Child protection training: Why safeguarding children is the role of volunteers, too

An Australian Volunteers International child protection partner workshop with representatives of Cambodian partner organizations of Australian Volunteers for International Development, an Australian government initiative. Photo by: Sarah Streets.

It would be strange to see people wander down to a Melbourne park and start taking photos of children they don’t know. So why do so many Australians do exactly that when they travel overseas?

The answer is context.

Traveling takes us away from the context we grew up in, we are often alone and we are usually culturally naïve. For many of us, these are the exact reasons we got on the plane in the first place. We’re alive, things are beautiful and the rules from home don’t apply. The trouble is that there are still rules, we just don’t necessarily know them. And this presents a range of risks — for us and for others.

Making mistakes speaking a different language can lead to a few laughs and some terrible charades, but the impact of our actions can be far more serious when it come to interacting with children. Effects can range from causing offense — in most Indonesian cultures, ruffling a child’s hair is distasteful, for example — to putting ourselves in danger. How is your innocent, friendly banter with that Pacific teenager being perceived by protective older relatives? We can inadvertently put children, ourselves or carefully crafted development activities at risk.

As Australian Volunteers International’s child protection adviser, my responsibilities include helping to prepare volunteers participating in the Australian government’s Australian Volunteers for International Development program for the adventure ahead of them. These preparations are the AVID program investing in a proactive approach to child protection. The focus is educating volunteers so that the activities they undertake while they’re away safeguard children.

It’s important that child protection training with volunteers includes rules about behavior with children — and for them to understand the code of conduct they are expected to adhere to. It’s also important that flexibility is applied in relation to child protection, as no code of conduct could possibly anticipate the spectrum of human behaviour or the phenomenally different settings in which our volunteers find themselves. For instance, I was recently talking with a volunteer about her upcoming meeting with multiple members of parliament to discuss child protection, and another who was helping her colleagues to develop a teenage pregnancy education program in migrant communities.

A code of conduct is only useful if people learn how to interact with it. And you have to treat adults as adults — the onus is on them to do the right thing. For those reasons, our training uses scenarios and stories that explore the rules. We encourage our volunteers to be aware of risks and make ethical decisions when they encounter children.

It’s about simple questions with complicated and messy answers, which is at the heart of what development work is.

Safeguarding measures for children requires much more than just preparing volunteers. If we deploy well-trained and aware volunteers to settings where knowledge of risks to children is limited and services are under-resourced, we are not really addressing the whole picture. This is a challenge for volunteering, as the most valuable assignments are with grassroots organizations doing amazing work but lacking capacity. So through the AVID program, AVI takes a two-pronged approach in delivering safeguarding activities — both training our volunteers and providing technical support and advice to the 300 organizations hosting volunteers.

The second prong of our approach is about fitting together a range of puzzle pieces to strengthen safeguarding practices in local context. Training focuses on improving knowledge of fundamental concepts relevant to child safety, like teaching theory about children’s developmental milestones. Most children learn to crawl between 6 and 10 months, for example, and empathy develops around 9 years old.

Training also carefully explores existing attitudes and behaviors in the target community and, if needed, softly challenges these. It’s vital to begin where people are and not impose ideas on the assumption that everyone agrees on “universals.” I prize building buy-in above all else because without it, people don’t engage.

These discussions usually continue well outside the training room too. Lunchtime discussions are where I do some of my best work. One of my favorite messages is reminding training groups that humans are biologically programmed to look after children. I’m no expert. Training is nothing more than sharing among ourselves the best ways that the world knows how to look after children.

Finally, coaching organizations to build the needed systems and policies and to respond to concerns is essential, both for major cases of abuse and less serious protection concerns like breaches of expected behaviors. The success of any change management process is measured when the new systems are tested. I would say that championing the established procedures and building confidence around processes is really important. One poorly handled concern may stop the next 10 from being reported.

This can take time and a lot of effort, but when organizations have a strong basis of knowledge and systems to build on, they can manage the process really well. I was recently invited to observe a training session run by a partner I have been working with for 18 months.

During the session, a facilitator playing the role of a doctor took a group member playing the role of a 14-year-old girl into a room to “conduct an examination.” I watched the initial confusion among the training participants as the two were followed by one man (the organization’s maintenance staffer), who knocked on the door and asked if everything was alright. He then proceeded to explain to the doctor that the organization has a child protection policy that meant adults are never alone with children.

It was a nice moment, and it really drives home the importance of contextualizing these ideas carefully. This organization had slowly but surely built buy-in at all levels of the organization. And in this scenario, safeguarding children was truly seen as everyone’s business.

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Doing More is an ongoing conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Australian Red Cross, Cuso International, IFRC, MovingWorlds, Peace Corps, Scope Global (formerly Austraining International), United Nations Volunteers, Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance and VSO.

About the author

  • Mark Kavenagh

    Mark is the child protection adviser for Australian Volunteers International. Mark works to support AVI's overseas partner organizations to develop, improve and maintain their child protection policies and practices. Mark is a trained and registered educational psychologist and holds a Doctor of Educational Psychology from the University of Melbourne. Prior to joining AVI, he lived and worked in Cambodia for three years and Hungary for two years.