'I Believed Grooming Was Done Out Of Sight'

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Over the last three days, the Royal Commission into child abuse has heard evidence in the case of Jonathan Lord, a paedophile convicted in 2012 of 13 offences against children at YMCA Caringbah, an after-school care centre in Sydney. Lord's crimes were utterly vile: he sexually abused an eight-year-old child with autism; he threatened to break another's arms and legs; he insinuated himself into families, gaining their trust by attending children's sports games or church groups.

He was also well liked and trusted by parents, to whom he made himself available for babysitting outside of YMCA hours, against centre policy. He would then molest their kids in their own homes. AU, the mother of one of the victims (names were redacted), said she didn't see anything suspicious about Lord at the time. "I just thought he was a young guy who liked kids," she told the commission in a statement.

The commission's role, as I wrote on Monday, is not to investigate the individual crimes, but to examine the whole landscape: accountability, policy failures and so on. In Jonathan Lord's case basic policies about babysitting and touching children existed that, if they had been followed, would have at least thrown up red flags about his conduct and prompted further investigation.

What's more, an enormous gulf exists between staff "awareness and understanding" of child protection policy, as Justice Peter McClellan put it yesterday. This was the case when Lord committed his crimes, and based on the last three days of evidence that gulf still exists now. It appears that little has been learned since Lord's crimes were committed.

Lord's patient grooming of multiple children was often done in mundane ways. He would allow them to sit in his lap and play on his phone, would earn their trust by buying them snacks, or take them in his personal car when on YMCA-run excursions. AU told the commission that her children had "grown very fond" of Lord, because he "made a big effort to entertain them and pay them attention."

Evidence before the commission for the last three days shows the futility of asking why nobody's "alarm bell" went off, as Crikey's Margot Saville did this week. Both parents and YMCA staff told the commission they had concerns at the time, gut feelings, alarm bells ringing — but did not act on them.

For example, Lord had a picture of AF, one of the victims, as the display picture on his iPhone. A staff member told the commission she "thought it was a bit odd" but hadn't reported it. One parent, AT, said her son "used to scream and not want to go to vacation care", the holiday program on which Lord also worked. "On one occasion I had a bad feeling about him … an instinct," she added.

But Lord's enthusiasm, and the trust and affection the children placed in him, meant that staff and parents routinely overlooked or rationalised away his conduct. One YMCA staff member questioned by the commission said that Lord groomed children "in clear view of other staff … I guess I believed grooming and other sexually inappropriate behaviours were done out of sight".

Lord told the same staff member on one occasion that he thought it was "bizarre" that "the rules say 'don't let them get close to you'." She told the commission that she thought to herself, "this isn't rocket science, John." Nonetheless, when questioned about Lord’s habit of sitting kids on his lap, she said she "didn't think about it in these terms".

In another incident, Lord mentioned to a co-worker that he was sacked from a US summer camp in 2009 for being "one-on-one" with an eight-year-old boy. She thought they must have misunderstood Lord, and she "trusted him". The YMCA didn't check Lord's reference from the camp when they hired him, and he didn't tell them he had been sacked.

In yesterday's evidence, Justice McClellan said that the YMCA had a thick policy book, which staff would "peruse", but that they seemed to have "little, if any understanding of what was in it".

YMCA staff told the commission that breaches of the policy on babysitting children from the centre were commonplace, and that services co-ordinator Jacqui Barnat also babysat. Lord himself would frequently have babysitting jobs on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, which according to staff member Chloe Starr, didn’t make her suspicious.

Child-to-staff ratios were also routinely broken, another staff member said, as were rules against staff being one-on-one with children. A week after the allegations were first made, Barnat sent a general email to staff about policy, saying "I feel at times we are a little carefree with some aspects and this might be risky for children and staff".

Carefree is putting things lightly; Gregory Sirtes SC, the counsel appearing for the YMCA, said YMCA staff member Sheree Ockwell had "concocted" answers on a telephone reference check, and that her name appeared on a reference check form for Lord. Ockwell insisted she couldn't recall how that happened.

When Ockwell was asked whether her certificate III had trained her to identify what was inappropriate touching, she couldn't say with certainty. "I just followed my gut instinct," she said. Counsel then repeatedly asked her where the "boundaries" were. "Just the normal inappropriate areas," she replied.

Despite the YMCA’s insistence that reform has happened in the wake of Lord's crimes, staff still appear to lack a working understanding of what grooming is. For instance, Ockwell said that allowing a child to sit on an employee's lap was not a "boundary" before, but is now, after the Lord incident.

Answers given by other staff indicate they understand grooming as behaviour similar to Lord's. Carine Beer, a centre co-ordinator, was asked by Gail Furness SC to describe what she considered it to be. She replied with a list of Lord's behaviours: picking favourites, sitting in laps and so on. When Furness asked her whether, based on child protection training she did after the Lord incident, she could identify other grooming behaviours that were not performed by Lord. Beer had difficulty answering.

Beer, who is a centre co-ordinator, admitted that before Lord she had not read the centre's parent handbook. She could recall "nothing" from the centre's Child Protection and Child Safe policies when questioned by Furness. After Lord's crimes became known, she put up the YMCA code of conduct near the parent table in the centre. "I think it gets lost among other documents," she said. Beer also did not communicate to new staff hires a new policy of instant dismissal for staff who solicit babysitting jobs. She said she "just assumed it's told to them in their initial employment".

Labor's National Quality Framework for childcare came into force in January 2012. Liam McNicholas, writing in NM this year, described it as an attempt to "unify disparate state and territory regulation and law" regarding childcare standards.

Beer told the commission that complying with NQF standards is “a very draining process … there's a lot of paperwork and it feels like there's hardly any time to spend with kids nowadays." Starr, who describes herself as Barnat's 2IC, was also questioned about her understanding of the NQF. She said it was "a large document", and that she went through it and "highlighted some things". Starr told the commission she relied on Barnat to help her to understand and implement it.

Towards the conclusion of yesterday's session Justice McClellan questioned Ruth Callaghan from the NSW Department of Education and Communities on how they monitored staff's knowledge and compliance with the new law. After she detailed the number and type of checks the department had performed at YMCA Caringbah, McClellan, who became more frustrated as the session went on, asked, "well, how do you monitor 'awareness' of child protection law by all employees?"

Callaghan paused for several seconds, then said "serious incident notifications?" and rattled off a number of other department policies and mechanisms. Just moments earlier, she had commented on issues raised in a statement from a former YMCA staff member, to be heard today, that she said would "raise doubts about compliance".

The staff can't explain the centre’s policies; they don’t get applied properly; the department that checks them can’t give a straight answer about whether they can measure staff awareness of the child protection law; and in the end, after a man is jailed for molesting children, there are still questions about whether the centre is compliant. The staff then go on gut instinct, which as Lord’s case shows, is just not enough.

Hearings for Case Study Two continue and can be viewed online here

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