Do you understand your responsibility for safeguarding children?
Recent disturbing revelations about the horrific abuse suffered by young players in football, as well as the continuing wide-ranging inquiry into historical sex abuse have thrown the spotlight firmly on the role and responsibility of trustees, directors and managers of sports clubs, charities, social enterprises and businesses, as well as their front-line staff and individually regulated professionals, in detecting and preventing abuse and understanding their responsibility for safeguarding children.
It is becoming evident that adults within some organisations were aware of abuse taking place, or at least of concerns about members of staff or those associated with the organisation, but failed to act. In some cases, leaders within the organisation failed to investigate concerns thoroughly enough and, at the extreme, they may even have sought to hide or cover up the abuse.
Whether you are a trustee, director, officer, manager, paid professional or volunteer, if your club, association, charity or business works with or provides services to children and young people, you will have statutory responsibility for safeguarding children and their welfare. You must understand what your organisation’s and your personal responsibilities are. If you fail to fulfil your responsibility for safeguarding children, you may open up your organisation and yourself to significant liability. This could take the form of a civil claim for damages for assault or negligence, based on a breach of a duty of care owed to children under your supervision, your organisation’s vicarious liability for the acts of its staff and volunteers; or a criminal prosecution could be brought for statutory offences related to failure to carry out Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks on staff, failure to notify DBS of known incidents involving a member of staff, health and safety breaches (including failure to maintain a safe system of working), or in extreme cases where there is a cover up, failure to report an arrestable offence, or conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Directors and officers may be personally liable for certain offences alongside the organisation, if the offence has been committed with their ‘consent or connivance’. Involvement in such proceedings could be very costly, attract adverse media coverage and have a devastating impact on your reputation. Insurance policies may not assist, since most policies will typically exclude liability for deliberate acts of abuse committed by staff or volunteers.
The Safeguarding System
Whilst local authorities, through their children’s social care teams, play the lead role in safeguarding children and protecting them from harm, everyone who comes into contact with children and families has a role to play in protecting them. Children includes everyone under the age of 18.
‘Safeguarding’ the welfare of children is defined as:
- protecting children from maltreatment;
- preventing impairment of children’s health or development;
- ensuring that children grow up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care; and
- taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes.
Sections 10 and 11 of the Children Act 2004 place duties on a range of organisations and individuals to ensure their functions, and any services that they contract out to others, are discharged having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. Various other specific statutory duties also apply to other organisations working with children and families.
More generally, Article 3 of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, which is part of UK law, provides that all children have the right to have their welfare considered paramount in all decisions taken about them. Article 12 provides for the right of the child to be heard and Article 19 provides for the child’s right to be protected from abuse and neglect.
Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility
Everyone who works with children – including teachers, GPs, nurses, midwives, health visitors, early years professionals, youth workers, police, NHS staff, nursery staff, crèche volunteers, scout leaders, holiday camp staff, voluntary and community organisations, sports club staff, freelance coaches – has a responsibility for keeping them safe. No single staff member can have a full picture of a child’s needs and circumstances and, if children and families are to receive the right help at the right time, everyone who comes into contact with children has a role to play in identifying concerns, sharing information and taking prompt action.
Organisations working with children must provide training for their staff on how to identify and respond early to the needs of all vulnerable children, including: unborn children; babies; older children; young carers; disabled children; and those who are in secure settings. There is a particular need to be alert to the potential need for early help for a child who:
- is disabled and has specific additional needs;
- has special educational needs;
- is a young carer;
- is showing signs of engaging in anti-social or criminal behaviour;
- is in a family circumstance presenting challenges for the child, such as drug or alcohol abuse, mental health problems and domestic violence;
- has returned home to their family from care; or
- is showing early signs of abuse and/or neglect.
Safeguarding issues can also manifest themselves via peer on peer abuse. This is could include bullying (including cyberbullying), involvement with gangs, gender based violence/sexual assaults and sexting. Specific duties apply to children thought be at risk of exposure to extremism or radicalisation under the ‘prevent’ duty. (A duty to refer children and young people who show active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs to the Channel programme); and certain professionals working in health, social care or education settings have a duty to report suspected female genital mutilation (FGM).
Staff must be trained to identify the symptoms and triggers of abuse, harm and neglect, to share that information and work together to provide children and young people with the help they need.
Section 11(4) of the Children Act 2004 requires each person or body to which the duty applies to have regard to any guidance given to them by the Secretary of State. The latest statutory guidance is entitled Working Together to Safeguard Children 2015 and is intended to provide a national framework within which agencies and professionals at local level – individually and jointly –work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.
Organisations who work with children must have in place certain minimum arrangements that reflect the importance of safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children, including:
- a clear line of accountability for the commissioning and/or delivery of services designed to safeguard and promote the welfare of children;
- a senior board level lead who takes leadership responsibility for the organisation’s safeguarding arrangements;
- a culture of listening to children and taking account of their wishes and feelings, both in individual decisions and the development of services;
- Disclosures – staff should know what to do if a child tells them they are being abused or neglected. Staff should know how to manage the requirement to maintain an appropriate level of confidentiality, whilst at the same time liaising with relevant professionals such as the designated safeguarding lead and children’s social care. Staff should never promise a child that they will not tell anyone about an allegation, as this may ultimately not be in the best interests of the child;
- clear whistleblowing procedures to notify senior management if there are concerns about the behaviour of colleagues, which are set out in staff training and codes of conduct. If internal channels fail, the NSPCC whistleblowing helpline on 0800 028 0285is available for staff who do not feel able to raise concerns regarding child protection failures internally. There should be a culture that enables issues about safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children to be addressed;
- a Child Protection Policy and procedures which set out clearly how to spot the signs of abuse or harm, the processes for sharing information with other professionals and agencies and the circumstances in which concerns should be reported to a designated internal lead or a referral made to local authority children’s services here, or in urgent cases immediately to the Police and/or the NSPCC hotline on 0808 800 5000;
- a designated lead for safeguarding (or, for health provider organisations, named professionals). Their role is to support other staff in their organisation to recognise the needs of children, including rescuing them from possible abuse or neglect. These roles should always be explicitly defined in job descriptions. The post holder should be given sufficient time, funding, supervision and support to fulfil their child welfare and safeguarding responsibilities effectively;
- safe recruitment practices for individuals whom the organisation will permit to work regularly with children, including policies on when and how to check the identity of an applicant and obtain a criminal record check from the Disclosure and Barring Service and keep it up to date. More information is available on the DBS website. Certain employers can be liable to prosecution and a fine of up to £5,000 if they allow staff to have unsupervised access to children without undertaking the necessary check.
- appropriate supervision and support for staff, including undertaking regular safeguarding training to keep up with developments in the law and best practice in what is a fast-changing environment. Employers are responsible for ensuring that their staff are competent to carry out their responsibilities for safeguarding, promoting the welfare of children and creating an environment where staff feel able to raise concerns and feel supported in their safeguarding role;
- staff should be given a mandatory induction, which includes familiarisation with child protection responsibilities and procedures to be followed if anyone has any concerns about a child’s safety or welfare;
- all post holders should have regular reviews of their own practice to ensure they improve over time; and
- clear policies must be in place for dealing with allegations against people who work with children. Such policies should make a clear distinction between an allegation, a concern about the quality of care or services or a complaint. An allegation may relate to a person who works with children who has:
- behaved in a way that has harmed a child, or may have harmed a child;
- possibly committed a criminal offence against or related to a child; or
- behaved towards a child or children in a way that indicates they may pose a risk of harm to children.
- a staff behaviour policy (or code of conduct) which should among other things include – acceptable use of technologies, staff/children relationships and communications including the in appropriate use of social media.
- Appropriate record-keeping and document retention policies concerning any allegations or referrals made.
- The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 (SVGA) places a legal duty on certain employers and ‘personnel suppliers’ to make a referral to the Disclosure and Barring Service of any person who has:
- harmed or poses a risk of harm to a child or vulnerable adult;
- satisfied the harm test; or
- received a caution or conviction for a relevant offence.
This enables the central DBS record to be updated so that subsequent employers are aware of previous incidents. A regulated activity provider is an organisation or individual that is responsible for the management or control of ‘regulated activity’, paid or unpaid, or a person who makes arrangements for people to work in that activity. This will usually be an employer or a voluntary organisation. Clear-cut examples of a ‘regulated activity provider’ include:
- providers of health and social care services providing care, supervision and advice to children
- schools, nurseries, crèches and Further Education colleges that provide education to children
- a specialist educational establishment that provides education to vulnerable groups, such as alternative education.
However, it could also extend to any form of teaching, training, instruction, care or supervision of children (always including any such activities involving overnight stays), as well as driving vehicles used for conveying children, or even moderating an online forum to which children have access. It is fair to say that the law is not very clear on precisely where the boundary is on regulated activities. In seeking to exempt some volunteers who have less frequent contact with children (less than once a week or less than four times in any 30 day period), or those who work ‘under the regular and day to day supervision of others’, it seems an unfortunate gap has been created which could be exploited by serial abusers, who could move on to a new setting without incidents having been recorded. A regulated activity provider can also be a person who simply manages volunteers in a regulated activity position, such as a scout leader or manager in a charitable organisation.
A ‘personnel supplier’ is an employment agency or business that makes arrangements with a person to find them employment. Or they may place that person with other employers. A personnel supplier can also be an educational institution which arranges for its students to undertake work experience placements as part of their studies.
The importance of sharing information and not turning a blind eye
Early sharing of information is often the key to providing effective early help where there are emerging problems. Indeed, sharing information can be essential to put in place effective child protection services. High profile Serious Case Reviews (SCRs) have shown how poor information sharing in the past has contributed to the deaths or serious injuries of children. Fears about sharing information cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the need to promote the welfare and protect the safety of children.
The seven golden rules to sharing information
- Remember that the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act are not absolute barriers to justified information sharing, but provide a framework to ensure that personal information about living individuals is shared appropriately.
- Be open and honest with the individual (and/or their family where appropriate) from the outset about why, what, how and with whom information will, or could be shared, and seek their agreement, unless it is unsafe or inappropriate to do so.
- Seek professional advice if you are in any doubt about sharing the information concerned, without disclosing the identity of the individual where possible.
- Share with the informed consent of the alleged victim where appropriate and, where possible, respect the wishes of those who do not consent to share confidential information. You may still share information without consent if, in your judgement, there is good reason to do so, such as where their safety may be at risk. You will need to base your judgement on the facts of the case. When you are sharing or requesting personal information from someone, be certain of the basis upon which you are doing so. Where you have consent, be mindful that an individual might not expect information to be shared.
- Consider safety and well-being: Base your information sharing decisions on considerations of the safety and well-being of the individual and others who may be affected by their actions.
- Necessary, proportionate, relevant, adequate, accurate, timely and secure: Ensure that the information you share is necessary for the purpose for which you are sharing it, is shared only with those individuals who need to have it, is accurate and up-to-date, is shared in a timely fashion, and is shared securely.
- Keep a record of your decision and the reasons for it – whether it is to share information or not. If you decide to share, then record what you have shared, with whom and for what purpose.
What happens if a referral is made?
Within one working day of a referral being received, a local authority social worker should make a decision about the type of response that is required and acknowledge receipt to the referrer. The referrer should actively chase up if they have not received a response. For children who are in need of immediate protection, action must be taken by the social worker, or the police or NSPCC if removal is required, as soon as possible after the referral has been made to local authority children’s social care.
Trustees, directors and officers must take leadership responsibility for putting in place the right systems and policies for tackling abuse and protecting the welfare of children. The courts have been very willing to expand the boundaries of corporate responsibility for harm caused to children and it is likely that new specific criminal offences allowing individuals and organisations to be prosecuted for ‘failure to report’ concerns or a ‘failure to act’ may emerge in the wake of current inquiries. A Government consultation on introducing new offences closed on 13 October 2016. It is essential that organisations act now rather than face catastrophic consequences by getting it wrong.
Mark Johnson is a specialist legal and corporate governance consultant working with charities, social enterprises, academy trusts and service businesses. If you need help managing risk, reviewing policies and procedures or in reviewing any aspect of your governance, please get in touch today. Find out more at elderflowerlegal.co.uk or call 01625 260577.
The information above is provided for general guidance only and is not a substitute for professional advice which may depend on your specific circumstances. If you would like to be kept up to date on more topics like this, then why not sign up to receive our regular newsletter.