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Key safety indicators when considering contact
When we have significant concerns about the risk of an alleged abuser or offender remaining in the home with a child, as part of safety planning or formal legal action we ask the offender to leave the home. When this occurs, we need to decide if contact is in the child’s best interests and if there is sufficient safety for contact to occur. This section will help you to answer those questions and provides prompts to guide conversations with the suspected offender. It also outlines key safety indicators to look for when working with the child, the parent and potential supervisors. This information can be used to inform reflection during supervision, case discussion or case planning meetings.
Below are some key safety indicators that can be used to consider if contact should happen. They do not mean a child is safe from harm by the alleged abuser or offender (California Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, 2006).
Key questions for the alleged abuser or offender
Child Safety have a responsibility to ensure that contact is between the offender and the child is safe and in the child’s best interests. The onus remains with the alleged abuser or offender to demonstrate his capacity for ensuring that contact with the child is safe, appropriate and he is supportive of the child’s healing.
- What has the alleged abuser or offender done to demonstrate they are safe?
- Who has he involved who can also verify safety?
- Has a safety and support network been developed and are they aware of all of the concerns held in relation to the safety of each child in the household? Are they also aware of their role in the safety plan and willing to enact?
- Does the offender have a plan that addresses the risk he poses to the child? Is this plan available to others?
Key safety indicators for the child
- The child is well supported by their parent and a well-functioning safety and support network.
- The child is attending therapy.
- The child is able to tell their parent and safety and support network if they are feeling uncomfortable, unsafe or unsure.
- The child has a plan for how they will tell their parent and the network if they are feeling uncomfortable, unsafe or unsure.
- The safety and support network are child focussed, and able to identify through a child’s behaviour that the child is feeling uncomfortable, unsafe or unsure. A child’s behaviour can clearly indicate that they are feeling unsafe, and it is the role of safe adults to recognise this.
Key safety indicators for the parent
- The parent believes the child was sexually abused or believes that it is possible that the child was sexually abused.
- The parent still believes the child was sexually abused in the absence of a child’s direct disclosure, and believes the child is at significant risk of harm from the alleged abuser or offender.
- The parent has support systems in place that have helped them to adjust and be able to support the child. For example, an established, well-functioning safety and support network and counselling.
- The parent is able to notice and respond to the child’s cues of emotional distress.
- The parent has a plan for how they will respond if the child is distressed or uncomfortable after contact.
Key safety indicators for the safety and support network
- They are a safe person for the child.
- They know everything about the child protection concerns.
- They are not denying or minimising the worries.
- They are able and willing to enforce the boundaries and limits in the contact plan.
- They are aware of the subtle signs of manipulation and coercion.
- They know the child and they recognise cues that they may be distressed or uncomfortable.
- They have a plan for how they will respond if the child appears to be becoming upset or uncomfortable.
- They can be a consistent supervisor.
Practitioners must be confident that the safety and support network, and specifically the supervisor of contact, has all these safety indicators before deciding that they are able to supervise contact.
Key safety indicators child-centred contact
- Ensure the suggested location is suitable. For example, somewhere that the child and alleged abuser or offender can remain where the supervisor can see and hear them.
Arrange contact in a location away from the child’s home or in a location that the child views as ‘their’ place of safety.
- Establish clear rules and boundaries that alleged abuser or offender understands and agrees to. For example:
- keep physical contact to a minimum (in some cases, none at all)
- no discipline
- talk about things other than the child protection concerns
- engage in activities that do not involve devices
- no showing the child images.
Read the 'Responding' part of Safety planning to put in place rules about contact with the child where sexual abuse is suspected and the alleged abuser or offender remains in the home. This safety plan provides monitoring of the alleged abuser or offender, respond to the specific circumstances of the child, the parent and the alleged abuser or offender, and focus on the details of their daily life.
There are some circumstances where contact with the alleged abuser or offender is not in the child’s best interests and should not occur. This includes situations where the child is telling Child Safety or other people that they have been sexually abused by the suspected offender and do not want contact with them, are fearful of the alleged abuser or offender or they are exhibiting overtly sexual behaviour towards the alleged offender.
Child-centred contact through safety planning
The complex dynamics of sexual abuse requires practitioners to identify the risk and protective factors prior to a decision being made regarding contact. Safety planning for contact should be a developmental process that purposefully focuses on future safety for the child (Turnell & Essex, 2006). Although this is not an exhaustive list, the following questions may assist.
For supervised family contact:
- What are the child’s views and wishes regarding contact with the alleged abuser or offender?
- Does the child have a clear understanding of their right to contact in a way that they feel safe and that contact can be terminated or changed if they do not feel safe?
- Have they had the opportunity to identify the people within their safety and support network to whom they may express any concerns they have? Have they been provided with the opportunity to practise how they may seek assistance from these people?
- What behaviours make the child feel unsafe or expose them to ongoing manipulation? Is Child Safety aware of behaviours or language used by the alleged abuser or offender during sexual abuse or in the lead in to the sexual abuse? Are there behaviours or statements made by the parent that may be distressing to the child? Are behaviours which may be inappropriate or of concern to the child or Child Safety documented and understood?
- Where will contact take place? How will this contribute to the safety of the child?
- Has a safety and support network been developed to assist with promoting the child’s safety or with parent/carer support? Are parents and family part of the team? Do the members of the team know that they are part of the family’s supportive team?
- Have all members of the family and the safety and support network been involved in developing a safety plan for contact? Do all the members of the safety and support network have a clear understanding of the safety plan? Is there a specific written plan detailing the rules and circumstances for safe contact that the child and the parents have agreed to? Can the rules for safe contact be displayed or made available during contact?
- Are all safety and support network members aware of what will happen if the safety plan developed to protect the child is not complied with? Have the consequences and impact on the child been clearly outlined?
- Do all the safety and support network members know in what circumstances contact would be terminated or cancelled?
- How will the supervisor of the contact know when children and parents are feeling unsafe during contact? What individual indicators can children and parents use to alert supervisors during contact? Have signals been developed?
- Does the supervisor believe sexual abuse has occurred and recognise the potential for future harm? Does the supervisor understand the importance of close supervision, and are they confident to intervene and stop contact if necessary?
Prior to unsupervised family contact, the following should be considered (in addition to the questions above):
- Has the child demonstrated a capacity to assert their needs above those of the alleged abuser or offender in situations in which they feel unsafe?
- Can the safety and support network identify when contact may be distressing for the child and are they prepared to stop this occurring?
- Has a plan for post contact debriefing of the child with their parent, case worker or another appropriate person been established?
- Has the child demonstrated an ability to implement their own safety strategies? Is the child developmentally able to implement their own safety strategies? If not, unsupervised contact may not be appropriate (Levenson & Morin, 2001; Turnell & Essex, 2006).
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, preferred Elders or community representatives are an appropriate support for the development of safety and support networks in cases of sexual abuse (Higgins, 2010). Consider participation of the broader community within the safety and support network when safety planning to:
- ensure that children are not placed at risk during contact
- children can maintain connections to significant kin
- build a child safe community.
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