Four critical steps - MCH services

This section outlines four critical actions to take when responding to an incident, disclosure or suspicion of child abuse. These actions include:

For easy reference these actions are summarised in the following diagram: Four Critical Actions For Early Childhood Services: Responding to Incidents, Disclosures and Suspicions of Child Abuse  (pdf - 208.11kb)Word Version (docx - 174.15kb).  

You should read this summary in conjunction with the following advice, which includes critical detail and specific advice on responding to different forms of abuse and links to supporting documents (including the Responding to Suspected Child Abuse: Template (pdf - 267.99kb)  Word Version  (docx - 181.87kb)

Document your actions

Under the National Quality Framework the approved provider of an education and care service must ensure that an incident, injury, trauma and illness record is kept. This template aligns with this requirement and it is strongly recommended that all early childhood service staff utilise this template for incidents, disclosures and suspicions of child abuse.

As an early childhood staff member, it is important that you keep clear and comprehensive notes relating to incidents, disclosures and allegations of child abuse. 

It is strongly recommended that all staff use the Responding to Suspected Child Abuse: Template.

Your aim should be to provide as much information within the template as possible. These records will be helpful in making a report of the abuse to the relevant authorities. If you require support to complete the template you should seek support from your manager/service provider.

This information may be sought at a later date if the matter is the subject of Court proceedings. These notes may also later assist you if you are required to provide evidence to support the Court's decisions.

Maternal Child Health services should utilise their existing information management systems (e.g. CDIS, Expedite of MACHS) to record appropriate detail about any incidents, disclosures and suspicions of child abuse. Services may opt to ALSO use this form, which aligns with the Four Critical Actions.

You MUST Act

Critical Information
  • As an early childhood staff member, you must act as soon as you witness an incident or form a reasonable belief that a child has been, or is at risk of being abused.
  • You must act if you form a suspicion/reasonable belief, even if you are unsure and have not directly observed child abuse (e.g. if the victim or another person tells you about the abuse).
  • You should make sufficient enquiries to form a reasonable belief and to determine a child's immediate needs. However, once a reasonable belief has been formed, it is not your role to investigate. This is the role of DHHS Child Protection or Victoria Police.
  • Child abuse includes any instance of physical or sexual abuse (including grooming), emotional or psychological harm, serious neglect and family violence.
  • If you hold significant concerns for a child's wellbeing, which do not appear to be a result of child abuse you must still act (see Responding to Other Concerns About the Wellbeing of a Child).

In Victoria there are a range of legal obligations which set out the actions you must take if you suspect a child has, or is at risk of being abused:

  •  All adults are legally obliged to report any reasonable belief that an adult has sexually abused a child under the age of 16 years to Victoria Police (failure to do so can amount to a criminal offence). These reports must be made to Victoria Police.
  • Mandatory reporters (including VIT registered early childhood teachers and MCH nurses) must also report any reasonable belief that a child is being physically or sexually abused, and the child's parents are unable or unwilling to protect the child from that harm. These reports must be made to DHHS Child Protection or Victoria Police.
  • All early childhood service staff have a duty of care to take reasonable steps to protect children in their care from harm (your duty of care will be determined in relation to the nature of the service, and your role within it)
  • All services must comply with the Child Safe Standards
  • Licensed services must comply with the Children's Services Act 1996 and corresponding legislation, which includes specific requirements on how services must respond to child abuse.
  • Approved services must comply with the Education and Care Services National Regulations and corresponding legislation, which includes specific requirements on how services must respond to child abuse.
  • Maternal Child Health Services must comply with the Maternal Child Health Service Guidelines, corresponding legislation and the by-laws of its local government.

    Following these Four Critical Actions is considered best practice and will support you to meet these obligations. 

This section steps you through when and how to respond if you:

  • Witness an Incident
  • Form a Suspicion
  • Receive a Disclosure

It also outlines the threshold for Forming a Reasonable Belief. 

If, after considering this content you:

  • are unsure whether a witnessed incident, suspicion or disclosure should lead you to form a reasonable belief that child abuse has, or is at risk of occurring you should seek further advice from service management (your approved provider or licensee) or DHHS Child Protection and/or Victoria Police.
  • hold significant concerns for a child's wellbeing, which do not appear to be a result of child abuse you should still act (see Responding to Other Concerns About the Wellbeing of a Child which will support you in making appropriate referrals to Child FIRST, DHHS Child Protection and Victoria Police).

Witnessing an Incident

If you witness an incident where you believe a child has been subject to abuse you must take immediate action to protect the safety of children involved. Go straight to:

  • Action One- Responding to an Emergency if there is an immediate risk to health and safety
  • Action Two- Reporting to Authorities if there is no immediate risk to health and safety.

Forming a Suspicion

All suspicions that a child has been, or may be in danger of being abused must be taken seriously. This includes abuse that is suspected to have occurred within the family, the community or within the service.

If you form a reasonable belief that a child has been, or may be at risk of being abused, you must act, even if you have not directly witnessed the child abuse.

Receiving a Disclosure

If anyone discloses that they believe that a child has been, is being, or is at risk of being abused, you must treat these disclosures seriously and take immediate action.

Very young children may be unable to disclose abuse. They may be unaware that they are being subject to abuse and/or unaware that the information they are providing is disclosing abuse.

Regardless of the intent of a child's conversation, on receipt of any information that supports you to form a reasonable belief that a child has been abused, or is in danger of being abused, you must take immediate action by following Four Critical Actions For Early Childhood Services: Responding to Incidents, Disclosures and Suspicions of Child Abuse  (pdf - 208.11kb)Word Version (docx - 174.15kb).  

For further guidance on managing the disclosure see strategies for managing a disclosure below.

Forming a Reasonable Belief

If you have witnessed behaviour, have a suspicion, or received a disclosure of child abuse, you will need to determine whether you have formed a 'reasonable belief' or a 'belief on reasonable grounds' that a child has or is being abused or is at risk of being abused.

A reasonable belief is a deliberately low threshold:

  • to encourage people to report suspected abuse to the relevant authorities and agencies, enabling authorities to investigate the allegations and take further action to prevent or stop any further abuse
  • that does not require proof, but is more than rumour or speculation
  • which is met if a reasonable person in the same position would have formed the belief on the same grounds.

    Most of the reporting provisions in the Children Youth and Families Act 2005 and Crimes Act 1958 require people to report suspected child abuse that has occurred, is occurring, or is at risk of occurring where they have formed a 'reasonable belief' or 'a belief on reasonable grounds'.
Forming a belief on reasonable grounds may include:
  • a child stating that they have been abused
  • any person telling you they believe someone has been abused (sometimes the child may be talking about themselves)
  • physical indicators of abuse such as non-accidental or unexplained injuries; persistent neglect, or inadequate care and supervision lead you to believe that the child has been abused (see Identifying Signs of Abuse)
  • behavioural indicators of abuse lead you to believe that the child has been abused (see Identifying Signs of Abuse)
  • other signs such as family violence, parental substance misuse, psychiatric illness or intellectual disability that is impacting on the child's safety, stability or development.

Strategies for Managing a Disclosure

Very young children may be unable to disclose abuse. They may be unaware that they are being subject to abuse and/or unaware that the information they are providing is disclosing abuse.

Regardless of the intent of the conversation, it is important that you respond in an appropriate and supportive manner. All disclosures of abuse must be taken seriously and addressed immediately by following the Four Critical Actions for Early Childhood Services: Responding to Incidents, Disclosures or Suspicions of Child Abuse (p.x).

It is the role of early childhood staff members to listen and respond appropriately to a child's concerns. You should reassure the child that they have done the right thing in talking to you. Where a child discloses abuse then asks you to keep a secret you should consider stating:

    • 'I am not going to be able to keep your story a secret. I really have to tell someone who is going to be able to help you.'

It is strongly recommended that you document any disclosures within the Responding to Suspected Child Abuse: Template (pdf - 267.99kb)  Word Version  (docx - 181.87kb). This may be critical for further investigations and/or legal proceedings.

The tables below include advice on how best to manage a disclosure and what to avoid.

When managing a disclosure, you should:
  • listen to the child and allow them to speak
  • stay calm and not display expressions of panic or shock
  • use a neutral tone with no urgency and where possible use the child's language and vocabulary
  • be patient and non-judgmental throughout
  • highlight to the child that they are doing the right thing in telling you about what has happened and that it is not their fault
  • allow the child to talk at their own pace and in their own words
  • reassure the child that you believe them and that disclosing the matter was the right thing to do
  • use verbal facilitators such as, "Okay, I see", restate the child's previous statement, and use non-suggestive words of encouragement, designed to keep the child talking in an open-ended way
  • tell the child you are required to tell someone who is going to be able to help you.' (For an older child it may be appropriate to tell them which authority you have to report to and to briefly explain their role).
When managing a disclosure, you should AVOID:
  • asking questions that are investigative and potentially invasive, and may make the child feel uncomfortable and cause them to withdraw
  • going over the information time and time again (you are only gathering information to help you form a belief on reasonable grounds that you need to make a report to the relevant authority
  • asking leading questions, but instead, gently ask, "What happened next?" rather than "Why?"
  • pressuring the child into telling you more than they want to.