The Vulnerable Children's Act and Safety Checking the Children's Workforce

31 March 2017

by Katherine McDonald, solicitor

Time and time again we are reading on the news, revelations of sexual abuse of children by adults entrusted to their care. The stories we read have involved children in all types of settings; schools, sports, church and many other after school activities. It is not unusual for athletes and adults to tolerate years of abuse before coming forward which is highlighted by the recent investigation by the British Football Association of widespread sexual abuse where up to 98 clubs have been affected in the investigations.

Research, and recent high profile cases like Christchurch caretaker Robert Burrett, and even as far away as Jimmy Saville, show that abusers tend to seek out positions of authority and trust that bring them close to children. This requires us to work out what is to be done to protect children from this and other forms of abuse. That’s why the mandatory safety checks under the Vulnerable Children’s Act 2014 are so important.

Greater protection for children

The Vulnerable Children’s Act 2014 is aimed at improving the protection of children at risk of abuse or neglect, including stronger vetting of adults who work with children. It also introduces greater screening of those who work with children for government and community agencies, and bans those with serious convictions from working closely with children. The Act sets out new requirements for all government funded employers to conduct background checking, called ‘safety checks’, on all new and existing employees and contractors who have regular and unsupervised contact with children, called “children’s workers”.

Specified Organisations

The Act specifies certain organisations that require checks of their employees to be mandatory – state services, an individual or organisation that is funded whether indirectly or directly even if just partly, by a state service that provides regulated services. A specified organisation must not employ or engage a person as a children’s worker without ensuring a safety check of the person and organisations failing to comply could be liable of fines up to $10,000.

Businesses, unfunded non-government organisations and voluntary organisations are not covered by the requirements but are encouraged to adopt the new standards voluntarily

What does this mean if you are a specified organisation?

  • From 1 July 2015, all employers have had to safety check new children’s workers;
  • From 1 July 2016, all new non-children’s workers must be checked;
  • From 1 July 2018, the requirement to safety check will be extended to cover all existing workers, and repeated three yearly thereafter.

A good hiring process is crucial

A good practice would be to have a robust hiring process including:

  • Verifying that the potential children’s worker identity exists i.e. not fictitious by checking two original primary identity documents, one of which must have a photo (use the RealMe identity verification service online)
  • An interview of the potential children’s worker
  • Obtaining a work history covering the preceding five years
  • Obtaining a reference from at least one referee not related to the potential children’s worker
  • Obtaining and considering information from a New Zealand police vet (forms online)
  • Evaluation of the above information to assess the risk the potential children’s worker would pose to the safety of children

Checks should prevent those who are a risk to children from working with them as staff members or volunteers. A child protection policy and safe recruitment policy will also identify and stop emerging or established abusers who are demonstrating risky behaviour. Ultimately the decision maker should be satisfied that the children’s worker would pose no undue risk to the safety of children if employed or engaged.

What if you are not a specified organisation under the Act ?

At this stage the new rules do not apply to those who work with children through organisations or groups that are not directly or indirectly state funded. However children attend so many groups and activities that receive no state funding, such as sports groups, church groups, soft play areas and other leisure activities and obviously a child is no less vulnerable to abuse from a non-funded organisation staff or volunteer than a state-funded one. If there is no police vetting in these groups that could make them very attractive to those wanting to harm children. Therefore it is highly recommended that these groups adopt the new standards also.

While it may seem burdensome to some, the rules have been put in place to protect children so we have a duty as a community to ensure the safety checks are carried out and done so appropriately.