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Wednesday, 18 November 2009
Page: 12152


Ms MARINO (10:01 AM) —I rise today to speak on the Crimes Amendment (Working With Children—Criminal History) Bill 2009. The proposed amendments in this bill will create an exception for convictions of persons who work, or seek to work, with children so that those convictions are disclosed and can be taken into account by Commonwealth, state and territory screening agencies in determining whether the person is suitable to work with children. Working to protect and ensure our children are safe is, and should be, a priority for all Australians, as I am sure it is; therefore, the coalition is supportive of this bill. Every day we see children in our communities and parents have a lot of confidence in those to whom they entrust the care of their children, and they need to be able to do so.

This bill implements the agreement of the Council of Australian Governments on 29 November 2008 to facilitate the interjurisdictional exchange of criminal history information regarding people working, or seeking to work, with children, including information about spent, pardoned or quashed convictions. As part of the agreement, each jurisdiction is required to remove any legislative impediments to the exchange of the criminal history information for people seeking to work with children. This legislation has a number of safeguards for protecting both the children and those who are currently working with children or seeking or applying to work with children.

Such safeguards include a comprehensive regime for assessing people who work, or seek to work, with children. They must be balanced with a person’s right to rehabilitation, privacy and employment. Criminal history information received will only be used for the limited purpose of assessing the risk that a person may pose in working with children and not for another purpose. A potential employee’s criminal history information will not be given to their employer. The employer will simply receive a yes or no from the screening unit. The information may not be used for the purpose of a general integrity or employment suitability check, and a person has the right of appeal. A person with a no can appeal the decision of a screening unit and is able to view the reason for the no decision and why it was made. It is important that we are having a 12-month trial of the new sharing arrangement system—which will start in November 2009—between the agencies that already have screening units. This is another important check and balance.

Such safeguards are essential in protecting Australian children against predators and to ensure the privacy of those seeking to work with children. It is, as we are aware, a very unfortunate fact that child abuse occurs regularly in Australia. Furthermore, I was very disturbed to read in the Daily Telegraph on 19 October that there were five times more sex crimes committed on children by children than five years ago. I think that would be a statistic which is disturbing to many in this place. Also, the number of cases in which children have indecently assaulted a child under the age of 10 has doubled since 2004. The same article quoted Professor Freda Briggs, from the University of South Australia, who stated that schools often write off assaults by children on other students as typical childhood bad behaviours, without the victim being recognised or removed from a dangerous situation. Unfortunately, this is in line with an article from 12 November in a local newspaper in my electorate which stated that, according to a 2005 national report, it is estimated that only 36 per cent of domestic violence cases are reported to police. These articles are proof and a reminder of the need to reinforce the message that it is not acceptable for an adult or a fellow child to commit a crime against a child, and this needs to be seriously reinforced.

The Western Australian Attorney-General and Minister for Corrective Services, Christian Porter, summarised Western Australia’s current position on working with children criminal history checks in his submission to the Senate inquiry, and I quote:

The Western Australian Parliament has enacted the Working with Children (Criminal Record Checking) Act 2004 (WA), which provides for procedures for checking the criminal record of people who carry out, or propose to carry out, child-related work and to prohibit people who have been charged with or convicted of certain offences from carrying out child-related work.

The Western Australian government takes child protection very seriously—as do members in this House—with the WA Minister for Child Protection, the Hon. Robyn McSweeney, announcing amendments on 3 November to the Working with Children (Criminal Record Checking) Act 2004 (WA) which aim to close the current loopholes relating to working with children cards. These amendments will strengthen the current act and exclude people with criminal histories that indicate they may harm a child from starting or continuing child related work, regardless of whether that is paid or voluntary work. These amendments will see additional sexual offences added to the current class 1 schedule offences. Additional improvements will also see the capacity to receive an act on notification by the police commissioner of non-scheduled offences where persons have a change in criminal record and can no longer undertake child related work. These amendments in WA will strengthen the act and bring the child further into direct focus. In WA the working with children act is administered, as I said, by Robyn McSweeney, the Minister for Child Protection. I have great faith in her commitment to improving the safety of children in our communities by helping to prevent people who have such a criminal history from working with children, as this bill before us seeks to do.

I have been informed by the Western Australian Department for Child Protection that since the working with children check was introduced in Western Australia over 240,000 clearance cards have been issued. This equates to approximately one in every 10 Western Australians having a working with children clearance card. What is probably important for this House to note is that, of that number, approximately 150 negative checks have been recorded, meaning that children in Western Australia have been protected from approximately 150 potential predators. This demonstrates the value of this process.

The Western Australian criminal check system is live, meaning that information for registered cardholders is continually updated and is not simply based on the criminal record at the time of the application. As you can imagine, the advantage of this procedure is that any person who has applied for and received a working with children card and has since been convicted of an offence is made known to the administrative authority and action can be taken quickly to protect the children.

My electorate of Forrest, like most regional and rural electorates, often has a very relaxed social atmosphere and parents can sometimes be more trusting of members of the community with their children. While I know this lifestyle is so cherished by most of us and all of us who care about our children and our community it may increase the potential for a child predator to be exposed to children perhaps than is the case in other circumstances. I personally had experience with a trusted adult working with children in my own town who after investigation was revealed to be abusing a number of local children. It may be argued that this situation may have been avoided if the working with children criminal history check legislation had been in force at the time. However, if the person did not have a prior record this would not have altered the outcome.

We all know that nothing at all can beat parental supervision and awareness. I encourage all parents to take a very direct interest in those who are engaged with their children at all levels. The impact of this particular situation was not only on these trusting children and their parents and families but also on other children and our whole community. The whole community was damaged by this case and still is. In some instances the sustained and severe impacts on the individual children who are now adults will never, ever be mitigated. Some will never recover and some will never be able to live a balanced and happy life. The importance of this legislation and the potential impact it could have on children’s lives is significant.

As the Bills Digest states, ‘ensuring the protection and safety of children is always a desirable outcome.’ I know from speaking with members on all sides of the political debate that that is clearly a focus for everybody in this house. Toni, a small-business owner from my electorate, had the following to say about WA’s working with children criminal check system:

I have the working with children card and think that it is a must. It was one of the first things I got when starting my new business which is taking ponies to children’s parties. I advertise the fact that I have one,—

that is, the card—

and I have been told that this is why people ring to hire me.

Christina, who is a teacher in the town of Donnybrook in my electorate, has said:

As a teacher working with kindergarten children for the past 17 years, I applaud and support any check that screens people in this profession. I am of the belief that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. I see it being pointless to limit information regarding these checks to within each state, when many teachers and support staff move interstate.

I, like my coalition colleagues, see benefits in enhancing child protection in Australia by facilitating the interjurisdictional exchange of criminal history information regarding people working with or seeking to work with children. Authorities and potential employees must be made aware of the fact that some people are just not suited to be with or around children. I support this legislation.