Complaints Systems in Child Safety and Safeguarding – Learnings from the Royal Commission

On 8 November 2022, the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with a Disability (Royal Commission) published a report entitled Complaint Mechanisms: Reporting Pathways for violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation (Report).  The full report can be found here. 

This is not the first time complaints processes have been under the microscope in a public forum.  Some of the themes that arise from the Report are very similar to those that arose following the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses) which brought about major systemic change across Australia in child safety. 

There are vital learnings from the Report which are unique to the abuse of people with a disability. Organisations should carefully consider this research when developing internal complaints processes and be ready for major systemic change which we anticipate is not far away. 

Organisational Complaint Mechanisms

The vital components of complaint mechanisms identified by the Report include a procedure within an organisation which allows:

  • Individuals to report negative experiences and problematic conduct and policy;
  • Individual rectification of the experience or problem; and
  • Where appropriate to trigger system change.

Some people with a disability use complaints processes to report violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. The Report outlines some of the systemic issues in complaint processes and identifies the ‘ideal approach to creating accessible and inclusive responses to complaints’. Many people however face barriers to reporting concerns and are either unable or unwilling to make a complaint.

Organisations must have a complaint process which is clear in policy and implemented across the organisation, to empower children and vulnerable people to make a complaint and have confidence that their complaint will be properly dealt with.


Considerations for organisations developing complaints systems

The Report identified a number of systemic issues with current complaints processes, even when reflecting on what was considered ‘best practice’ complaints processes in the disability sector. Some of the matters they considered included:

  • Whether complaint processes are fit for purpose as a reporting pathway for violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with a disability;
  • Whether complaint processes can guarantee equality before the law and equal justice for people with a disability
  • How complaint systems interact with police and courts
  • The capacity of complaints systems to deal with and respond to historical complaints of violence
  • How complaints systems might respond to institutionalised forms of violence and violence which has been permitted by law

Organisations should reflect on the above considerations raised in the report and question whether current complaints processes encourage reporting and consider the unique perspectives of people with a disability.

Problems with current complaints systems

The report recognises that people with a disability are often subjected to abuse as a result of ‘institutionalisation, segregation, society wide discrimination and prevailing negative attitudes of people with a disability’.

The Report reflects on the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses which established that there is an increased risk in institutionalised environments. Many people with a disability ‘live, learn and work’ in institutionalised environments such as group homes and supported independent living accommodation, special education classes and schools, and day programs. Such institutionalised and ‘closed’ environments are likely to be barriers to reporting abuse. Many people who provided submissions to the Royal Commission raised concerns that they felt they would not be believed if they made a complaint or that the complaint would not be properly dealt with.

The report also recognises that society’s treatment of people with a disability, negative attitudes and stereotypes have led to vulnerable people feeling ‘devalued, disempowered and dehumanised’. The report finds that women with a disability are disproportionately represented as victims of abuse, and First Nations people were less likely to report abuse. Concerns were also raised in relation to the lack of capacity of police and government agencies in understanding and dealing with complaints made by people with a disability.

Submissions made to the Royal Commission also raised serious concern about institutions prioritising internal management of complaints rather than making external reports to Police or other government agencies, leading to contaminated evidence and an inability to have the matter dealt with in the criminal justice system. This is highly problematic and reminiscent of many historical child sexual abuse cases, where the reputation of the organisation, financial considerations and lack of external reporting led to many survivors being further traumatised by a complaints system which was meant to have protected them.


The Report recommends a number of significant systemic changes to complaints processes in the disability sector including:

  1. The establishment of an Independent Pathway for allegations of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation to be made and responded to.
  2. A National Redress Scheme in relation to historical complaints of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.
  3. Enhancing the Capacity of Police and Courts to appropriately deal with complaints of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation in the criminal justice system.

How can Safe Space Legal help?

An integral component of child safety and safeguarding is ensuring that organisations have a clear and reliable complaints handling system. Safe Space Legal can assist organisations by:

  • Reviewing and drafting a clear policy and procedure which outlines the organisation’s complaint process and is integrated with a legally sound reporting procedure.
  • Advice on ensuring the accessibility of the Complaints Policy and Procedure to children and vulnerable people
  • Assisting organisations to understand the unique vulnerabilities of people with a disability and barriers to reporting
  • Independent child safety and safeguarding investigations in line with legal obligations and organisational policies and procedures.
  • Auditing and conducting Root Cause Analysis of complaints and recommendations to improve safeguarding and complaints handling systems within the organisation
  • Assistance and representation in engaging with external authorities and regulators as part of the complaints process

We welcome you to contact us to talk about your organisation’s child safety and safeguarding needs and how we can support your organisation to be best practice leaders and reduce the risk of harm to children and vulnerable people.


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