Criminal Law Consolidation (Foster Parents and Other Positions of Authority) Amendment Bill

Second Reading

I thank members of the house who have made a contribution to the debate on this matter and have reminded us that, whilst this is in a way a small amendment to very substantial law reform that we have previously dealt with, it is important. Members have taken the opportunity to reaffirm this parliament's universal condemnation of child exploitation and sexual manipulation. There has been a universal outcry at the exposure of children, particularly those who have been abused within a relationship with a person of authority.

I further welcome an indication from the opposition that they will support the bill. It is true that it is a pre-emptive strike to ensure that whatever potential loophole might be there is closed to ensure that there is no opportunity for someone to escape criminal prosecution and be dealt with by virtue of definitional deficiencies.

The two areas of criminal law in which we are seeking to deal with the description of a person of authority are section 49, 'Unlawful sexual intercourse', and section 50, 'Persistent sexual abuse of a child'. In that regard, I remind the house that we have already sanctioned a high order of significance in there being an act to be dealt with at a criminal level between the ordinary offence by a person who has no direct relationship as a position of authority and someone who is in a position of authority, and insisted on how severely they be dealt with.

In regard to unlawful sexual intercourse, a person who has sexual intercourse with any person under the age of 14 years is subject to being guilty of an offence and liable to imprisonment for life. Someone who engages in sexual intercourse with a person under the age of 17 years is guilty of an offence and is liable to imprisonment for 10 years.

There is various identification as to the defence entitlements, but in particular that consent is no defence, but the provisions already state that a person who is in a position of authority having sexual relations with a person under the age of 18 years is guilty and can be imprisoned for 10 years. So it is a very much more severe imposition to a person who is in authority, and there is very good reason for that: if one is a teacher or a foster care parent, or if a child is living in a residential facility under the supervision of an authorised carer, there is a circumstance in which the child is even more vulnerable because of the nature of the relationship, and the law recognises this and imposes it.

I suppose the most frequent evidence that we see of abuse in this area, which is published, is between teachers and students, and therefore it is important to ensure that we protect children who potentially are in such a vulnerable relationship. In relation to the persistent sexual abuse of a child, which has been a relatively new initiative in the criminal law, here, again, imprisonment for life is the maximum penalty for any adult who maintains an unlawful sexual relationship with a child. A child, for the purpose of this, is someone under the age of 17 years. So, again, there is a very severe indication in that regard. Again, if the person in the relationship is someone who is in a position of authority, there is an aggravation recognition in the offence.

Already the law makes it very clear that if you exploit children within these relationships where there is such a power imbalance relative to the child's circumstance, then the law will treat you seriously. I do not think that, from the contributions that have been made, anyone in this house would walk away from insisting that foster carers or foster-parents, as they are commonly known (and we are reintroducing that definition into the act and that language into the act so that it is abundantly clear what we are doing here), or someone who is in a position of authority and trust and supervision in a residential facility clearly understand that they are to be covered by this, and that they, too, will not escape the criminal law and punishment in respect of any offences in breach of section 49 or section 50 of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act.

It is important that we do tidy this up, that we do ensure that we protect our children in this circumstance. Could I just say one final word in relation to the significance of the principal law that was reformed and effective as of October last year, which, really, was born from the recommendations of the Nyland royal commission. Former Supreme Court judge Margaret Nyland had undertaken a comprehensive assessment of the weaknesses in relation to child protection. Her report I think is rather disturbing reading—and I would encourage particularly any new members in the parliament to read the report; it is a long report, and I am not suggesting that everyone reads every word of it—but what is really telling are the case studies that she specifically investigated and which she reported on.

Repeatedly in these case studies, there were regrettably multiple events where children were in vulnerable circumstances under the supervision of a person of authority who exploited them. Probably the most notable, of course, was the case of Shannon McCoole, who was employed in after-school care. Subsequently, the department, which had responsibility for child protection, outlined his tawdry history over multiple occasions with multiple victims. He has been convicted and sentenced, and I think one of the former premiers described his conduct as acts of evil. The reality is that it can happen and it has happened. It did happen in relation to someone who had access to children regularly and repeatedly and he abused that position of authority.

Obviously, we have to ensure that this is minimised. A number of processes were undertaken. One, of course, deals with the criminal sanctions. Others deal with the training and screening of those who work with children. These types of initiatives have been implemented. Following on from that, I have since met with the Chief Judge of the Youth Court, who is responsible for a number of things, including child protection matters and, obviously, dealing with youths in respect of when they engage in criminal conduct themselves. She is still, I suppose, getting used to the new legislation and the new process that is to occur in relation to child protection matters.

A very significant number of responsibilities of the minister were transferred to the chief executive. A very abridged process was introduced under the new legislation. She has brought to my attention that we are the only state, I think, that actually operates an abridged version of that without the assessment—

I am not sure whether members are laughing at child protection. I hope not—because it is a very serious issue.

What I would ask members to do, particularly—those representing the shadow attorney-general and, indeed, child protection, is to consider this in due course. What she brought to our attention was that, whilst we are one of the only jurisdictions to have an abridged version of the child protection process that cuts out the assessment period, that has come with some perhaps unintended consequences, and she has asked us to review that. It may be necessary to come back to the parliament again once we have diagnosed what she has presented to us and identified any areas that we might be able to improve.

Of course, we will continue to work with those who advise us, but also, particularly, those who have been vested with the responsibility to deal with child protection, namely the Youth Court. We will continue to keep the house updated in that regard. Otherwise, I commend the bill to the house.