SURF Life Saving Australia had “no robust national strategy to support child protection” across the organisation despite its “high risk” operating environment, a 2016 report tendered to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found.
Surf Life Saving had “no centralised, regular or systematic overview of child protection-related incidents or allegations”, the Australian Childhood Foundation review, commissioned by Surf Life Saving, found.
“A commitment to safeguarding children is currently not reflected throughout the strategy and approach of all SLSA programs and policy”, and was “not currently reflected as an organisationally-driven value that is upheld across all services and practice”.
“As a key sporting and emergency services organisation which has a significant involvement with children and young people, SLSA (including all SLS programs, locations, members and staff) needs to ensure it demonstrates an alignment of its commitment to child protection with that of contemporary expectations in Australia,” the report said.
It noted research showing organisations could be vulnerable to “the subversion by adults intent on harming children”.
The Australian Childhood Foundation found that “safeguarding children and young people from child abuse and exploitation is not a notion that has been integrated into SLSA communications, or broadly throughout SLSA or SLS policy and procedure”.
Volunteer members and SLS staff had a limited understanding of what constituted reportable behaviour and “a lack of confidence in a culture existing within their club/SLS entity to make such a report”, the report found.
While national and state policies existed, “it was found during this project that a number of clubs either choose not to adopt them, and/or were unaware of their existence”.
“There is wide variability in the understanding, confidence and behaviour of those involved in Surf to create and ensure child safe environments at a local level where the activity is actually actioned and administered. The Member Protection Policy has provided some form of a child protection approach, however, there is mixed evidence as to how influential and well known these policies are.”
The report, compiled after a national survey of SLS volunteers and meetings with national, state and regional representatives, found there was only limited compliance requirements for clubs to report incidents or outcomes.
“The only reporting requirement is that any member charged with a criminal conviction has their membership expelled, and their profile updated in SurfGuard to reflect this,” the report found.
“As a result there is a general inconsistency between clubs in the handling of child abuse incidents and the extent of documentation maintained.”
By 2016 there was no “clear, formalised point for children or their families to report concerns directly to a state centre, Surf Life Saving Australia or other independent body, if they do not wish to go to a club in relation to their safety concerns”, the report said.
A commitment to safeguarding children is currently not reflected throughout the strategy and approach of all SLSA programs and policy.Australian Childhood Foundation
There was a “general over-emphasis on the capacity of a Working with Children Check to contribute to child safety”, the report said.
The Australian Childhood Foundation found some SLS programs, including club-led youth and leadership programs involving residential camps of up to 10 days for adults and children with “only limited supervision”, and mixed gender dormitory room arrangements, posed “significant safeguarding risk factors… which are currently not receiving risk management attention”.
”The number of children and young people associated with SLSA is substantial. This inherently increases the risk for SLSA that an abuse or exploitation incident may occur,” the report found.
Club-led activities with adults and children frequently in one-to-one situations, and with limited accountability requirements such as a coach deciding to hold an ad-hoc weekend training camp with a group of young people, posed risks, the report found.
The Australian Childhood Foundation made 15 recommendations for change after noting there was “evidence that across SLSA and SLS state centres attempts are being made to identify and address potential risk to ensure the safeguarding of children and young people”.
“However, there is variability in the risk and quality management practices across all the frameworks and the activities being implemented. The very nature of the operational environment poses high risk.”
The recommendations included that “Surf Life Saving Australia must take a stronger role in providing guidance to the SLS movement about safeguarding children and young people, and promote a shared and open culture”.
It also recommended that state centres take “a stronger role in promoting and disseminating communication to regions and clubs, to ensure safeguarding children awareness is raised and maintained across the member and staff population”.
In a submission to a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse public hearing in April, 2016, Surf Life Saving Australia conceded the size, federated structure and limited national resources available to Surf Life Saving Australia were issues for the organisation.
“Those who operate at club level are often beyond the direct supervision and control of Surf Life Saving Australia,” the royal commission was told.
“On that basis Surf Life Saving Australia is not able to monitor and ensure 100 per cent compliance with policies at every club in Australia all of the time. Because of the nature and structure of the organisation SLSA is required to put significant trust in those at lower levels in the organisation that they will abide by SLSA's policies at all times.”
The royal commission was told Surf Life Saving Australia had 169,000 members, with more than 77,000 under 18 years of age.
In a statement to the Newcastle Herald Surf Life Saving Australia said its board endorsed all 15 recommendations of the ACF report.
This included “updates to the Member Protection Policy specific to the movement’s commitment to the protection of children and young people”.
“The updated policy was communicated via circular, and published on our membership portal, an online system for all current Surf Life Saving members Australia-wide.”