understand is that there’s really two kinds of groupings of abuse that they need to be looking out for. The first one is the abuse that occurs outside of the sporting activity and occurs in kids’ families and kids’ homes and the places that they live and where they bring the signs of that abuse into the sporting field or into sport activity and the people around them, the adults around them notice it so that’s an important category of abuse. So for example, it’s physical abuse; kids that are being physically harmed by an adult in their life, someone who is being punched or kicked or scratched or burnt. I mean these are really hard topics to think about but it’s part of what – if we don’t face that we’re part of a community that also silences it; keeps it silent and secret so physical abuse is one of those elements that I think often people in the sporting community might notice about kids but it’s happening at home and they need to know what to do about it.

There’s sexual abuse as well that happens at home or happens within the family. There’s family violence that we’re seeing more and more about where the adults in the household are violent towards one another and there’s the kind of emotional and psychological abuse of children within the family that’s severely affecting their development so it’s being berated or it’s being called names. It’s where fear and threat and intimidation is a day to day experience of what children have at home and I think that sport has a role to know and understand what those signs are and be able to know and understand what they need to do if they see those signs of abuse of children that are occurring at home and those kids are bringing it with them into the sporting activity they’re involved in so that’s the first category of abuse.

The second category of abuse that sport needs to recognise is that there are opportunities unfortunately for those adults who intend to hurt children, who have a motivation to hurt or exploit children, to do it as part of the sporting activity the kids are involved in so we know that coaches sometimes for example groom children, develop special relationships with them in order to sexually abuse them or exploit them down the track so that’s a subtle form of abuse that grooming for example, the initial stages of what might end up to be even more severe abuse that people in sport need to understand.

There’s also the emotional and psychological abuse of kids and I think in the sporting arena it’s probably easier to talk about bullying of kids but not bullying only from peers to peers but from adults to kids and we’ve seen that. We’ve seen that in the media in the last couple of weeks where even junior umpires are being verbally abused and even physically abused by parents on the sideline so that’s also part of a culture that says, “Actually, let’s remember as adults that sport is supposed to be to the benefit of children and not to their detriment” so the people in and around sport can also hurt kids and that’s what child-safe sport also needs to face up to, people in sport need to face up to is the reality that adults in and around sport can also either deliberately or sometimes unintentionally hurt children and safe sport needs to develop a culture where kids aren’t being hurt. That doesn’t mean that they don’t be competitive and that they don’t have a desire to win. It’s not about making everything just bland. That’s what we love about sport but what we need to do is to make sure that actually the adults are supporting a healthy, competitive and safe sport culture within the local clubs and the places that kids are actually playing.

Merrilee: Notwithstanding the obvious reasons why sport should become child-safe, what’s in it for sports? As you said they’re pushed as it is for resources. This is yet another thing to be diligent about and to put safeguards in place and no-one questions that but what’s the positive in all of this for sports?

Joe: Well I think sport is competing with a whole lot of other opportunities for kids to use their recreational time and I think that if sport wants to continue to attract participation from children and families then they have to realise that they need a competitive edge not only between the sports themselves but between sport and other kinds of activities and I think if you can say you’re a child-safe sport, you take the protection of children really seriously, you’re committed to not only making the sport experience a positive one but the whole environment in which children are going to play sport will be one that you and your family will enjoy and participate in and be safe in then I think you’re going to be able to attract more people or at least you will be able to not have to compete as much with the other options that are out there. That’s one huge positive for sport to think about.

Merrilee: Obviously, you’ve worked in this area for a while Joe and you’ve seen what’s happening internationally, where would you place Australian sport on that spectrum of nations that are doing something about this important issue?

Joe: Look, Australia is not doing too badly but I think we’re in the middle of the pack. The dangers for us in the next 5-10 years is that once the spotlight of the Royal Commission as you said Merrilee is turned off that this issue will slip down the priority and what will happen is that we’ll find ourselves in five or 10 years actually having to go backwards again to make sure that all of these things that we’re trying to put in place have been maintained so we could easily move up towards the top, in fact lead the world in a lot of ways and in some of the things that we’ve done over the last couple of years we are leading the world especially around setting the baseline for understanding the change and being able to track that change but you can’t rest on your laurels. We have to be able to make sure that a child-safe sport culture is delivered in the next few years and a lot of sports are well on their way to doing that and then the biggest challenge is to maintain it and if one child is hurt then we’re not doing our job properly in that process.

Merrilee: Agreed, that’s great so Joe, one of the things I’ve really liked the look of of some of the work that’s been done to date is that linking a sporting organisation and its values back down to every stakeholder in that sport and that’s one of the key pillars of this strategy is to make it human, to be binding and to have a commitment, an organisational commitment to making one’s sport a more safer place for children to play and I think it’s linking to those human values and that emotion that everyone has by having an organisation commitment statement or a club commitment statement – I think that’s really powerful and I think that to me is really exciting. It’s something that we’ve seen a lot of sports at this point pick up on and they’ve had some early success I guess in connecting people and engaging people in this important issue.

Joe: Yeah, I agree Merrilee. I always say that one of the things that adults need to do for themselves is to stay in touch with the experiences of childhood because when you do that, when you stay in touch with your own experiences of childhood you actually keep alive in you the kind of joy and enthusiasm that childhood has and when you have that, when you’re in touch with what childhood means you end up at a spot where you say, “I want to do something to make sure that the kids of today have a childhood that is safe and a childhood that offers them opportunities and a childhood that makes the relationships around them be really important to them” and if you can capture that in a statement and really mean it, in your own words alright – not something that somebody has given to you but in your own words as a club, as a State body, as a national body and really mean it and own it then I think not only are you making a commitment to kids today but you’re also making a commitment back to that little child in you that played sport in a safe way, that wanted to make sure that the relationships and that feeling of childhood never ended and I think that’s what you’re doing when you do that.

Merrilee: I don’t think anyone could argue with that. Joe, thanks for joining us today.

Joe: My pleasure Merrilee. Always good to talk.

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