Report child abuse in schools

​​​​​​This section includes:

  • ​the four critical actions you must take
  • guidance for schools to meet their obligations under Child Safe Standard 5: procedures for respondin​g to and reporting suspected child abuse.

It includes critical detail and links to supporting documents (including the Responding to Suspected Child Abuse: Template, which it is strongly recommended for schools to complete when responding to any form of suspected abuse).

For easy reference a summary of these actions is available as an A3 printable poster (pdf - 214.66kb). We recommend that this resource is displayed in a prominent position for all staff members to access.

The information on this page provides guidance to schools to meet their obligations under Child Safe Standard 5: Procedures for responding to and reporting suspected child abuse.

Four critical actions

Follow the four critical actions when responding to an incident, disclosure or suspicion of child abuse:

You must act

As a school 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, including exposure to family violence.

You must act if you form a suspicion/reasonable belief that abuse has occurred or is at risk of occurring, 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 or significant neglect and family violence involving a child.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.

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

  • Witness an incident
  • Form a suspicion/reasonable belief
  • Receive a disclosure (current student)
  • Receive a disclosure (former student)

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:
    • DHHS Child Protection and/or Victoria Police
    • Incident Support and Operations Centre on 1800 126 126 for student related concerns and/or DET Employee Conduct Branch on 03 7022 0005 for concerns related to staff (Government schools only)
    • Diocesan Education Office (Catholic schools only).
  • 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/Orange Door, DHHS Child Protection and Victoria Police).
Witness an incident

If you witness an incident where you believe a child has been subject to or may be at risk of abuse, including exposure to family violence, you must take immediate action to protect the safety of children involved.

Is there an immediate risk to health and safety?

Form a suspicion/reasonable belief

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 outside of school grounds and hours.

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.

Receive a disclosure from a current student

If a child discloses that they have been, are being, or are in danger of being abused, you must treat the disclosure seriously and take immediate action by following the four critical actions

If another child or adult, discloses that they believe another child has been, is being, or is at risk of being abused, you must also treat these disclosures seriously and take immediate action by following the Four Critical Actions.

For further guidance on managing a disclosure see: Strategies for managing a disclosure.

Receive a disclosure from a former student

If you receive a disclosure from a former student of your school about historical abuse you must act.

Student is of school age and attending a Victorian school

If the former student is currently of school age and attending a Victorian school you must follow the Four Critical Actions.

Student is no longer of school age or attending a Victorian school

If the former student is no longer of school age or attending a Victorian school you must still act.

For more information, see: Report abuse if you're a current or former student.

This guidance will support you to:

  • report any allegations of abuse, by contacting your local Victoria Police station and/ or by contacting the SANO Task Force at sanotaskforce@police.vic.gov.au
  • respond to a belief that another person is at immediate risk by contacting Victoria Police on 000.

This guidance will also support:

  • government schools to report to relevant areas within the Department (this may include the principal of the school, the regional office, the Employee Conduct Branch and the Incident Support and Operations Centre)
  • Catholic schools to contact their Diocesan education office
  • independent schools to notify their School Board.

Documenting your actions

As a school staff member, you must keep clear and comprehensive notes relating to incidents, disclosures and allegations of child abuse. To do this, it is strongly recommended that you use the Responding to suspected child abuse template:

When using the template, you should aim 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. Note that you only need to complete the relevant sections of the template.

Even if you decide not to make a report, you must still document the incident, disclosure or allegation and the reasons for your decision.

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 your decisions, see: Complying with subpoenas or court attendance.

If you do not use the template, you must still ensure you are making an effort to collect all the information that is required by the template.

Due to the nature of mandatory reporting and other child abuse reporting records, schools must ensure that the records are kept securely. For example, if you have a hard copy file, you should make sure it is kept in a locked cabinet. If you have an electronic record, you need to make sure it is password protected and only staff members who need the information have access.

Schools should ensure that mandatory reporting and other child abuse reporting documents are not destroyed as they may be needed at a later time (e.g. as evidence in future court proceedings).

Strategies for managing a disclosure

When managing a disclosure of abuse, 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.

Disclosures from a student

It is the role of school staff members to listen and respond appropriately to a child’s concerns. When a disclosure of abuse is made and/or you are concerned that a child has been abused or is at risk of being abused, you must help the child to understand that you need to seek assistance for them and cannot keep the discussion and/or their disclosure confidential between you and the student.

This should be done in language appropriate to the student’s age and stage of development. For example:

  • To a younger student: ‘I need some help to support you and am not going to be able to keep what you have told me between you and me, I will need to tell …[who you will tell]…..to work out what to do to support you’
  • To an older student: ‘The information you have given me has made me very concerned for your welfare and I will need to share this information with my manager to identify how we may be able to support you. I may also need to talk to people who work in the child safety area, to help keep you safe.’

In instances where the abuse involves a family member (i.e. family violence) it may be appropriate to reassure the child that sharing this information is an important part of making their family safer and that you will be talking with other professionals who will help identify the next steps. See: Contacting Parents and Carers.

When managing a disclosure, staff should:
  • listen to the student and allow them to speak
  • stay calm and use a neutral tone with no urgency and where possible use the child's language and vocabulary (you do not want to frighten the child or interrupt the child)
  • be gentle, patient and non-judgmental throughout
  • highlight to the student it was important for them to tell you about what has happened
  • assure them that they are not to blame for what has occurred
  • do not ask leading questions, for example gently ask, 'What happened next?' rather than 'Why?'
  • be patient and allow the child to talk at their own pace and in their own words
  • do not pressure the child into telling you more than they want to, they will be asked a lot of questions by other professionals and it is important not to force them to retell what has occurred multiple times
  • reassure the child that you believe them and that disclosing the matter was important for them to do
  • use verbal facilitators such as, ‘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 (‘what happened next?’)
  • tell the child in age appropriate language you are required to report to the relevant authority to help stop the abuse, and explain the role of these authorities if appropriate (for a young child this may be as simple as saying ‘I will need to talk to people to work out what to do next to help you’).
When managing a disclosure, staff should avoid:
  • displaying expressions of panic or shock
  • asking questions that are investigative and potentially invasive (this may make the child feel uncomfortable and cause the child to withdraw)
  • going over the information repeatedly (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)
  • making any comments that would lead the student to believe that what has happened is their fault
  • making promises to the child about what will occur next or that things will be different given the process can be unpredictable and different for each child depending on their circumstances (instead reassure them that you and others will do your best to help).
Disclosures from a parent/carer or sibling

There may be circumstances where a student’s sibling or parent/carer discloses abuse. For example a student’s parent or carer may disclose family violence (noting that if a child’s parent or carer is experiencing family violence it is highly likely that the child is experiencing abuse).

In this circumstance it is important to draw on the same strategies that you would for a student (i.e. listen, be non-judgemental, patient and do not apply pressure). In relation to experiences of family violence, it is particularly critical to remain non-judgemental, avoid apportioning blame to the victim/s and highlighting that everyone has the right to feel safe.

This can be done by focusing questions to determine what the risk of harm may be and what (if any) supports and interventions are in place to protect the wellbeing of the child and avoiding statements like “why don’t you leave”.

For example, you could use questions to explore the victim’s view about their level of risk and risk to their child, such as ‘Do you think the violence will continue? Is the violence getting worse?’.

It is also important to remember that many victims of family violence experience fear for their safety (and the safety of their children) in disclosing their experiences. They may have been threatened by the perpetrator of violence, or threats made about their children’s lives. See: Supports for students experiencing family violence.

Forming a reasonable belief

If you witness, suspect, or receive a disclosure of child abuse including exposure to family violence, 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:

  • so that people are encouraged 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
  • which does not require proof, but does require something more than a mere rumour or speculation
  • and is met if a reasonable person in the same position would have formed the belief on the same 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.

Privacy and information sharing

As a school staff member you are permitted to share certain information about a child who has been impacted by abuse. For guidance on the specific information sharing requirements, see: Privacy and information sharing.

Supporting actions

Read video transcript

Dane: Hi again, and welcome to the section where we will look at the Four Critical Actions that as school staff members, we must take if we form a reasonable suspicion that a child is being abused, or at risk of abuse.

Willa: These actions are summarised in the 4 Critical Actions poster and detailed on the website.

Dane: So firstly we need to know when to act.

Willa: That’s right Dane. It’s pretty simple. We must act as soon as we witness an incident, or form a reasonable belief that a child has, or is at risk of being abused.

Dane: What’s considered a “reasonable belief”?

Willa: A reasonable belief is a deliberately low threshold. We should err on the side of caution and act even if we’re not sure. It’s the role of authorities to investigate and take action.

Dane: So you don’t have to witness abuse to form a reasonable belief?

Willa: No, you must act even if someone else tells you about the abuse. And also Dane, it’s really important that we keep clear comprehensive notes about incidents and suspicions. The Responding to Suspected Child Abuse template (which is on the website) has been designed to support us to record all of the critical detail.

Dane: Ok Willa, now we know when to act, let’s get into the Four Critical Actions

Dane: Ok so this all seems pretty straight-forward. If a child is or is at immediate risk of harm we’d have to ensure their safety by:

  • separating the alleged victim and others involved
  • administering first aid
  • and calling 000 for an ambulance or for police if needed.

Willa: Yep. We’d also have to:

  • identify someone at the school for future liaison with Police
  • and take reasonable steps to preserve evidence.

Dane: Like not cleaning up a potential crime scene or letting potential witnesses discuss the incident?

Willa: Exactly

Willa: So one of the most important things we can do, is report suspected abuse to the authorities, so they can investigate and take action to protect the child or children.

The first thing we need to determine is “where does the source of the suspected abuse come from?”

Dane: So how would you respond if you suspect that someone within the school, like a staff member, contractor or volunteer may be perpetrating child abuse?

Willa: Simple. You would contact the police straight away. You also have to alert your school principal or leadership team. And depending on whether you are at a government or Catholic school you’d also have to contact the Department or your local diocesan education office.

Dane: Ok, so what if you suspect that a family member or someone else in the community has perpetrated the abuse?

Willa: You would have to contact DHHS Child Protection, and if you suspect that the abuse is sexual you’d also have to contact Victoria Police.

Dane: OK, and you’d also have to let your Principal or leadership team know too?

Willa: Definitely, and again depending on whether you are at a government or Catholic school you would also have to contact the Department or your local diocesan education office.

Dane: So it seems obvious that you’d need to contact a child’s parents to let them know what’s going on so that they can support their child.

Willa: Ideally yes, but there are some circumstances where contacting parents or carers may place a child at greater risk.

This is why we must seek advice from DHHS Child Protection or Victoria Police to determine what information can be shared. And then pending this advice we’d contact the parents or carers as soon as possible.

Dane: What about if a student asks us not to contact their parents?

Willa: We would talk to the Police and DHHS about that too. And there is more advice on this and suggestions on how to sensitively contact parents on the website too.

Dane: Almost there- Action - number - 4.

Willa: This is a really critical step. We know that child abuse can cause significant and ongoing trauma, and that schools play a central role in addressing this.

Dane: We also have a Duty of Care to ensure that the students feel safe and supported at school don’t we?

Willa: That’s right. In order to provide holistic support we need to undertake careful planning and work in partnership with wellbeing and health professionals and where appropriate, parents or carers.

Dane: What are some of the things we should do?

Willa: Well, we should:

  • establish regular communication between the child’s parent/carer (if this is appropriate)
  • convene a Student Support Group to plan for, and monitor support
  • develop and implement a Student Support Plan, which documents the planned support strategies.

There is also advice on the website on how to provide culturally and developmentally appropriate support, including specific actions to take if a child is Aboriginal (like me) or is an international student.

Dane: Thanks Willa, now I know when to act, and how. Is there anything else I need to remember?

Willa: Just that you should act every time you form a reasonable belief that a child has been, or is at risk of abuse.

Even when you’re not sure and even if the Principal or someone else at the school recommends that you don’t. It’s your responsibility.

Oh, and you should continue to report anything else that gives you further cause to believe a child is being abused.

This helps authorities get further insight into what might be happening.

Dane: Thanks Willa.

Contacts

131 278
DHHS Child Protection - 24 hour services
000
Victoria Police
1800 126 126
Department of Education and Training Incident Support and Operations Centre

Relevant authorities

Department of Health and Human Services Child protection

Under the Children Youth and Families Act 2005 the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has a responsibility to provide child protection services for all children and young people under the age of 17 years, or where a protection order is in place, for children under the age of 18. See: DHHS Child protection

Both DHHS and Victoria Police have statutory responsibilities under the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 in relation to the protection of children. DHHS Child Protection is the lead agency responsible for the care and protection of children, while Victoria Police is responsible for criminal investigations into alleged child abuse.

For more information, see: Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Teams (SOCIT).

Child FIRST/Orange Door

Child and Family Information, Referral and Support Teams (Child FIRST/Orange Door) were introduced to give families an opportunity to obtain family services earlier at their own request or following a referral from others, including school staff.

Child FIRST/Orange Door is staffed by family services practitioners who are experienced in assessing the needs of vulnerable children and their families. Child FIRST/Orange Door teams work closely with community-based DHHS Child Protection workers.

The role of Child FIRST/Orange Door includes:

  • providing a point of entry to a local network of family services
  • receiving reports about vulnerable children where there are significant concerns about their wellbeing
  • undertaking an initial identification and assessment of the risks to the child and the child’s needs in consultation with DHHS Child Protection and other services
  • identifying appropriate service responses for families.

The Orange Door has become the intake service for Child FIRST in a number of locations.

Support roles within the Department

Department of Education support teams:

  • Incident Support and Operations Centre (ISOC) 1800 126 126
  • Legal Division (03) 9637 3146
  • Employee Assistance Program 1300 361 008
  • Employee Health (03) 9637 2395
  • Employee Conduct Branch (03) 7022 0005
  • Privacy Unit (03) 9637 3146
  • International Division (03) 9651 3976
  • Communications Division (03) 9637 2871

Support roles within Catholic education

Catholic schools should contact their Diocesan Education office for support and advice:

  • Archdiocese of Melbourne: Student Wellbeing Information Line on (03) 9267 0228
  • Diocese of Sale: Child Protection Officer on (03) 5622 6600
  • Diocese of Ballarat: Child Safety on (03) 5337 7135
  • Diocese of Sandhurst: Child Protection Officer on (03) 5443 2377

Catholic Education Commission of Victoria: Child Safety 

Support for independent schools

Contact Independent Schools Victoria: (03) 9825 7200

Resources

This information has been taken from the Identifying and responding to all forms of abuse in Victorian schools and Identifying and responding to student sexual offending guidance.

To view the guides in full, see:

To download the Four Critical Actions, see:

Resources for staff