PARENTS volunteering to work with their children's schools or sporting teams should have to undergo a Working with Children check, the child protection advocacy group Bravehearts says.
The group said the recent case of a West Australian father of three convicted of sexual penetration and indecently dealing with boys aged between six and nine while working as a parent helper at a Perth school showed the risks posed by a lack of checks on volunteering parents.
About 59,000 Australian children will be subject to some form of sexual exploitation each year at a cost of $10.44 billion annually, the group said.
It has released a national audit of child protection measures which finds that Queensland is the safest state in Australia to raise a child, while Tasmania and the ACT come last. States and territories were rated on criteria such as programs to assure safety in schools and childcare, mandatory reporting requirements and child protection policies, government awareness campaigns, counselling services and sentencing reviews.
A lead researcher, Carol Ronken, said there were problems in a lack of consistency in legislation across jurisdictions in the application of Working with Children checks, in requirements for reporting and response to allegations of child sexual abuse, and in sentencing.
She said Working with Children checks, where an approved screening agency checks an applicant's criminal record and whether they had been subject to apprehended violence orders or relevant employment proceedings, were not being done in Tasmania.
In other states and territories there were ''a number of gaps and holes in the legislation that allow some people who may be a risk to get through''.
''Parents who volunteered in schools or after-school activities such as sporting groups'' were not required to undergo Working with Children checks in any state or territory, Ms Ronken said, even though ''we know that offenders will try to access children through their own children''.
While she sympathised that schools and community groups did not want to discourage volunteers, Ms Ronken said all parents wanted to be sure that people who were spending substantial amounts of time with their children were safe people for them to be with.
The call for mandatory checks on volunteering parents was backed by Daryl Higgins, the deputy director (research) of the federal government's Australian Institute of Family Studies. But he warned it would be insufficient because abuse most commonly occurs within families.
Dr Higgins said it was important to cultivate a ''culture of openness'' so that children felt more secure in reporting concerning behaviour. While studies consistently put the incidence of child sexual abuse at between one in four and one in six children, officially reported cases involved less than 1 per cent of children, ''which is consistent with what we know about the shame and silence and secrecy surrounding child sexual abuse'', Dr Higgins said.