How Can HR Support Staff During a Workplace Investigation?

- Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Where a complaint has been made by one staff member against another, and a workplace investigation takes place, all kinds of emotions can be running high. 

People participating in a workplace investigation, whether as complainants, respondents or even witnesses, can suffer symptoms of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, as well as emotional distress. 

Respondents in particular can feel abandoned and cold-shouldered, especially in cases where HR departments decide to take a 'hands-off' approach while the investigation is being conducted. If a respondent is also suspended from work during the process, they may also feel prejudged and already declared guilty. 

In light of this, it's extremely important that employers ensure that investigations are handled fairly and impartially, and that all participants are supported. 

Here's how HR can help support participants throughout a workplace investigation.

THROUGH TRANSPARENCY AND COMMUNICATION

First and foremost, effective communication and transparency are vital from the outset. A failure to communicate can worsen distress and lead to participants thinking the worst. 

Decide on being transparent from the beginning. This involves taking the complaint seriously, listening to all sides, and making sure all participants know how the complaint will be handled. It's also important to check back that they have understood what was said and address any misunderstandings (something that can easily happen when emotions and tensions are high!)   

SETTING OUT THE PROCESS

It's important to get to work quickly, appoint an investigator, and make decisions regarding the scope of the investigation, the timeframe, and actions to be taken after completion. However, do be prepared for the process possibly taking longer than anticipated. 

Once you've decided on the process, make sure to keep everyone informed of how the investigation will be conducted and what they can expect, and aim to keep communication lines open throughout. Also reassure the respondent that they are not in any way being prejudged, even if they have been suspended for a time during the investigation. 

APPOINTING A SUPPORT PERSON

Participants need to know they have someone to go to for emotional support, who can also explain the process and answer any questions they may have. 

One thing to note here is that employees may not necessarily show their emotions at work and this could lead you to think they are fine and don't need assistance, when in fact the opposite is true. 

Appoint a support person whose role it is to regularly check up on the person and provide support without taking sides. 

CONDUCTING INTERVIEWS WITH RESPECT 

Interviews need to be conducted fairly and withe respect and non-partiality. 

It's important to avoid acting like an interrogator; your job is to uncover the facts and truth of the matter and not to extract a 'confession'. This means all participants should be treated with respect and empathy, and given breaks during interviews if required. 

OFFERING POST-INVESTIGATION SUPPORT

An investigation can affect everyone and can reduce morale and trust in a workplace. It may in some cases even lead to employees seeking work elsewhere after feeling demoralised by the whole experience. 

In a case where the respondent has been restored to duty, it may be hard for them to simply go back to 'business as usual'. The same may also apply to complainers, particularly if the investigation did not go the way they wanted. 

Be prepared for it to take some time for trust and morale to be restored, and offer mentoring and support after the process to anyone who needs it. Be proactive in rebuilding trust and positive relationships. 

Lastly, we can provide expert assistance with workplace investigations. Feel free to contact us for more information.  

Handling a Paranoid Response to Workplace Investigations

- Wednesday, June 21, 2017

In conducting workplace investigations, both the alleged victim and perpetrator and potentially even witnesses may have an intensely personal reaction to the accusations. But what happens if one of the people involved in a workplace investigation has a mental illness or otherwise suffers from poor mental health? 

In this situation, a workplace investigation can be perceived as a direct personal attack - for example, a complainant may feel that the mere fact of an investigation means that they are not taken seriously or believed in their allegations. A respondent to a complaint may feel vilified or victimised by having to respond to the claims at all. In these circumstances, it could be easy for paranoia to creep in during the investigative process. 

So what additional steps should a prudent employer take during the investigative process when dealing with an employee who struggles with their mental health? 

POTENTIAL CONSEQUENCES OF FAILING TO CONSIDER MENTAL HEALTH

The State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia report, released by TNS Australia and Beyond Blue, has found that 45% of all adult Australians will experience a mental health condition at one point in their lives. In addition, untreated mental illness costs Australian Workplaces almost $11 billion annually.  

This financial cost (calculated on the basis of absentee figures, 'presenteeism' where employees are physically present but not performing to their maximum capabilities, and compensation claims) is reason enough to take mental health in the workplace seriously, and to ensure that workplace investigations do not run roughshod over the rights of employees with mental health concerns. 

However, even more concerning is the potential for a poorly handled workplace investigation to exacerbate an employee's mental illness or even to cause a new psychological injury. 

It is crucial for employers to ensure that workplace investigations are conducted sensitively and have regard to any disclosed or hidden mental health issues suffered by employees. This is particularly the case given that it is an employer's legal obligation to ensure that workplaces are free from conduct which could reasonably be foreseen to cause injury, including psychological injury, to employees. A failure to do so can leave the employer exposed to a compensation claim.  

WHAT SHOULD AN EMPLOYER'S RESPONSE BE?

Employers must ensure that investigators don't dismiss signs of paranoia as an employee being 'silly' or simply difficult. 

It's important to recognise that the employee does genuinely feel under threat, without agreeing with them, and to lay out any evidence clearly. 

It can also be helpful to detail how the investigation will proceed to avoid the risk of misunderstandings, for example an employee deciding that more than a week has passed therefore an adverse finding must have been made against them. 

Honesty and fairness are key in any workplace investigation, but it is particularly important to demonstrate both when dealing with an employee who is feeling under attack. It's essential to remain patient, and work on building trust and rapport in interviews.  

Employees should also be able to access a support person of their choice to participate in any interviews or other formal steps of the investigation. 

Being available and following through on any actions that have been decided on, however minor, may also help lower a fearful employee's anxiety. 

If the initial complaint has caused or substantially contributed to an employee's poor mental health, and this has resulted in the employee receiving a medical certificate, an employer should consider not permitting the employee to return to work until the investigation has been resolved. Any decision along those lines should be made strictly in consultation with the employee's medical team and the employee themselves.  

    HOW WE CAN HELP

    Taking these simple steps will help to ensure that your staff do not feel victimised and do not become unduly paranoid or concerned about the investigative process and potential outcomes.  

    At WISE Workplace, we can help you navigate your way through the potential minefield of workplace investigations. We offer full investigation services if you prefer to outsource, and also training to assist you in running your own investigations.

    The Risk of Ignoring Reports of Sexual Abuse

    - Wednesday, May 31, 2017

    The matter of  Matthew v Winslow Constructions Pty Ltd brings to light the importance of duty of care in a sexual harassment matter. The Supreme Court of Victoria has awarded an employee over $1.3 million in damages after finding that her employer was negligent in failing to provide a safe working environment and allowing her to be subjected to extensive abuse, 

    This case bares similarities to Trolan v WD Gelle Insurance and Finance Brokers notable for a number of interlinked reasons. Damage and loss caused by the sexual harassment and bullying behaviour in question led to the sizable sum of $733,723 in compensation being awarded to the plaintiff in the NSW District Court earlier this month. Triggered by a verbal complaint made by the plaintiff to a director of the company, the case was characterised by significant failures to act on the part of the employer. 

    Long gone are the days when a written complaint of such behaviour is needed. The Trolan and Matthews matters both demonstrate that where such extreme behaviour is occurring in the workplace, employees don’t need to put concerns to the employer in written form in order to ‘inform’ the employer of the conduct. This thinking certainly might give pause for thought for both employers and workplace investigators – off the record chats about disturbing sexual harassment and/or bullying might well be all the notification that is required. 

    Courage TO TELL 

    In August 2008, Ms Matthews commenced working as a labourer with Winslow Contractors. Between August 2008 and early July 2010, Ms Matthews was subjected to a relentless assortment of unwanted and lewd sexual advances from a number of site workers, including by her foreman. The behaviour included several threats of physical and sexual assault, intimidation, and bullying. On occasions when Ms Matthews verbally complained to management, nothing appeared to be done about her complaints. In September 2009, Ms Matthews was moved to a different site crew and the behaviour stopped. However, in late June 2010 Ms Matthews was moved back to the original site and the behaviours resumed, including the threat of rape. Ms Matthews reported the matters over the telephone, on 1 July 2010, to whom she believed was the person in charge of HR. Instead of a change in the behaviours occurring, Ms Matthews was further harassed and asked to 'come round, we will have a drink and talk about it'

    SILENT DAMAGE

    Ms Matthews did not return to work after 1 July 2010 and was found by her doctor to have suffered a severe work-related injury, with an incapacity to work again. The essential cause of her diagnosed psychiatric illnesses, including PTSD, was the sexual harassment and bullying that she had endured over a period of time while working at Winslow Contractors. And for part of this time, it was with the full knowledge of her employer. 

    LISTEN OUT

    Busy employers can be tempted to argue that they can’t be everywhere at once. Although employers are certainly not blind to the potential for unacceptable behaviour, there can however be an built-in assumption that if someone has a problem in the workplace, they should go through formal channels to remedy this. Generally, this would include submitting a written complaint about the alleged conduct. Yet as seen in Matthews the burden rests largely with the employer to detect and resolve any such occurrences. That Ms Matthews had two discussions with a representative of the employer was certainly sufficient grounds to say she provided notice about the offending conduct. 

    LINGERING PAIN

    The consequences of such a failure to respond to sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace can be wide-reaching. Where an injury is suffered, as in Matthews, compensation is evidently payable. This will often take the form of both long-term statutory payments and sizeable common law damages. Failures to follow workplace health and safety procedures can lead to considerable penalties, compliance orders and fines. As well as requiring a substantial workplace investigation to ascertain the details of the alleged behaviour, criminal charges might ensue and/or civil action on grounds of negligence might be brought against the employer to remedy the failure to act; A complex and damaging array of legal and financial consequences indeed. 

    WORDS ARE ENOUGH 

    It is that failure to act that can cause so much preventable harm. At the moment when the Area Site Manager was told verbally of the conduct, the employer was officially informed and was required to act. Yet this damaging and ultimately costly chain of events was allowed to continue, causing a serious breach of the employer’s duty to protect. Employers are obliged to create a workplace free from harm. And when an employee has the courage and strength to report the offending behaviour, employers must both listen and respond. Written notes, formal documents or approved forms need not be furnished in circumstances such as those faced by Ms Matthews. Her verbal revelation of the disturbing situation in which she found herself sufficed to put the employer on notice. 

    ACT EARLY 

    The lesson from Matthews? Don’t brush breaches of workplace health and safety such as sexual harassment and bullying under the carpet. A bill of $1.3 Million for a failure to act is much more than loose change. If an employee says that these behaviours are occurring, or if it is observed, don’t wait for written confirmation. Act early with appropriate modes of discussion and/or investigation. In this way, an organisation can stay strong, productive and safe for all.

    For information on how WISE Workplace can assist to develop your business's ability to respond to complaints of seriousness misconduct, call 1300 580 685 or visit our website

    Bullying: I've Been Talking to HR but Nothing's Happening

    - Wednesday, May 24, 2017

    If you have been the victim of bullying, the HR department in your organisation is generally the first port of call for raising your concerns. 

    It can be mentally or emotionally challenging to make a complaint to HR. You may feel exposed or vulnerable because you are concerned that your complaint may not be believed, or that the person about whom you have made a complaint has been told that you have "dobbed" on them.

    Depending on the nature of your complaint, or the relationship of the HR personnel with the person or people about whom the complaint has been made, you may have concerns that a workplace investigation will not be conducted thoroughly or your grievance not taken seriously. In any event, your working life can become very uncertain after you have made a complaint to HR. 

    Taking a company issue to the HR team can also be a lengthy process, and it may feel like nothing is happening as time ticks by. But it's important to remember that much of the HR investigation will be taking place without you being directly aware of it. 

    Here is a brief look at how the process works.

    THE FIRST STEP

    After you have aired your grievance, it's important to try and remain focused and perform your job to the best of your ability. If you feel you are unable to do so, it may be best to take a few days off work on sick leave until you feel stronger, and better able to approach your tasks or face your co-workers.    

    THE COMPLAINT PROCESS 

    There are certain steps which a diligent HR team must follow once a complaint has been brought to their attention. Initially, the complaint must be assessed. 

    Next, the HR department will meet with relevant senior staff, who must make a decision as to what the appropriate follow-up actions will be.

    Depending on the severity of the alleged behaviour, this may involve HR having a quiet word to the other person or the initiation of formal disciplinary proceedings. The latter is more likely to be the case if the person being complained about is already being performance-managed in relation to prior issues. 

    Be aware that it may well take HR a week or even longer to finalise the preliminary investigation process, and make and communicate a decision on the best way forward. 

    Privacy obligations to the other employees involved may also mean that you are not entitled to know the full details of what further action will be taken.

    WHAT CAN HR TELL YOU?

    At a minimum, HR is required to advise you of: 

    • The fact that it has received your complaint, is taking it seriously and is conducting appropriate levels of investigation. 
    • What Employee Assistance Programs are available. 
    • Who the liaison person for these programs is (if your organisation has one) and how to contact them. 

    WHAT IF THERE IS A FORMAL WORKPLACE INVESTIGATION? 

    For serious complaints, your company may engage the services of a third party workplace investigator. 

    If this occurs, then you are entitled to: 

    • Be one of the first people interviewed if a detailed investigation is commenced. 
    • Receive a copy of your interview transcript or detailed statement, which you should sign if you agree that it is an accurate record of what you told HR

    If your complaint is sufficiently serious, then the respondent facing your allegations will be advised of the exact complaints against them. Although they are also likely to be interviewed, you are not entitled to a copy of their transcript or statement. If you are concerned about any bias, however, be aware that their interview will be recorded.

    Once these steps have been finalised, the investigator will draft a report for the review and consideration of the HR department. That report (hopefully completed within a timeframe of less than three weeks) will then be provided to the relevant decision-makers within your organisation for a final determination. 

    You will generally be advised that the investigation has been completed, what the findings are, and of any further action steps as they concern you. But in most cases, you will not be specifically advised of any punishment to be meted out to the respondent. 

    BE PREPARED FOR WORKPLACE CHANGES

    If your complaint is serious, you may be asked to move or transfer offices or departments. This is not a punishment, but is designed to ensure that your wellbeing is protected, generally by reducing the likelihood of any contact occurring between you and the respondent. 

    Try not to respond by being offended or otherwise feeling indignant. All businesses, regardless of their size, have legal obligations to all employees. Your employer cannot simply fire workers who have issues with other employees, and other considerations may mean that the respondent cannot be moved. Bear in mind that your organisation is simply trying to find the best outcome for all concerned. 

    If you are nervous about making a complaint or otherwise wish to obtain guidance on how whistleblowers should be dealt with, contact WISE Workplace today for detailed assistance with all aspects of the workplace investigation process.  

    Child Sexual Exploitation & Trafficking Conference Insights

    - Wednesday, May 10, 2017

    A wrap-up of the Children, Justice and Communication Conference at Portsmouth University, May 2017.  Last week, I had the privilege of attending the Children, Justice and Communication Conference at Portsmouth in the UK.  The conference is hosted by some of the world’s leading academics and practitioners working in the areas of child sexual exploitation, trafficking, child abuse, incest and more.  

    Opened by Professor Ray Bull, the conference featured the work of Professor Becky Milne, Dr Julie Cherryman, Dr Lucy Akehurst and Professor Penny Cooper to name but a few. 

    The audience, mostly police officers from the UK, represent those forward-thinking agencies and officers who want to make a change for the good and tackle some of the most challenging crimes. The number of police officers with higher research degrees is particularly impressive, and is having a massive impact on the quality of policing not only in Britain, but around the world.

    Tackling challenging issues across the globe

    Some of the issues covered on the first day included the conundrum of obtaining evidence from teenagers who have been exploited and trafficked but consider their actions to be consensual and complicit in the activities. How do we empower these individuals to become witnesses rather than to take on the persona of victim? 


    Dr Brian Chappel, a senior police intelligence expert, spoke of the use of juveniles as critical intelligence sources necessary to infiltrate youth gangs. Interestingly, his research showed that the 10 informants who participated in his study were themselves free from any police intervention up to a year later. 


    Dr Shaleve-Greene addressed the issues for agencies in handling or identifying the 10,000 unaccompanied migrant minors that go missing across Europe every year. This was another statistic to get my head around – this number reflects only those we know about who are missing and vulnerable to traffickers and exploitation. There are also tremendous challenges to local safeguarding children boards, such as the one operating in Kent on the south coast of Britain. 


    Dr Sue Gower spoke about the services and educational needs of their staff when they take on responsibility for the children from their own county, a similar number from neighbouring counties, and then double the number to account for the unaccompanied immigrant minors arriving from Europe. 

    How intermediaries are working successfully overseas

    Professor Penny Cooper hosted a panel of experts who presented on a range of issues connected to the use of intermediaries who support and assist children and vulnerable adults to communicate with police, and courts. 


    The NSW Department of Justice is currently trialling the use of intermediaries, so it was great to hear the many ingenious and fantastic ways these experts have of working with children to help them communicate. Convictions have been secured with the use of evidence from children as young as three-years-old. These presentations also addressed the increasingly common needs of children with autism spectrum disorder. 


    As practitioners, it’s so important to stick our heads above the partition wall and have a look at the fantastic work going on around the world. 


    WISE Workplace offers consulting and investigation services to assist and support workplaces in conducting fair and efficient investigations and developing comprehensive complaints processes.

    Contact one of our offices to talk to an advisor about a free consultation.

    A Perplexing Problem: Protecting Children Overseas

    - Thursday, April 20, 2017


    Every year billions of Australian dollars are provided to fund aid projects overseas. The money is targeted to assist developing countries with education, housing, health and community projects. Naturally children are a prime target group for these aid programs.  The majority of these organisations are funded by the Australian public via donations and government funding provided to not-for-profit organisations, many of them faith based organisations.

    International rules and expectations govern the protocols for handling and responding to allegations related to child protection, however, enforcing these laws is a tricky business often involving multiple jurisdictions and multiple agencies who may disagree around responsibilities and liabilities.

    Policies and procedures are not enough to protect children who are by definition amongst the most vulnerable in the world.

    Small operations, voluntary management and high dependency on the goodwill of front end service delivery mitigate against strong child protection regimes. Poor oversight due to long distance, remoteness and cultural differences are also key features of this problem.

    Funding bodies in Australia are expected to have high quality child protection systems and policies in place to gain government funding but the challenge of enforcing or even providing adequate training in the expectations to the end providers of the service can be beyond reach.

    Now that we know that we cannot unquestioningly depend on the nature of goodly people to act without harming children, what cost do we place on the need to provide secure safe environments for children receiving charitable services?

    Documents provided to the Guardian relating to the level of abuse within detention centres on Nauru demonstrate the abject failure of outsourced government funded programs. How then do we expect small voluntary projects to be faring against these standards?

    It is clear that policies and procedures are woefully inadequate yet how much of the donated money do we want spent on compliance when it comes to protecting children?

    WISE Workplace is regularly requested to undertake investigations of allegations made against staff overseas who are working or administering charitable projects. The work requires a high level understanding of the environment, the agency, funding requirements, boards and community management structures, and the local culture and cultural background of staff and service recipients. The work remains some of the most challenging to investigate. Weak employment relationships can lead to inconclusive outcomes and an inability to enforce any restrictions on volunteers in the field.

    For those organisations with managers in Australia trying to manage complaints or allegations arising from activities overseas, using the support of experienced investigators can be a godsend melding the investigative skills of experienced child protection investigators with the cultural and service delivery expertise of the coordinators working for the agency.

    Our top 10 list of must do’s if you are a coordinator of a charity funded project overseas:

    1. Nominate a single contact person with responsibility for dealing with complaints related to child protection within your agency

    2. Have clearly articulated Child Protection Standards and Guidelines

    3. Have clearly articulated procedures for dealing with complaints

    4. Understand the criminal law in the country of service delivery

    5. Understand the employee relationship between the funding body and the service providers on the ground

    6. Know your legal obligations under your primary funding agency agreement

    7. Respond quickly to complaints

    8. Conduct a risk assessment and take protective action if necessary

    9. Identify a suitable contact person on the ground in the foreign country to be a liaison pain

    10. Seek specialist help when complaints are serious or complex to investigate.

    WISE Workplace runs regular training programs on the principles of undertaking workplace investigations. Our facilitators have extensive experience and expertise in managing all kinds of challenging investigations including running operations overseas via Skype using local contacts. Our unique Investigating Abuse in Care course provides valuable skills in how to assess complaints, reporting obligations, drafting allegations, interviewing victims and respondents, making decisions and maintaining procedural fairness. Book now for courses in May 2017.

    Unexplained Injuries in Care – 3 Tips for Investigators

    - Wednesday, March 29, 2017
    unexplained injuries in care

    It goes without saying that injuries occur in all workplaces, not just the community sector. Yet there are certain unexplained injuries within care environments that should receive particular attention.

    We set out our top three 3 tips for investigators when confronted with an unexplained injury allegation in aged or disability care contexts.

    1. FULLY UNDERSTAND THE CARE ENVIRONMENT

    Those charged with investigating claims of abuse by carers have a challenging task. Both circumstances and injuries can be ill-defined, with sometimes little to go on in terms of firm evidence. This is due primarily to the nature of childcare and other care environments – vulnerable people often have difficulty explaining that workplace violence hasoccurred.

    Patients can be in a frail or vulnerable state for example, with high dependency on assistance with personal care. Bathing, dressing and feeding in sometimes tight spaces with over-worked staff can lead to a number of unintended injuries for both carers and patients alike. The complexities are substantial. However, the need to fully understand when an injury is a reportable incident under new legislation is vital.

    Clients and family members might point to an unexplained injury and assume that the care environment is to blame. Yet investigators should assume nothing as they take careful stock of the facilities, mechanisms and personnel involved in that particular care arrangement.

    2. INVESTIGATE FAIRLY THROUGH EMOTIONAL TERRAIN

    Good investigators know to treat everyone equally during workplace investigations. We maintain a professional demeanour and ensure that all relevant people are heard. Yet communication by investigators in the aged and disability care can require a unique approach to objectivity.

    Clients or family members in these environments can express shock, outrage and complete certainty when it comes to the investigation of an unexplained injury. And investigators themselves might be emotionally swayed when faced with allegations of child abuse, elder abuse or disability abuse.

    However, an unexplained injury is exactly that – unexplained. Taking into account the communication needs of the client, the tangle of information supplied by families, plus available documentation at the workplace, it is critical to refrain from drawing any inferences throughout the investigation.

    3. ComMUNICATE APPROPRIATELY WHEN nEEDS ARE UNIQUE

    We need to take into account the particular communication needs of those vulnerable individuals claiming elder abuse, child abuse or disability abuse by a carer. For example, specific communication technologies, scribing assistance, emotional support and/ or advocacy services might form an integral part of investigations into unexplained injuries.

    It is essential to understand the nature of the assistance and make objective determinations around interviewing methods. Questions might include: is the scribe or support person related to the injured client? Does the client appear both willing and able to engage with the interviewer? Is there any visible fear, withdrawal or discomfort?

    As a corollary, it is vital to avoid any dismissive or patronising communication techniques when interviewing the person in aged, child or disability contexts. We should never assume that they cannot or won’t communicate – particularly if someone else in the room tells us this! As well as having to sport an unexplained injury, it would be disappointing indeed if the injured party leaves an interview feeling ignored, pressured or misunderstood.

    THE UNEXPLAINED INJURY – TAKING CARE

    Workplace investigators must be extremely careful not to jump to any conclusions when an unexplained injury arises in aged or disability contexts. Keep in mind our three top tips on understanding, fairness and communication in care environments. This will help you to create and manage the best possible workplace investigation. After all, Australians are known for looking after each other well, and a good investigation can ensure that unexplained injuries in the caring sector are dealt with fairly at every turn. 

    Our upcoming must-do 2017 investigation training will give you the best possible tools for tackling unexplained injuries in aged and disability care. Join is there, or get in touch to access our top-selling Workplace Investigation Toolkit, plus other professional resources to assist your investigations. 

    The Key Warning Signs of Grooming and Sexual Manipulation

    - Wednesday, March 22, 2017

    warning signs of grooming

    As the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has painfully revealed, our most trusted institutions have at times mishandled some of the worst cases of child abuse imaginable.

    It is becoming clear to us as a nation that the trust given by children and other vulnerable people to individuals in positions of power is boundless. And it is this trust that can become hijacked via the insidious tactics of grooming and sexual manipulation.

    Standing outside of the abhorrent situation, we might ask – how on earth could this happen? Wouldn’t a sexual predator be immediately visible to an employer in a child-focused setting? However, grooming and sexual manipulation work in such a subtle way that even other adults close to the situation can be lulled into a false sense of security.

    The new NSW legislation on Reportable Conduct has commendably included grooming as a distinct behaviour that must be reported in child care contexts. It is therefore essential that all child-related employers become aware of the warning signs of child grooming and sexual manipulation in the workplace.

    Warning Sign 1: The special relationship

    Grooming behaviour can manifest as the slow development of a special relationship between a worker and a particular child or children in care. This might involve the giving of privileges, compliments or treats that might be held back from other children. The child can develop a strong sense of trust and even enjoyment from this relationship, particularly if fun and friendship appear to be the key drivers. Such children might previously have been at the less-confident or lonely end of development, with the perpetrator appearing to have commendably ‘drawn out’ the child.

    Warning Sign 2: Returning favours

    Once a seemingly trust-based relationship is in place, the perpetrator of child abuse will often connect their special gifts and words with requests for touching and/or emotional favours from the child in return. At first this might not seem like an unpleasant or abusive situation in the mind of an innocent child – after all, they have identified this adult as a friend to be trusted. Observers might in fact see a child drawn to a particular carer quite intensely. It can be heartbreaking to think that this could be the middle stages of a targeted grooming strategy.

    Warning Sign 3: The conflicted or ‘acting out’ child

    When behaviours gradually move into sexual talk, touching or more overt acts, the perpetrator of child abuse can take a more sexually manipulative stance against the child. The child might resist the abuser, but can be manipulated into continuance of the inappropriate relationship through emotional blackmail. One of the earlier favours granted to the child such as gifts, treats or special games might be threatened or recalled. The child can then become anxious and in some cases will actively seek to appease the sexual abuser. Observers of the situation might see contradictory signs between the once-friendly employee and child. Behaviourally, the child could lash out at others or experience a regression in development.

    Make knowledge your strength

    Thankfully there is now so much research occurring around grooming behaviours and sexual manipulation in care settings. Further, Australian legislatures are slowly but determinedly developing laws to protect children and to enable the effective reporting of inappropriate conduct in the workplace.

    Child sexual abuse tends to arise not from some caricature of an evil villain but in fact via a subtle conflation of grooming, manipulation, child vulnerability and institutional ‘blind spots’. Codes of conduct and training on professional boundaries are just some of the methods that can assist employers in combating the scourge of child sexual abuse by carers.

    We actively investigate and advise upon issues within child-focused workplaces. In addition, we have handled grooming complaints between remote student teacher networks, top sporting organisers and athletes, elderly residents in a mixed care facility, bus drivers and passengers, disabled individuals and in-home carers. Every case requires skill, sensitivity and an unbiased examination of the evidence.

    Join us in our enduring quest to make workplaces safe for all concerned - not just owners and workers, but for those precious Australian children who inherently trust the adults around them. We are proud to be presenting purpose-built training on Abuse in Care in coming months. Give us a call for further details.

    Criminal Conduct and the Likelihood of Conviction in Care

    - Wednesday, March 15, 2017




    It is a great tragedy that the most vulnerable people in society – children, the elderly and the disabled – often fall victim to the most heinous types of abuse in care settings.  
    In some cases, the abuse can be obvious, such as when there is physical assault that results in visible injuries. At other times, the abuse is much subtler and more difficult to detect, as is the case where there is grooming for intended sexual abuse, financial abuse or general neglect.
    Regardless of the type of criminal conduct perpetrated against the disabled, the elderly or children, an even greater tragedy is that it can be extremely difficult to record convictions against the abusers.

    Obstacles to conviction

    One obstacle which arises in the care sector is that there is an apparent reluctance to report abuse or other criminal actions such as fraud or theft. In part, this may be due to the power imbalance between carer and client, a fear that the reporter may not be believed or taken seriously or, perhaps worse, because for one reason or another, the client may not actually realise that what has happened to them constitutes criminal conduct. Another potential reason for non-disclosure of criminal conduct may be because the client is legitimately concerned that they will lose access to a care worker who is providing them with much needed assistance and support, regardless of the criminal conduct they are also committing.

    Many cases of elder abuse, disability abuse or child abuse are heavily reliant on the victim's version of events and, if this is not provided, there is a significant dearth of information upon which a conviction can be secured.
    A further hurdle is that forms of abuse or criminal conduct committed in the care setting are so abhorrent that employers or co-workers of those who are accused seldom wish to believe the allegations, especially when they involve sexual grooming or child abuse.

    This may subconsciously cause employers or investigators to develop a bias against the complainant and, in the case of investigators, may mean that the inquiry is not conducted as thoroughly as possible. This in turn may mean that there is insufficient evidence to provide to a court in order to secure a conviction.

    A lack of physical evidence

    Perhaps most crucially, many types of criminal conduct in the disability and care context are difficult to secure convictions for because there is often very little physical evidence which can be presented before a court. It is incredibly difficult to obtain proof of somebody grooming a child, elderly or disabled person for intended sexual or other abuse. Similarly, even injuries such as might be sustained through physical abuse can often be apparently legitimately explained in the care context because of the vulnerable nature of the victims – children often hurt themselves in play or by being careless, while the elderly can be infirm and become easily injured in the ordinary course of events.

    Safeguarding investigation services

    The most powerful weapon against criminal conduct in care settings is to ensure that any investigation is undertaken objectively, skilfully and with consideration for what requirements the courts may need to secure a conviction.
    At Wise, we are experienced in the complexities of conducting investigations into alleged criminal conduct, particularly in child protection settings. Contact us for more information.