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Daycare Child Safety

At Project Rescue Children, we are deeply committed to promoting awareness and providing education to parents regarding the safety of children in day care centers. We firmly uphold the belief that every child should be protected from any form of sexual or physical abuse while under daycare supervision. Moreover, we strive to ensure that parents have complete peace of mind when entrusting their children to daycare facilities as they work diligently to support their families.

 

In 2023, a former childcare centre worker was charged with more than 1,600 child abuse offences, sending shivers through the Australian community. There are about 1.4 million children using a childcare service (including centre-based care, family daycare and outside school hours care) around the country.

In response to a confidential briefing about the case last year, Education Minister Jason Clare set up a review into safety practices in the childcare sector. This will see the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority work with the Australian Federal Police. 

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Kids in Playground

Recent Australian research indicates children are most likely to be sexually abused by an adolescent they know (such as a sibling or peer at school) or an adult caregiver in the home.

 

Nonetheless, the first question parents have understandably asked in the wake of this devastating news is “how could this happen?”. Followed very closely by “is my child safe?”.

We can reduce the likelihood of abuse occurring in childcare centres. This will need governments, childcare services, educators and parents to work together.

Police and working with children safety cards

 

Both are only the start and do not mean someone is safe to be working with children:

Most countries require people who work with children to have a working with children clearance.

There are differences between jurisdictions but applicants are required to prove their identity and provide prior aliases. At the centre of the process is a police criminal history check. Certain records, including charges or convictions for child sexual offences or other violent offences would see an application denied.

 

This is a start. But it does not mean all employees with a clearance are trustworthy. Unfortunately, many offenders remain undetected, let alone prosecuted. And working with children may give employees the opportunity to offend for the first time, or trigger previously unrealised motivations to offend. The man charged with 1,623 child abuse offences in multiple jurisdictions, including Queensland, as well as many other convicted paedophiles in daycare cases of sexual abuse or rape, had passed the government’s “blue card” check, clearing him to work with children.

Safer recruitment processes

With the current shortage of childcare workers, employers may be tempted to expedite the employment of new staff. But rigorous recruitment practices are vital.

A history of frequent job changes and working at multiple sites and organisations – particularly when accompanied by residential relocations – suggests someone might be trying to evade detection.

Verbal reference checks are more effective than written forms or reports. This includes talking directly to past managers and supervisors, including those in other jurisdictions. Questions should include, were there any concerns about their interactions with children? Were they reported? Would the employer hire them again? If not, why not?

The importance of open plan centres

Even if someone motivated to abuse children gets a job, it is still possible to prevent abuse occurring.

The physical environment of a childcare centre and how it is managed can significantly reduce the opportunity for abuse to occur. Open plan centres allow for natural surveillance and reduce the likelihood of offending.

Where possible, it is also important to prevent blind spots (created by moving furniture, covering windows or building cubbies) that obstruct the natural line of sight. If there are blind spots like windowless offices or storerooms, open door policies or CCTV can be used. On top of all this, centres can require staff to always be in line of sight of another staff member.

Centres should also ban staff from carrying personal mobile phones during work hours and stipulate where they should be stored. If staff need to take photos of children for documentation or parent reports, this can be done on a centre device that is managed and overseen by multiple staff.

Beware of cognitive biases

Research on child sexual abuse is full of accounts of disbelief a person could engage in that behaviour.

Both parents and centre workers are susceptible to cognitive biases, that can lead them to discount the likelihood a person could abuse children. In the childcare context two factors can increase these biases. Knowing a person has a working with children check tends to reinforce the view they are a “good person” who would not harm a child. Child sex abusers also engage in a range of grooming techniques. While community awareness of child grooming techniques is increasing, there is less awareness that offenders often groom parents and colleagues. They do this by ingratiating themselves through acts of kindness and friendship.

These behaviours serve to reinforce they are “good people” and facilitate continued access to children. Overly familiar and personal conduct is another red flag in child-related employment contexts.

Share information

Information sharing is a key part of reducing risk. Centres should have clear processes for staff and parents to safely raise concerns and have them investigated quickly. Importantly, we must also equip children with the skills to communicate concerns if they arise. This includes teaching them appropriate terminology for body parts and basic rules about safe and unsafe behaviours. This can empower even very young children to disclose abuse. The vast majority of childcare workers are good people. And if there is clear leadership and governance for childcare centres and good parental awareness, we can improve children’s safety. But we need to remain vigilant.

Don’t underestimate these major red flags

 

There can be many nuances between sexual and physical abuse. However, if you notice any of the following in your child’s looks and behavior, these can be major red flags of daycare sexual abuse:

  • They have pain/bruises in their genital area: Small bruises or pain near and around their genitals that can be an extreme cause for concern. Scrapes and bruises can happen from rough play or other activities. However, they shouldn’t show up in their genital area. Additionally, someone from your child’s daycare staff should know about the bruises and notify you about them when you come to pick up your child. If they don’t tell you, or, you ask questions about the bruises and they seem aloof or act like nothing happened, this may warrant further investigations.

  • Genital pain makes body movement painful: Many young children love running around. However, if you notice your child can barely walk, sit or play without experiencing pain around their private parts, you may want to check for genital or anal bruises. If you discover pain or bruises in this area, that’s a cause for concern.

  • They know too much about sex for their age: It’s normal for your young children to make mild sexual jokes, like talking about their genitals. However, if your child’s knowledge of sex and sexual acts is too graphic for their age, you may want to watch these behaviors closely. If they’re facing sexual abuse at daycare, they may know about explicit sexual acts in two ways. Either an adult engages them in these acts, or the abuser makes them watch pornographic content on a Chromebook or iPad as part of grooming them.

  • They develop a strange relationship with clothing: Kids facing abuse can develop an abnormal relationship with clothing. For example, a child may refuse to take off their jacket after getting home from daycare – even when it’s hot outside, or wear multiple pairs of underwear. They may also refuse to take a bath, put on their pajamas or participate in activities where they must take off their clothes. If you find this to be a consistent theme with your child after they come home from daycare, you may want to look into what’s causing this behavior.

  • They worry about being at daycare or with staff: Many young children feel uncomfortable around adults that aren’t their parents. However, if your child wasn’t afraid of going to daycare, but now they have a panic attack when they get there. Or, they worry about being alone with daycare staff. This should be a significant cause for concern.

Knowing the signs can help parents act

Discovering that your child is facing sexual abuse can be difficult, especially when the abuser is a trusted figure like a daycare worker. However, when you can spot the signs, you can act quickly to remove your child from the situation and seek a investigation against those responsible for harming your child.

The importance of teaching children body boundaries

The sun was setting and the children were playing in the park. The sound of their laughter echoed through the air. Little Sarah was chasing her brother, Tim, around the playground. Suddenly, a stranger appeared and asked to take their pictures. Sarah felt uncomfortable and ran to her mom. "Mommy, a stranger wants to take our pictures," Sarah said with a worried look on her face. Her mom smiled and said, "Remember, we talked about body boundaries safety. It's important to always listen to your gut feeling and say no when someone makes you feel uncomfortable." Sarah nodded and hugged her mom, feeling safe and protected. Together, they continued to play, with the children understanding the importance of setting and respecting body boundaries.

One of the most important things we can do as a parent or carer is help our children understand and identify when something doesn’t feel right or safe, and to talk to a trusted adult without fear of consequences. This is what teaching children personal safety is all about.

Talking to your child about personal safety should not be a one-off conversation. Instead, create opportunities for personal safety conversations to be part of an ongoing dialogue between you and your child. Always let your child know that you are there for them and that their safety is your top priority. It is recommended that you teach your child the correct language for their private parts. Emphasise that these parts are private and belong to them. Try not to frighten or upset your child. Speak calmly and confidently, using a neutral, natural tone and giving your child time to process the information and ask questions. Never make your child feel ashamed or embarrassed about sexuality or body parts. Using body boundary safety books are a great way to start this conversation and educating your children as young as possible. There is no minimum age to start. Educated children are safer children. 

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